Even many easy gainers have difficulty building their calves, because, to a larger degree than other muscles, their size and shape are genetically predetermined. Don’t fret about what you can’t change. Get busy changing what you can, with these five approaches to calf training.
STRATEGY ONE | Low and High
A common myth is that calves are made up primarily of slow-twitch fibers. This leads to two divergent approaches: high reps (20-25) to exhaust the muscles’ great endurance capacity or lower reps (eight to 12) to shock muscles that are already accustomed to the endurance work of walking. In fact, both approaches are correct, precisely because the original premise is incorrect. Although the soleus has more slow-twitch fibers than fast, the gastrocnemius is built for both endurance and power, with approximately equal quantities of slow- and fast-twitch fibers.
So, it would follow that a two-pronged attack of lower and higher reps would be most effective. Alternate a low-rep workout with a high-rep workout, or combine the two as in our low/high routine.
STRATEGY TWO | Megareps
Although gastrocnemius muscles have approximately the same percentage of fast- and slow-twitch fibers, there is an abundance of empirical evidence that endurance sets work for calves. In fact, with the possible exception of abs, calves are the bodypart most likely to be trained with high reps.
How high is too high? Very high reps can send signals to your muscles to increase their endurance capacity, and one way they do this is to shrink in diameter, so the nutrients for energy production can more quickly travel through cells to be burned as fuel.
To avoid the marathoner look, some warn against regularly doing sets of more than 25 reps. As an occasional shocker, high reps can jump-start complacent muscles, but don’t perform a megareps routine more than once per month. Instead of stopping at a predetermined rep, work through the burn and go to failure.
STRATEGY THREE | All Unilateral
Try working calves unilaterally. One-leg calf raises allow you to concentrate more on the muscles and, according to research, you are stronger when training unilaterally than when training bilaterally. Incorporate one unilateral exercise in each calf workout or, to truly get a leg up, try our all unilateral routine.
STRATEGY FOUR | Pigeon Toes and Duck Feet
The premise goes like this: point your toes inward while doing calf raises and you work your outer calves; point your toes outward and you work your inner calves. This is indeed true, but it’s too often overstated. In fact, no matter what direction you point your toes, you work the entire gastrocnemius when doing standing calf raises; you simply focus more emphasis on one area or another. The position of your toes is not as important as getting a full stretch and contraction for each rep —don’t stand so awkwardly that you limit your range of motion.
STRATEGY FIVE | Unique Lifts
One reason calf training is frequently performed halfheartedly is the utter boredom of using the same standing and seated calf machines each workout. If you train in a gym with several types of calf machines, try them all. The following four unique exercises can be done in virtually any gym. Add one to your current routine, or try our routine of all four.
HACK-SQUAT CALF RAISES
While facing a hack-squat machine, position yourself under the shoulder pads and stand so your toes are on the edge of the platform with your heels unsupported. Keep your knees slightly bent as you rise up and down on your toes. These focus more on your upper gastrocnemius.
ONE-LEG STANDING CALF RAISES
Being both free weight and unilateral, this lift forces you to balance while allowing you to focus on one leg at a time. Stand with one foot on the edge of a block (at least 4" high), and keep the other leg bent. With one hand, grasp something sturdy, and hold a dumbbell with your other hand (the hand that corresponds to the leg you’re working). Rise up and down on one foot.
ROCKING CALF RAISES
Either balance a barbell on your shoulders as if squatting or hold two dumbbells. While standing on a flat floor, rise up on your toes as far as you can. Then, when your heels come down, lift your toes off the floor as far as possible. That’s one rep. In this manner, your feet will rock back and forth, and you’ll stress the rear (gastrocnemius) and front (tibialis) of your lower legs equally.
The function of your tibialis is to pull your feet toward your shins. Growing these small muscles will not make a notable difference in leg circumference. However, when developed, they provide detail and depth to the front of calves, and training them helps prevent shin splints (a common running injury). Some gyms have tibialis machines. If yours doesn’t, sit on a lying leg curl machine and position your toes directly under the ankle pads. Pull your toes up and back toward your shins, lifting the weight. Very little resistance is required to work your tibialis.
WHAT’S THE FREQUENCY?
Opinions about how often to train calves vary from once per week to once per day. We recommend twice per week as a baseline, but you need to find the correct frequency for yourself. Experiment with every-other-day calf training. You may even want to try a week of hitting calves daily. Alternate a heavy workout (eight to 12 reps) with a light workout (20-25 reps). Generally, training lower legs more than twice weekly leads to either uninspired low-intensity workouts or overtraining, but it can be an effective shock strategy.
Instead of an excuse for giving up and going through the motions with lackluster sets of calf raises, this is a call to continuously challenge your lower legs with new high-intensity workouts. Don’t fret about the DNA you were born with. Instead, use the approaches outlined here to start growing bigger calves. - FLEX