We’ve all seen them.
…and then they stand up.
Dress legs, as we like to say.
Embarrassing, no doubt, but the problem goes beyond vanity.
You can show off your strong, well-developed quads and hamstrings all you want, but weak calves mean shorter jumps, slower sprints, less stability in your squats and deadlifts, and a higher risk of knee injuries in a whole range of sports.
Why, then, are great calves so rare?
The main culprit is neglect, of course (every day is chest day), but that’s not all. Many people believe that calf exercises are unnecessary if you’re squatting and deadlifting regularly.
Well, that’s true if you’ve been genetically blessed with calves that respond to the mere thought of training.
If you’re reading this article, though, that’s probably not you. (It’s not me, either.)
Us mere mortals are going to have to work a lot harder than that to get the calves we want.
And that’s what we’re going to talk about in this article.
We’re going to look at why it’s so hard for many of us to build big calves as well as how to go about it effectively, and I’m also going to you a calf workout routine that will quickly add size and strength downstairs.
- The Anatomy of the Calves
- Why Some People Have Great "Calf Genetics" and Others Don't
- The 4 Best Calf Exercises
- The Ultimate Calf Workouts
- What About Supplements?
- The Bottom Line
Table of Contents
Let’s start with a simple anatomy lesson.
The calves are made up of two powerful muscles:
- The gastrocnemius
This is the large (or not so much) muscle you see when you look at your calf
- The soleus
This is a deep muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius.
Here’s how they look:
These two muscles work together to flex the ankle. The gastrocnemius is involved in knee flexion as well.
When it comes to looks, we’re most concerned with the gastrocnemius, but a properly developed soleus is critical as well because it supports the larger gastroc both in function and visual size.
If the broscience alarm just went off in your head, let me explain.
There are two primary types of muscle fiber in your body:
- Type 1 fibers
These fibers are also known as “slow twitch” fibers, and they have a lower potential for growth and force output but are resistant to fatigue.
- Type 2 fibers
These fibers are are also known as “fast twitch” fibers, and they have a much higher potential for growth and force output than Type 1 fibers but fatigue quickly.
Research shows that the composition of the muscle fibers of the gastrocnemius can vary significantly from person to person.
For example, one person’s gastroc might be as high as 60% Type 2 fibers while another’s could be as low as 15%. And those sixty-percenters will find it easy to add mass to their calves (and may not even need to bother with calf exercises) while the fifteen-percenters will have to fight tooth-and-nail for every millimeter of progress.
Don’t let that get you down, though.
Even the losers of the genetic calf lottery (like me) can build bigger calves. With proper diet and training, anyone can do it. It just takes some of us longer than others.
There are really only two types of exercises that you can do to effectively train your calves.
1. Calf pressing
If you’re pressing your toes against resistance, it’s a calf press.
2. Calf raising
If you’re using your calves to raise and lower your body against gravity, it’s a calf raise.
And those break down into seated and standing variations.
Standing presses and raises are done with the legs straight and emphasize the gastrocnemius. Seated work is done, well, seated and with the legs bent, which emphasizes the soleus.
It’s important to do both standing and seated calf work and to emphasize your standing exercises if you want to get the most out of your calf workouts.
The reason for doing both is making sure that your soleus isn’t neglected and the reason for doing more standing than seated work is you want to focus most of your effort on training your gastrocnemius.
Full and controlled range of motion is extremely important with calf training as well.
That goes for all exercises, really, but since the calves are often an afterthought thrown in at the end of a workout, they often don’t get the technical attention they require.
How many people have you seen with too much weight, bouncing up down an inch or two instead of fully contracting and releasing (stretching) their calves in each rep?
I rest my case.
Don’t be that person. Do slow, controlled, full reps.
So, with all that under our belts, let’s look at the best calf exercises.
Standing Calf Raise
The standing calf raise is a staple of basically all calf workouts because it’s simple and effective.
It can be done with a barbell…
Seated Calf Raise
The seated calf raise is all you really need for your seated calf work.
It’s usually done on a machine…
But it can be done with a barbell, too…
Calf Press on the Leg Press
The calf press on the leg press is a fantastic variation on the standing calf raise and is one of my favorite exercises for the gastroc.
Donkey Calf Raise
The donkey calf raise was one of Arnold’s favorite calf exercises and for good reason.
Just Doing the Exercises Isn’t Enough…
That’s it for the best calf exercises. Those are all you need to turn your calves into cows.
Your goal isn’t to just do these exercises, though–it’s to progress on them.
This refers to increasing tension levels in the muscles over time and the easiest way to do that is to add weight to the exercise over time.
This is why your primary goal as a natural weightlifter is to get stronger.
