Your calves are the focus when you wear a skirt or pair of shorts, and you don’t want them to look frail and underdeveloped. Not everyone has an easy time getting a well-developed pair of calf muscles. That’s because genetics is a factor in who has them and who doesn’t. Some people get nicely formed diamond-shaped calves with minimal training. These folks usually have calf muscles that extend further down the leg with shorter tendons. In contrast, other people have shorter calf muscles and longer tendons. This gives them less calf muscle to develop but does give them an advantage when running fast. Most great sprinters have short calf muscles and long tendons. Unfortunately, you don’t have control over your natural anatomy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get calves that are more defined through training.
Understanding the Anatomy of the Calf Muscles
Before training your calf muscles, it’s important to understand the muscles you’re developing. The calf is made up of two primary muscles called the gastrocnemius, sometimes referred to as “gastrocs,” and the soleus muscle. The gastrocnemius muscles are the larger muscle of the two and consist of two heads called the medial and lateral head. It’s this muscle that’s visible when you look at someone’s calves. The gastroc muscles extend from the femur, the bone that makes up the thigh, down the leg where the two heads insert into the Achilles tendon. When they’re developed, they ideally form the shape of an upside down heart.
The soleus muscle is a smaller muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius muscle. It isn’t visible because it’s covered by the gastrocnemius. Interestingly, not all animals have a soleus muscle. One species that lacks it is the dog. The soleus attaches to the tibia and fibula bones and extends down the leg to insert into the Achilles tendon. The soleus muscle is much smaller in size compared to the gastroc muscle, but it’s still important to train this muscle since it adds dimension to the calf.
A muscle that extends obliquely along the front of the lower leg is called the anterior tibialis and shouldn’t be overlooked when training the calves. Developing this muscle creates more symmetrical and visually-pleasing calves. Weak tibialis anterior muscles also make it harder to develop the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles.
Training the Calf Muscles
Now that you know the anatomy, you might be tempted to focus your energy primarily on training your gastrocnemius muscles since they’re the most visible. For well-balanced calves, it’s important to work all of three muscle groups.
The gastrocnemius muscles plantar flex your foot when your legs are straight. It’s your gastroc muscles that come into play when you stand on “tippy toes.” When you bend your knees or are sitting down, your gastrocnemius muscles can’t develop as much tension. That’s why the most effective way to work your gastroc muscles is in a standing position. Exercises that develop the gastrocnemius muscles are standing leg raises, standing leg raises holding dumbbells for resistance and donkey calf raises. Donkey calf raises are more effective for developing these muscles than standing leg raises.
When some people work for gastroc muscles, they use low resistance and high repetitions. This isn’t the best approach to developing killer calves. The gastroc muscles have a high ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch fibers. This gives them the ability to contract very quickly and forcefully when you jump or take off into a sprint. For this reason, they respond best to heavy resistance with fewer repetitions as opposed to lighter weights and lots of repetitions that activate more slow-twitch fibers. One reason people have trouble developing calf definition is that they don’t use enough resistance to activate these fast-twitch fibers. The gastrocnemius muscles consist of almost 60% fast-twitch fibers, so you need to use resistance by holding heavier weights in your hands when you do standing leg raises.
To develop enviable calf muscles, it’s important to work your soleus muscles too, and standing calf raises aren’t the best way to do that. The soleus muscle raises your heel off the floor when you’re in a seated position and your knees are bent. That’s why seated calf raises where your knees are bent to a 90-degree angle are the best way to develop these muscles. The soleus muscles have a higher ratio of slow-twitch fibers to fast-twitch ones. This means they’re important for endurance activities like long-distance running since they’re resistant to fatigue. You’ll best target them with higher reps and less resistance. If you’re only doing standing calf raises you aren’t targeting these muscles as well and aren’t getting a balanced calf workout.
What about the anterior tibialis? The best way to target this muscle in your anterior calf is by doing toe raises. To do this, put a weight plate on the floor and place your heels on it. Slowly raise your toes as high as you can and bring them down in a slow and controlled manner. Keep repeating this movement. To increase the intensity of this exercise place a stability ball on top of both feet and apply pressure with your arms on the stability ball as you lift your toes.
Another exercise you can do for your anterior tibialis is to tie one end of a stretch band to the bottom of a post or a sturdy piece of furniture. Make a loop at the other end of the stretch band. Then sit down far enough away from your band anchor point so that your band has enough tension and place the loop you created around the top of one of your feet. Keep your leg straight and flex your foot back and forth while maintaining a good tension on the band. Repeat with the other leg.
If You’re Having Problems Developing Your Calves
Some people find it challenging to develop calf muscles and will have to work hard to get results. To maximally work your gastrocnemius muscles, do standing leg raises with resistance heavy enough that you can do no more than 6 to 10 repetitions. Do 3 to 4 sets and increase the resistance as you get stronger. When working the soleus muscles, lighten up on the resistance and do reps of 16 to 30 for at least 5 sets. For the anterior tibialis muscle training, aim for 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 20 reps using moderate resistance. Work your calves 2 to 3 days a week. On certain days, change the number of reps you do or the number of sets to stimulate your calf muscles in a number of ways to keep your muscles from adapting.
Plyometric exercises like squat jumps, depth jumps, and even jump-roping activate fast-twitch muscle fibers in the gastrocnemius muscles and also develop explosive power. Add some plyometric exercises to your fitness routine to stimulate your calf muscles in a new way. Stair climbing using a weighted vest, uphill running and even some leisure activities like hiking activate your calf muscles.
Standing leg raises and donkey raises, to build the gastrocnemius muscles, are most effective if you do them flat-footed. Most athletic shoes have so much arch support that your calves won’t work as hard. To prevent this, train barefooted or wear a flat shoe with minimal support like a slipper when doing standing leg raises. Training your calves in bare feet (cautiously of course) ensures that you’ll maximize the range of motion with each leg raise.
To maximize how hard you work your calf muscles, avoid doing calf work on days that you work your thighs and glutes. If you do them on the same day, hamstrings and quadriceps fatigue may limit how hard you can work.
The Bottom Line?
Even if you don’t have the genetic advantage of having long calf muscles, you can still develop these muscles with balanced training of all three muscle groups, using a combination of standing leg raises, donkey calf raises, seated leg raises and toe raises and the right amount of resistance for each exercise. Make sure you’re consuming enough calories and protein, and be patient. It takes time to develop killer calves.
J. Physiol. 287:33-43, 1979.
Bodybuilding.com; Ultimate Calf Training for Maximum Results; Karen Sessions