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In this episode, I’m talking about calf training and answering a question I often get about calf genetics. How much can genetics get in the way of calf development?

This matters to me because I’ve always had small calves, and it’s a trait I seem to have inherited from my dad.

Does that mean that no amount of calf raises will save my spindly lower legs, though? More and more research is coming out that calls the calf genetics theory into question. Tune in the learn more! 


0:00 – Order my new fitness book Muscle For Life here:

5:52 – Can you train your calves?

11:22 – What is the proper rep range and volume to optimize calf development?

14:25 – How do you find your best rep range?

16:43 – How do you grow your calves faster?

Mentioned on the Show:

Order my new fitness book Muscle For Life here:

What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!


I’ve helped thousands of people lose fat, build muscle, and get healthy, and here’s the situation I encounter all too often. So let’s say Chris has been following his meal plan and his workout plan for a couple of months, and he’s made steady improvements. Then one night after work, he heads out with some friends and he eats more of the greasy, delicious food than he wanted to eat.

Then immediately afterward, he’s upset. He’s berating himself for ruining his diet. Perfect. Chris, he thinks there goes this week’s progress. I can’t believe how weak I am. I can’t hang out with some friends without stuffing my fat face with junk food. Pathetic. You know what? I’m gonna eat ice cream when I get home too, because that’s what a slob, that’s what a pig would do.

So then later that night, Chris gobbles down a couple containers of Jenny’s gooey butter cake. Mm, good choice and applauds to bed, disgusted with himself. Well, it didn’t have to go this way because the path from nibbling on some nachos and wings to slurping down pints of ice cream was manufactured by Chris.

His story about why he ate the food in the first place, uh, I’m. And his conclusion, my diet is blown, were unnecessarily pessimistic. If he had rejected his knee jerk reaction to the snacking and if he had reframed it, the outcome would’ve been very different. Hold on. Chris. He could have said to himself, I didn’t eat that much.

Some chicken wings and some nachos is what? A few hundred calories. Also, eating a little too much today doesn’t mean I’m weak. Look at how good I’ve been so far. I’ve been bringing lunches to work. I’ve been turning down the cookies, donuts, and candies that everybody passes around, and so tonight was a hiccup and I’ll just forgive myself and carry on because nobody is perfect in this game and you don’t have to.

And that my friends, is the secret to guilt-free eating and exercising. So long as you can do the important things fairly well most of the time. And so long as you can stay cool when you stumble and you will stumble occasionally. We all do. You will never struggle to improve your body composition. Things might take a little bit longer or they might be a little bit less straightforward than you’d like, but you will never lose the plot.

So the next time you face advers. Any kind in your diet, in your exercise, or in any other aspect of your life, really pay attention to your explanatory style and if it’s tainted with pessimism, if the story is permanent, universal, or self abusive in nature. Stop and dispute your assumptions. Also, if you want more of my musings on mastering the inner game of getting fit, check out my newest book, muscle for Life over at Muscle for Life

Muscle f o r life because in it I share. Wisdom and insights on how to tackle the three ugliest inner game ogre, standing between you and the body. You really want, and I call them the purpose phantom, the time troll and the consistency creature. And if you want to finally feel. Like your fitness regimen is on autopilot.

You need to overcome these obstacles and temptations and muscle for life will show you how. Head over to Muscle for Life now and get your copy today. Hello, lovely listener. I am Mike Matthews. This is Muscle for Life. Thank you for joining me today. If you haven’t already, please do kick off the new year by subscribing to the show because then you won’t miss new episodes.

And it helps me by boosting the ranking of the show in the various charts. And in this episode, I’m going to be talking about. Training and answering a common question that I get specifically about genetics. How much can genetics get in the way of calf development? And this is something that is near and dear to me because if you look closely enough, all emperors have clay feet as the saying goes.

And in my case, it’s clay calves. I’ve always had small cal. I’ve always joked about my calf genetics. If you look at my dad, for example, he basically doesn’t have calf muscles. He has ankles that go to his knees, and I inherited his graceful dress legs because I too basically had no calves when I started training.

