“You just have bad calf genetics.”
If you ask most fitness experts why your lower gams aren’t growing, this is usually the answer you’ll get.
Their reasoning is that unlike other muscle groups in your body, which grow in fairly predictable fashion, your calves only grow significantly if your calf muscle genetics are “good.”
In other words, if you’ve got puny calves, then tough toodles—the calves you’re born with are the calves you’ll croak with, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Maybe you’ll add a few millimeters if you spend enough hours doing calf raises, but why bother?
Is this true, though?
Is calf size an immutable aspect of your physique, like your height or eye color?
More and more research shows that the “bad calf genetics theory” is more wrong than right.
In fact, most studies show that the reason some people struggle to build bigger calves isn’t due to defunct DNA, but to poor workout programming—something you can change immediately to get better results.
In this article you’ll learn how much of calf size is genetic and how to grow calves fast even if you have “bad” calf genetics.
Table of Contents
Most people believe that your calves’ size and ability to grow is entirely determined by your genetics.
Specifically, they think that . . .
- If you have “good” calf genetics, your calves will grow just as fast or even faster than other muscle groups when you follow a well-designed diet and training program.
- If you have “bad” calf genetics, your calves will grow significantly slower than other muscle groups or not grow at all despite doing everything right in the kitchen and gym.
However, recent research conducted by scientists at CUNY Lehman College suggests this probably isn’t the case.
In this study, the researchers had 26 young untrained men perform 4 sets of calf raises twice per week (2 sets of standing calf raises and 2 sets of seated calf raises).
The participants performed the exercises using one leg at a time (unilaterally). They also did all the exercises with one leg using “light” weights in a high rep range (20-to-30 reps per set) and all the exercises with the other leg using “heavy” weights in a low rep range (6-to-10 reps per set).
After 8 weeks the researchers used ultrasound to measure how much the participants’ calves had grown. On the whole, everyone’s calves grew about 8-to-14% bigger than they were at the beginning of the experiment—nobody in this group had “bad” calf genetics.
In fact, everyone’s calves grew about as fast as other muscle groups typically do in similar studies.
That being said, there were large differences in how participants responded to the different rep ranges used in the study.
Specifically, they found that for some people, high-rep training led to more muscle growth, whereas for others low-rep training was better, and for the rest it didn’t seem to matter (their calves grew equally well regardless of what rep range they used).
In other words, if your calves aren’t growing, it’s probably not because you’re star-crossed by lousy genetics. Instead, you probably aren’t using the right rep range for optimizing your calf growth.
And what rep range is best for building your calves, you wonder?
Whatever you find works best.
For example, if you normally train your calves with heavy weights in low rep ranges (e.g. 4-to-6 reps) and haven’t seen much progress, switch to training with lighter weights in higher rep ranges (8-to-12) and see if your calves grow faster.
Or if you normally train your calves with higher reps and lighter weights, it might be time to give heavy, low-rep training a try.
Make sure you give your new style of training a fair shake, though. That means maintaining a moderate calorie surplus to maximize muscle growth, striving to achieve progressive overload, and sticking with your new program for at least 12-to-16 weeks before trying something different.
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There are two ways you can include high-, medium-, and low-rep calf training in your program:
1. Alternate between high, medium, and low rep ranges from workout to workout.
For example, do 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with heavy weight at the end of your Monday workout, 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with moderate weight at the end of your Wednesday workout, and 3 sets of 10-to-15 reps with light weight at the end of your Friday workout.
This ensures you include a good balance of volume and intensity in your calf training from week to week.
2. Alternate between high, medium, and low rep ranges every 8-to-12 weeks of training. Instead of switching between different rep ranges throughout the week, you alternate between different rep ranges for several months at a time.
It’s best if you stick with one rep range for at least 4-to-8 weeks at a time. Here’s an example of how this could work:
Weeks 1-to-4: Do all calf exercises for 10-to-12 reps and then deload on the fourth week.
Weeks 5-to-8: Do all calf exercises for 8-to-10 reps and then deload on the eighth week.
Weeks 9-to-12: Do all calf exercises for 6-to-8 reps and then deload on the twelfth week.
Once you’ve been training like this for 12 weeks (3 months), you can either start over or try the first method (rotating between different rep ranges throughout the week).
(This is very similar to the strength training plan you’ll find in Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger).
Both of these strategies ensure that you train your calves with a mix of rep ranges to maximize their growth.
At this point you may be asking yourself, “If my calves grow best with higher or lower reps, then why bother with the alternative?”
That is, if you’ve found that your calves seem to grow fastest when working in the 10-to-15-rep range, why ever bother doing less than 10 reps?
You don’t have to, but as explained in this article, training all of your muscle groups with a variety of rep ranges is probably best for maximizing muscle growth, and this likely applies to your calves as well.
The calves are made up of two powerful muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
Both muscles work together to flex the ankle (point your toes), but they also differ in an important way. The soleus is attached to the ankle and the back of the shin bones, whereas the gastrocnemius is attached to your ankle and your thigh bone, which means it also plays a role in knee flexion (bending your knee).
We don’t need to get into what this means on a biomechanical level, other than to say that whenever you do calf exercises with straight knees, the gastrocnemius is more involved than the soleus, and whenever you do calf exercises with bent knees, the opposite is true.
Thus, if you want to maximize your calf muscles’ size and strength, you should do calf exercises with your knees bent and straight.
The gastrocnemius—the muscle you see when you look at your calf—is made up of two “heads”: a medial (“inside”) head, and a lateral, (“outside”) head.
