Most people work their quads and hamstrings more than they do the muscles that make up their calves. However, we shouldn’t ignore these muscles since having strong ones can improve your vertical jump height. If you play sports like basketball or volleyball, strengthening your calves can upgrade your performance. Plus, a little calf definition shows you’re athletic and physically fit!
The calf muscles are made up of two muscle groups: the larger gastrocnemius muscle and the soleus. The gastrocnemius, also known as the gastrocs, is the power and strength component of the calves. When this muscle contracts, it generates part of the force you need for jumping and sprinting. In contrast, the smaller soleus muscle is located behind the gastrocnemius muscle. With its high percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers, it’s a muscle best suited for endurance exercises such as walking, jogging, or slow running. These muscles attach to the heel of the foot via the Achilles tendon.
The main function of the calf muscle is to plantarflex or extend the ankle. You call upon the muscles in your calves to propel your body forward when you walk, jog or run. In fact, research shows when you run, your calves produce even more momentum to carry you forward than do your quads. If your calves are weak and fatigue fast, they can be the factor that limits how far and fast you can run. So, calf strength matters, especially if you jump, sprint, or do plyometric exercises.
As with all muscles, the gastroc and soleus muscles become smaller and weaker with age. We don’t want that! Yet, most people spend so much time working their quads and hamstring and forget about working the calf muscles. How can you most effectively correct this imbalance and work the calf muscles harder? The exercise most of us are familiar with for working the calves are calf raises. Here’s how to do one:
- Stand on the edge of a step and let your heels hang off the edge slightly.
- Contract your calves as you raise your heels upward until you’re on the balls of your feet.
- Lower your heels back down to the starting position and repeat.
- Do 10-15 reps.
- Complete 3 sets.
It’s a straightforward exercise to do but how effective is it for strengthening and building muscle in the calves? Be aware that some trainers believe that doing calf raises is a waste of time. Are they right?
When you’re first starting out, you can build a baseline level of strength with calf raises. When you rise up on the balls of your feet to do calf raises, you use your own bodyweight as resistance to build strength in your calf muscles. However, you need progressive overload to continue to make strength gains as your body adapts to the stress that you place on it. Even with a simple calf raise, there are ways to increase the resistance. You can add overload by holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand when doing this exercise. Do it close to a wall, so you can place your other hand on the wall for balance.
Another way to increase the load is to do single leg calf raises. Even without holding a weight, the exercise will be harder since only one calf is bearing the entire weight of your body. You can build some strength and mass in your calves in this manner, but you will reach a plateau rather fast and will stop seeing gains. Anatomically, some people have more difficulty building calf size. If the belly of your gastrocs extends a long distance, almost to your heel before your Achilles tendon starts, you have a long gastroc muscle. This gives you an advantage for developing calf size. In contrast, if you have short gastrocs and long Achilles tendons, you’ll have a harder time developing your calves, as you have less calf muscle to hypertrophy.
As you can see, the anatomy of your calf muscles and their relationship to the tendons that attach to them determine how much calf development you’re able to get. If you have calves that are naturally prominent and have little problem hypertrophying the muscle, you probably have a long muscle belly, the belly of your gastrocs extends further down, sometimes almost to the heel. As a result, the Achilles tendon is short. When you see people with prominent calf muscles, they usually have a long gastroc muscle belly. That doesn’t mean you can’t build calf size and strength, it just makes it a little harder. If you only do calf raises, especially without resistance, you may not see significant growth.
Beyond Calf Raises
Another reason to work your calves is to make them more powerful. When you sprint or jump, you generate strength and power in your calf muscles quickly and that’s why you need strong calves but, even more important, calves capable of generating force fast. Therefore, once you’ve mastered the calf raise and built up a baseline level of strength, shift some of your focus to exercises that work the calf muscles in an explosive manner. Rather than doing a standard calf raise, do explosive calf raises focusing on one leg at a time. Box jumps and single-leg box jumps are other exercises that work the calves explosively to build power.
Plyometric exercises where you pre-stretch a muscle and then shorten it quickly are another way to build powerful calves. Exercises like squat jumps, if you do them with intensity, boost your heart rate while they build strength and power in the calves. Jump roping is another underappreciated exercise for building powerful calves. Focus on intensity to get the most benefits. Start by jumping rope as fast as you can for a minute and work up to two minutes.
The Bottom Line
Calf raises are an effective starting point for building calf strength, but they aren’t very effective for building power. That’s where box jumps and plyometric work comes in. If fact, if you do enough plyometrics, you might not need to do calf raises at all. Do calf raises but vary your calf exercises so you build not strength but power too.
- com. “Why Calf Raises Are a Waste of Time”
- Ema R, Ohki S, Takayama H, Kobayashi Y, Akagi R. Effect of calf-raise training on rapid force production and balance ability in elderly men. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2017;123(2):424–433. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00539.2016.