Even though I played a lot of roller hockey and ice hockey, which of course uses your calf muscles a lot, you’d think that I would get. Calf development, at least something, but none. Now, does that mean though, that no matter what I do, I will always have spindly little shanks coming outta my shorts? Does it mean that no amount of calf raises are going to save me?

That I basically am going to grow with the calves I came? Well, that is going to be the topic of today’s episode because more and more research is showing that the bad calf genetics theory is more wrong than right. Calf size is not an immutable aspect of your body. It’s not your height, it’s not your eye color.

Uh, most studies show that the reason many people struggle to build bigger calves isn’t because of inferior dna, but in. Workout programming something that they can quickly and easily change for immediately better results. . Alright, so let’s start with why many people think that calf size is mostly genetic, that you can’t simply train your calves to get them bigger and bigger like you can with other muscle groups.

And it mostly comes down to anecdotes. It mostly comes down to people in gyms who have calves who have never trained. All who rarely train them or who do train them, but started with big calves and responded really well to the calf training. And if you have been in gyms for any period of time, you probably have some people who immediately came to mind.

For example, someone I knew with probably the best calves I have ever seen in any. Period. Never trained them ever. He never did a single rep of a calf raise. He was fat for a while, and that often is correlated to having great calves. You have people who were overweight for a long time and then they are now in shape and they have awesome calves.

And obviously I’m mostly talking about guys here. It’s mostly guys who care about calf size for sure, but even calf definition. But the observations and the information I’m going to share in this podcast, they do apply equally to women. It’s just when I hear about calf size from women, it’s usually women who are asking how they can get smaller calves because they don’t like how big their calves are, or they’re asking how to not get big calves like some of the women they see in the.

Anyway, so this guy, his name is Adam, and again, he had the biggest and most defined calves I’ve ever seen. He never trained them. He was overweight for a while. He got into good shape and he would get asked all the time in gyms how he got his calves. Just gimme your calf training. . And so there are a lot of other atoms out there again who have never trained calves or who rarely train calves and who have great calves.

And so then many people have concluded it must be genetic because if you look at my calves compared to atoms, calves, my calves look literally half the size. The amount of mass is at least one half of his. And I train calves a couple of times per week. And again, when a lot of people. See these things, then they reasonably conclude that genetics must be a major, if not determining factor in how big your calves can get.

And as with most myths, there is a kernel of truth there because we all have strengths and weaknesses, genetic strengths and weaknesses in terms of how our individual muscle groups respond. To training. So in my case, my chest and biceps always responded well. Training they grew fairly quickly, whereas my calves have not responded well to training.

My lats have not responded well to training. My shoulders have not responded particularly well to training, although that’s the case with most natural weightlifters and in other people they. Great responding calves. They have great responding triceps or shoulders, but maybe their pex and their biceps don’t respond well to training.

It takes a lot more work for them to get the pecks and biceps that they want. Now a good example of this comes from a study conducted by scientists at CUNY Layman College, and in this study, the researchers had 26 young untrained men perform four sets of calf raises twice per week, two sets of standing, and then two sets of seated calf raises.

And the participants performed the exercises using one leg at a time. So those were unilateral sets. And then they did all of the exercises with one leg. Lightweights in a high rep range, so that’s 20 to 30 reps per set. And then all of the exercises with the other leg using heavier weights in a lower rep range of six to 10 reps per set.

And after eight weeks, the researchers used ultrasound to measure how much calves had grown, and on the whole, everybody’s calves grew. Eight to 14% bigger than they were at the beginning of the experiment. So there was nobody who didn’t respond at all, which is what many people think when they hear bad genetics or bad response, or a low responding muscle group, or a low responding individual.

They think little to no response, and that’s never the case. In fact, the outcome of this study is very similar to the outcomes of other studies that have looked at other muscle groups, meaning that when you look at the entire spectrum of response to resistance training, it is common to see that the lowest responder gains about half of the size of the highest responder, and that most people are somewhere in the.