Multiple studies show that when you perform calf exercises with your feet turned inward, you increase muscle activity in the inside head of the “gastroc,” and when you do exercises with your feet turned outward, you increase muscle activity in the outside head.
While measuring muscle activation isn’t exactly the same as measuring muscle tension (the primary driver of muscle growth) it’s a decent proxy for how effective an exercise is for training a particular muscle.
Mutatis mutandis blah blah blah . . . if you want bigger calves, it’s probably smart to do some sets of your calf training with your toes pointed outward, some with your toes pointed inward, and some with your toes pointing straight ahead.
Here’s an example of how you could do this:
- Leg Press Calf Raise: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with your toes turned 30-to-45 degrees inward
- Seated Calf Raise Machine: 3 sets of 10-to-12 reps with your feet turned 30-to-45 degrees outward
- Standing Dumbbell Single-leg Calf Raise: 3 sets of 12-to-15 reps with your toes straight ahead
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If you want to develop any major muscle group, including your calves, research shows it’s normally best to train it with a total of 10-to-20 weekly sets.
People who’ve been following a proper strength training program for less than two years should aim for 10-to-15 weekly sets, whereas those who’ve been training properly for more than two years should aim for 15-to-20 weekly sets (if you want to maximize growth, that is).
In either case—10-to-15 weekly sets or 15-to-20 weekly sets—it’s unlikely that you’ll do all of these sets in a single, dedicated calf workout.
That’s why it’s best to divide your calf training over 2-to-4 training sessions per week.
And if you’re more advanced, do five-to-six sets of calf training at the end of three or four of your workouts each week.
Unfortunately, no amount of pills and powders are going to automagically give you big calves.
In fact, most muscle-building supplements are completely worthless.
But here’s the good news:
If you know how to eat and train to build muscle, certain supplements can speed up the process.
(And if you’d like to know exactly what supplements to take to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz.)
Here are the best supplements for supporting your calf workouts:
- 0.8-to-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. This provides your body with the “building blocks” it needs to build and repair muscle tissue and help you recover from your workouts. If you want a clean, convenient, and delicious source of protein, try Whey+ or Casein+.
- 3-to-5 grams of creatine per day. This will boost muscle and strength gain, improve anaerobic endurance, and reduce muscle damage and soreness from your calf workouts. If you want a 100% natural source of creatine that also includes two other ingredients that will help boost muscle growth and improve recovery, try Recharge.
- One serving of Pulse per day. Pulse is a 100% natural pre-workout drink that enhances energy, mood, and focus; increases strength and endurance; and reduces fatigue. You can also get Pulse with caffeine or without.
(Oh, and if you aren’t sure if the supplements discussed here are right for your budget, circumstances, and goals, then take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz! In less than a minute, it’ll tell you exactly what supplements are right for you. Click here to check it out.)
The 10 best exercises to grow your calves are:
- Seated calf raise machine
- Leg press calf raise
- Standing barbell calf raise
- Standing calf raise machine
- Standing dumbbell single-leg calf raise
- Seated dumbbell calf raise
- Donkey calf raise
- Bodyweight single-leg calf raise
- Smith machine calf raise
- Farmer’s walk
And if you want to know how to grow calves fast using these exercises, try the calf workouts in this article:
It depends on several factors including your training, nutrition, and genetics.
While it isn’t true that some people are doomed to have tiny calves forever no matter what they do, it is true that some people can grow their calves much faster than others. Some people might build a respectable set of calves after just 6-to-12 months, whereas others might need to work for a year or more to get to a similar level.
Either way, remember that incremental improvements add up over time. Stay consistent and stick to the plan, and your calves will grow.
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No matter how “good” or “bad” your calf genetics are, if you follow the advice in this article you’ll be able to develop an impressive set of calves. They might never get quite as big as you’d like, but they absolutely will be bigger and stronger than when you started training.
+ Scientific References
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- Li, L., Landin, D., Grodesky, J., & Myers, J. (2002). The function of gastrocnemius as a knee flexor at selected knee and ankle angles. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology : Official Journal of the International Society of Electrophysiological Kinesiology, 12(5), 385–390. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1050-6411(02)00049-4
- Miyamoto, N., & Oda, S. (2003). Mechanomyographic and electromyographic responses of the triceps surae during maximal voluntary contractions. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology : Official Journal of the International Society of Electrophysiological Kinesiology, 13(5), 451–459. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1050-6411(03)00058-0
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- Cibulka, M., Wenthe, A., Boyle, Z., Callier, D., Schwerdt, A., Jarman, D., & Strube, M. J. (2017). VARIATION IN MEDIAL AND LATERAL GASTROCNEMIUS MUSCLE ACTIVITY WITH FOOT POSITION. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 12(2), 233. /pmc/articles/PMC5380866/
- Marcori, A. J., Moura, T. B. M. A., & Okazaki, V. H. A. (2017). Gastrocnemius muscle activation during plantar flexion with different feet positioning in physically active young men. Isokinetics and Exercise Science, 25(2), 121–125. https://doi.org/10.3233/IES-160654
- Riemann, B. L., Limbaugh, G. K., Eitner, J. D., & Lefavi, R. G. (2011). Medial and lateral gastrocnemius activation differences during heel-raise exercise with three different foot positions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(3), 634–639. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0B013E3181CC22B8
- Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857–2872. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0B013E3181E840F3
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- Stokes, T., Hector, A. J., Morton, R. W., McGlory, C., & Phillips, S. M. (2018). Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training. Nutrients, 10(2). https://doi.org/10.3390/NU10020180