How to Train Calves

(No, this isn't about cows.)

(Photo from “All about training the calves” by Vic Goyaram)

Calves among the more neglected muscles, but they are essential to shapely legs and athletic performance. They usually get trained on leg day, if at all, leaving the lower legs of the amateur looking like they belong more on a bird.

The calves, sometimes called the triceps surae, consist of two muscle groups behind the shins, the soleus and the gastrocnemius. The soleus originates from the bones of the lower leg (tibia and fibula), engages longer and tends to have more slow-twitch fiber. The power of the sprint and jumping comes from the gastrocnemius, which contracts nearer the end of the step when the leg straightens at the knee, supercharging the movement. The gastrocs take their origin from the femur and don’t engage much when the knee is bent.

It is the gastrocnemius that contributes the most to the shape of the leg as well, if aesthetics are your priority.

The favorite exercise for the soleus is the seated calf raises with weights. To properly work the gastrocnemius, which contributes the most to both power and shape, the knees have to be straight, so standing calf raises or “donkeys” ( calf raises with straight legs but bent at the waist with someone sitting on your low back or butt) are the preferred exercises for them.

Work calves every day

Arnold Schwarzenegger says the calves, like the abs, should be worked every day, not just a couple of times a week like other muscle groups. (A tip he got from Reg Park, his idol when Arnold was a young, new bodybuilder.) I suspect this is because the calves evolved to perform mostly and endurance function in chasing prey for long distances, sprinting only briefly at the end.

Personally, I find a good compromise in doing calf raises with my daily stretching and working the gastrocs, but not the soleus, hard on leg day at the gym.

Because I’m interested in performance, I hit the calves from several angles: straight, splayed and pigeon-toed. This approach also engages the tibialis and even the peroneus longus at the front of the shin which, counterintuitively, play a role in pointing the toes, which is important for gymnasts and martial artists. If I were a sprinter or a distance runner, that would matter less.

I often do single-leg calf raises, which enables a good workout to muscle failure without weights, which would take forever with two-legged raises. For those who are not at the gym every day, there is no reason to neglect the calves, which can be worked thoroughly with just a couple of minutes and no more equipment than a stair step.

Stretch is essential

Calf raises, seated or straight-kneed, should go deep. Doing them on a flat surface doesn’t get the full stretch on the extension phase. You need an elevated surface like a stair or a block. Stretching the calf is important both to engage the most fibers for maximal growth but to maintain ankle range of motion and stability. Stimulating the plantar fascia, the Achilles tendon and the ligaments of the ankle through stretch is important for maintaining their health and resilience. Connective tissue has a poor blood supply and relies on movement and stretch for nutrient and waste exchange. I usually finish up any calf raises with a full stretch for several seconds. There is some evidence that this encourages muscle growth as well.

For the neophyte, just a brief session of 90 seconds is enough to encourage growth in most muscles, but not the calf. It is used to prolonged, uninterrupted use in daily walking. You have to do at least three sets to muscle failure to really get results, in my experience.