Much has been made about how your calves used to be a weakness and how you built them into one of your best body parts. How did you do it?
When I first came to America (in 1968), I didn’t have big calves. In 1969, I visited Reg Park at his home in South Africa and stayed with him for a while. He would get up at 5 a.m. to train. So Reg, being my early idol, I got up at 5 a.m. to train with him. The first thing he did every session was 10 sets of calf raises. His calves were a huge 20 inches. I looked at them and said, “I want calves like that.” So he put 500 pounds on the machine and started his first set. I screamed, “Fivehundred pounds! I’ll rip my Achilles!” He told me, “When you walk, with one foot in midstride, the other foot is supporting 250 pounds, so both feet can support a 500-pound workload. To really make the calves grow, you have to go up to 1,000 pound calf raises.” I said, “No way!” In one year my calves grew two inches. They grew so quickly that some people began to say I had gotten calf implants.
They would check them out, looking for any scars when I fexed them. I took it as a great compliment that my calves had improved so much—they eventually got to be 21 inches—that some people thought I had implants.
The main exercises I did shouldn’t surprise you: donkey calf raises, standing calf raises, seated calf raises, and leg press calf raises—up to six sets of each for 10–20 reps. But more important than the exercise I was doing, or the number of sets and reps I performed, was how I did them. To develop your calves to their potential, you must take each rep through a complete range of motion. This means getting a full stretch at the bottom and forcing yourself up as high as possible on your toes at the top. Again, it’s about progression; if you’re using 1,000 pounds but can’t go all the way up, you’re training too heavy and wasting your time. The goal is to lift the heaviest weight possible that still allows you to use a full range of motion. I also used other techniques to squeeze out every last bit of intensity and spark new growth. Other than doing forced reps with the help of a partner, my favorite techniques were peak contractions and what I used to call a “pumping action.” Peak contraction is simply a matter of holding the top of each rep and squeezing the calves for three to four counts before lowering the weight. This was very painful, but I always relished the muscle burn and felt it would only make me bigger. The pumping action would usually take place at the end of a set of, say, seated calf raises or leg press calf raises. After I couldn’t do any more full-range-of-motion reps, I finished the set by doing short, quick reps (not quite all the way up or down) for as long as possible until my calves were screaming. I felt this action really chiseled the outer section of my calves for championship form. - FLEX