What does your lower body workout consist of? You probably do a number of exercises for your quads and hamstrings, but what about the lower part of your legs – your calves? Often these muscles get neglected in the attempt to do more squats and lunges – but these muscles need love too! Who wants to have well-toned thighs and weak calf muscles? Developing your calf muscles creates balance between the upper and lower parts of your leg and athletic calves look great in a pair of shorts. So, if you’re ignoring your calf muscles, now’s the time to giving them more attention
Know Your Calf Anatomy
What muscles are you working when you do calf exercises? The calf is made up of the large gastrocnemius muscle, a muscle that has two heads. The smaller soleus muscle lies underneath the gastrocnemius. The gastrocnemius muscle, also known as the gastroc, is the portion of the lower leg that generates most of the force when you contract the muscle. The soleus is more of a postural muscle that helps keep you upright when you stand for long periods of time.
The types of muscle fibers differ between the two calf muscles. The gastrocs have a higher ratio of fast-twitch muscle fibers to slow-twitch. The opposite is true of the soleus muscle since it’s a postural muscle. The soleus contains more slow-twitch muscle fibers relative to fast-twitch. Both muscles work together to plantarflex the foot or move the toes downward, like when you stand on your tippy toes. In contrast, dorsiflexion is moving your foot upward toward the sky.
It’s the gastrocs you see when you admire someone’s calves. When this muscle is developed, it gives your lower leg pleasing curves that make you look athletic. But, there is some bad news about calf training. The shape of your calf muscles is partially determined by genetics and training won’t convert small, weak calves into big, bulky ones. That’s a good thing in some respects! You don’t want your calves to overpower your thighs. On the other hand, if you weren’t dealt a strong genetic hand, your gains may be modest, although even a little calf development gives a pleasing look to the leg.
The anatomy of your calf muscles and their relationship to the tendons that attach to them determine how much calf development you’re likely 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.
In contrast, people with weak, underdeveloped calves and those who have the most problem building them often have long Achilles tendons and a short muscle belly. The latter is sometimes referred to as a “high calf.” There are advantages to having a high calf. You see this anatomical variation a lot in runners and sprinters. Having this structure gives runners and sprinters an advantage.
So, You Want More Defined Calves
If you think your calves are a bit weak and underdeveloped, what exercises are best for building them? Based on EMG studies, these are the best exercises:
· Donkey calf raise
· Standing one-leg calf raises
· Standing two-leg calf raises
· Seated calf raises
The donkey calf raise is a little harder to do as you either need access to a donkey calf raise machine or a partner, but standing and seated calf raises are exercises you can do at home without special equipment.
To do a standing calf raise, stand on the edge of a step or riser with your heels hanging off. Place your hands on a firm object for balance. Slowly raise your heels up as high as you can, hold for a few seconds, and then gradually release back down to the starting position.
To do a seated calf raise, sit on a bench with your knees bent. Place the balls of your feet on a piece of wood or other rectangular object and let your heels hang off. A phone book will work in a bind. Plantar flex so that your heels rise up off the floor as high as possible. Hold for a few seconds and return to the starting position. To make the exercise more challenging, place a barbell over your upper thighs as you do the movement. When you’re not using resistance, you’ll need a higher number of reps to fatigue the calf muscles. If you’re using resistance, aim for ten to fifteen reps and complete two or three sets.
How do the two exercises differ? With standing calf raises, you place most of the emphasis on the gastrocnemius muscles, the larger muscles you see. When you switch to a seated position, the emphasis changes to the deeper, smaller soleus muscle. Doing both ensures you’re getting a balanced calf routine.
Plyometrics exercises are another approach for developing weak calf muscles. These exercises activate the fast-twitch muscle fibers in the gastrocs and cause them to hypertrophy. Squat jumps, box jumps, skaters, and broad jumps are all exercises that activate the fast-twitch muscle fibers in the gastrocnemius muscle.
Now, what if you have the opposite problem – your calves are too large and muscular? In this case, limit the calf work that you do and when you do exercise that involves your calf muscles use lighter resistance and keep the reps high. If your goal is to reduce the size of your calves, several longer sessions of endurance exercise may help – running, brisk walking, or cycling using light resistance.
The Bottom Line
Having a little curve to the calf is attractive but building calf muscles is more challenging if you have high calf structure. In this case, you’ll need to do calf raises using resistance to get maximize development of the muscles. In contrast, if you already have beefy calves, minimize the calf work you do and focus more on endurance exercise, like walking and running. Especially if you have underdeveloped calves, don’t ignore them! Strengthening and shaping them will give more symmetry to your lower body.
Bodybuilding.com. “EMG Studies Show Best Exercises!”
Stack.com. “The 10 Best Plyometric Exercises for Athletes”