Now there is more to be learned from this calf training study, though there is another bit of interesting information that has practical value, and that is that there were large differences in how the participants responded to the different rep ranges that were used. So what the researchers found is that.

For some people, the high rep training led to more muscle growth, whereas for others, the low rep training better, and then for some it didn’t seem to matter, their calves grew equally well regardless of what rep range they used. So if your calves are not growing, it’s probably not because you are star crossed by lousy genetics.

Instead, it might be partially because you’re not using the right rep range for optimizing your. Growth, and you also might not be doing enough volume. For example, we have a lot of research that shows once you have exhausted your newbie gains, which is the first maybe six to nine months of training for most people, the amount of volume that is needed to continue gaining muscle.

Goes up sharply. So for the first, eh, even year or so, about 10 hard sets per major muscle group per week is going to produce more or less all of the muscle growth that you can experience. It doesn’t matter if you do more training than that, you are probably not going to gain more muscle. But as you move into year two and certainly into year three, based on having worked with thousands of people over the years, there is a point where that 10 hard sets per major mouse group per week is not enough to continue progressing, and it needs to go up by a lot, not by 10 to 20% by like.

50, 60, 70%. It needs to go up to 15 to 17 or even 18 hard sets per major muscle group per week, and that is true all muscle group, including the calves. Now, how many people do you know who are complaining about having small calves while also doing 15, 16, 17, maybe even upward of 20 hard sets for their calve?

Every week split up into two or three different training sessions, which you would need to do to get the most out of all of that volume. And in case you’re not familiar with the term, a hard set is a working set, a heavy set, close to muscle failure, or in the case of the calves, you could really go right.

Up to muscle failure because you’re not gonna get hurt taking your seated calf race to absolute failure in the same way as taking your deadlift to absolute failure, which of course, I would never recommend. And so we have now two key factors for growing calves, and that is doing enough volume. Do not think that four, six hard sets per week is enough to make much progress, and I can attest.

Firsthand. I’ve been doing eight, 10 hard sets per week for my calves for the last couple of years, and they have progressed, but it’s slow. I know it could be faster if I spent time on them, but I simply don’t want to because I’m already in the gym as much as I would like to be in the gym, and I think I’ve reached a point where my calves are not inappropriately small.

They are not a strength in my physique, but I don’t care. I’ll just keep plotting away with my current routine and keep gaining maybe. Half of an inch or three quarters of an inch per year. And in a couple of years I may officially have big calves. I’ll announce it with much triumphalism on social media if it happens.

And so anyway, we have this volume piece, this volume requirement that’s necessary for building calves. And then we have this rep range component that came out of this study, and you might be wondering how to find. Your best rep range, and you have two options here. One, you can experiment in your training and measure your calves before and after training blocks and work in just one rep range in that training block at least a couple of months.

For example, you could do a couple of months of four to six rep. Uh, measure before and after, and then you could do a couple of months of, call it eight to 12 measure before and after, or you can periodize, you can do, call it two to four weeks of four to six, and then two to four weeks of eight to 12 can even do two to four weeks of 20 to 30 if you want to do that and know.

Whatever the best rep range is for you, you are going to be hitting it and you might also benefit further from the inclusion of the other rep ranges. If we look at the research on periodizing training on the whole, for example, we know. That in intermediate and advanced weightlifters in particular, they make better progress.

It’s been shown, particularly with strength that intermediate and advanced weightlifters gain strength faster with properly periodized training rather than just linear training where you train in one rep range with a certain amount of weight. You know a percentage of one rep max, maybe it’s 85% of one rep max, four to six reps, like with my bigger lunar, stronger program.

We know that that can work really well for a while, but eventually adding other rep ranges into the mix produces even better results and particularly strength. And we know that as we get more experienced, the relationship between strength and size becomes even stronger. Meaning that the most reliable way to get bigger as an intermediate or advanced weightlifter is to get stronger.