So…gain strength on the exercises above and eat enough food and you will make gains.
If you talk to enough people who’ve built great calves, you’ll learn two things:
1. The calves respond particularly well to a combination of low- and high-rep training.
This could be said of all muscle groups, but I believe periodization is generally better suited to intermediate and advanced weightlifters than beginners.
Not so with the calves, though. It’s the way to go from the start.
There are various theories as to why this is, but my guess is it has to do with the fact that the calves already get a lot of exercise. Like the abs, they’re constantly used day in, day out.
Thus, to really get them to grow, it takes an abnormally large amount of stimulus. Which brings me to my next point…
2. The calves can not only recover from very high-volume training–they require it to grow.
The most common thing I’ve heard from people that had to work for their calves is they had to freaking work for their calves.
You know…multiple workouts per week, every set to failure, lots and lots of reps. You’ve been warned. 🙂
This is nothing new, really.
Early on in his career, Arnold Schwarzenegger struggled with scrawny calves, which were detracting from his rankings in international bodybuilding competitions.
Never one to shy away from hard work, The Oak adopted a simple course to fix the problem: multiple calf workouts per week and many, many sets.
The long story short?
So, with all that in mind, let’s get to the calf workouts…
Calf Workout A
Rest 2 to 3 minutes in between these sets
Standing Calf Raise
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
Seated Calf Raise
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
Calf Workout B
Rest 1 to 2 minutes in between these sets
Calf Raise on Leg Press
3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
Donkey Calf Raise or Standing Calf Raise
3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
Calf Workout C
Rest 1 minute in between these sets
Seated Calf Raise
3 sets of 12 to 15 reps
Standing Calf Raise
3 sets of 12 to 15 reps
And here’s how this works:
- Rest at least one day in between each workout.
I personally do Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
- You can rotate through three different foot positions: toes straight and toes slightly in or out (by about an inch).
Each position trains your calves slightly differently.
- Do your calf sets while you rest.
Don’t save your calf workout for when you’re exhausted and ready to leave.
Instead, do your calf sets while you’re resting in between your other sets in your workout.
- Don’t forget–full range of motion!
At the bottom of a rep, get your heels are as low as they’ll comfortably go so you feel a deep stretch in your calves.
And at the top of a rep, make sure you’re up on your tippy-toes with your calves fully contracted.
- Once you hit the top of your rep range with a given weight, add 10 pounds.
For example, if you’re doing a standing calf raise in the 4 to 6 rep range and get 200 pounds for 6 reps, move up to 210 pounds for your next set and work with it until you can raise it for 6 reps, move up, etc.
Start in on these calf workouts and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how quickly your calves can grow, even if they’ve been extremely stubborn like mine!
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here though. If you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out.
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your calf (and other) workouts.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
- 5 grams of creatine monohydrate
- 2100 milligrams of L-carnitine L-tartrate
- 10.8 milligrams of corosolic acid
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:
- Caffeine. Caffeine is good for more than the energy boost. It also increases muscle endurance and strength.
- Beta-Alanine. Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that reduces exercise-induced fatigue, improves anaerobic exercise capacity, and can accelerate muscle growth.
- Citrulline Malate. Citrulline is an amino acid that improves muscle endurance, relieves muscle soreness, and improves aerobic performance.
- Betaine. Betaine is a compound found in plants like beets that improves muscle endurance, increases strength, and increases human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 production in response to acute exercise.
- Ornithine. Ornithine is an amino acid found in high amounts in dairy and meat that reduces fatigue in prolonged exercise and promotes lipid oxidation (the burning of fat for energy as opposed to carbohydrate or glycogen).
- Theanine. Theanine is an amino acid found primarily in tea that reduces the effects of mental and physical stress, increases the production of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow, and improves alertness, focus, attention, memory, mental task performance, and mood.
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
- No artificial sweeteners or flavors..
- No artificial food dyes.
- No unnecessary fillers, carbohydrate powders, or junk ingredients.
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.
They’re not particularly fun to train, but the payoff makes it worth it.
Follow the advice in this article, do the workouts, stay patient, and you will get a set of calves that you can be proud of.
What’s your take on calf exercises? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Gollnick PD, Sjödin B, Karlsson J, Jansson E, Saltin B. Human soleus muscle: A comparison of fiber composition and enzyme activities with other leg muscles. Pflügers Arch Eur J Physiol. 1974;348(3):247-255. doi:10.1007/BF00587415
- Wojtys EM, Huston LJ, Taylor PD, Bastian SD. Neuromuscular adaptations in isokinetic, isotonic, and agility training programs. Am J Sports Med. 1996;24(2):187-192. doi:10.1177/036354659602400212