And for women listening, if you don’t think. In those terms, if you don’t think of getting quote unquote bigger, you could think of getting more muscle definition. If you want to continue to develop your muscles, you want to continue getting stronger. And so if we know that periodized training tends to result in more strength gain in intermediate and advanced weightlifters, it’s fair to assume it’s also going to produce.

Muscle growth. Okay, that’s it for rep ranges. Let’s now talk about a couple of other things that can help you grow your calves faster. And one is to do straight and bent knee calf exercises because the calves are made up of two powerful muscles. You have the gastro anemia and you have the soleus, and both of these muscles work together to flex the ankle to point your toes, but they do differ.

In an important way, the soleus is attached to the ankle back of the shin bones, whereas the gastro anemia is attached to your ankle and your thigh bone, which means that it also plays a role in knee flexion, in bending your knee, and we don’t need to get into the biomechanics of that. Other than to say that whenever you do calf exercises with straight knees, the gastro anemia is more involved than the soleus.

And whenever you do calf exercises with bent knees, the opposite is true. Therefore, if you want to maximize your strength and size in your calves, then you want to do calf exercises. Knees bent and straight. Varying your foot position is also a good tip because the gastro anemia and, and that’s really the muscle that you see when you look at your calf.

That’s the big muscle. The soleus you don’t see, uh, is a deeper muscle and the gastro anemia, it’s made up of two heads. You have a medial inside head. And a lateral or outside head. And multiple studies show that when you perform calf exercises with your feet turned slightly inward, you increase muscle activity in the inside heads of the gastro anemia.

And then when you do the opposite, when you do exercises with your feet turn slightly outward, you increase muscle activity in the inside heads. And while measuring muscle activation is not the same as measuring. Tension and muscle tension is what drives muscle growth, not necessarily muscle activation.

Research shows that muscle activation is a decent proxy for how effective an exercise is. It is a decent proxy for determining how much it is training. That muscle. And so all of that is to say that you just want to alternate the position of your toes. You want to do some sets with your toes pointed outward.

No more than 45 degrees. It could be 20 to 30 degrees is probably a fair amount. And then you want to do some of the sets with your toes pointed inward, and then some of the sets with your toes pointing straight ahead. So if you were doing, let’s say, Three sets of the leg press calf phrase. That’s a great straight leg exercise.

Then maybe you do those with your toes inward. And then if you’re gonna move on to three sets of a seated Cal phrase, you know, a machine, maybe do those sets outward. And then if you were going to finish with a few sets of these standing dumbbell, single leg cal phrases, you could do those with your toes pointing straight.

Since we are talking exercises, if you are wondering which exercises are best, 10 of my favorites are the seated calf rays machine, the leg press calf rays, the standing barbell calf phrases, the standing calf rays machine. I prefer the machine, but if your gym doesn’t have a machine, you use a barbell or you can use dumbbells, which brings me to my next exercise.

The standing dumbbells single leg calf rays, the seated dumbbell calf rays, the donkey calf ray. The body weight, single leg calf phrase, the Smith machine calf phrase, and the farmers, that’s a pretty good list. You definitely don’t need any other exercises than those to get great calves. And lastly, if you do have small calves or if your calves have never responded well to training, I do empathize.

I totally understand. And so just be patient. Be patient with your training and know. Even if you are at bottom of the response spectrum, and my calves probably are nobody’s calves are non-responders. If you train your calves with enough volume and if you vary rep ranges and if you do the right exercises and if you eat enough food and sleep enough and do the things that you need to do to recover and support muscle growth, your cal.

Will grow. They might not grow as quick like or as somebody else’s calves, but they will get. Well, I hope you liked this episode. I hope you found it helpful, and if you did subscribe to the show because it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes. And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people who may like it just as much as you.

And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you. Uh, ideas or suggestions or just feedback to share. Shoot me an email, mike muscle for, muscle f o r and let me know what I could do better or just, uh, what your thoughts are about maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future.

I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode, and I hope to hear from you.

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