It's a widely held belief in bodybuilding that calves don't respond to strength training, that somehow, unlike your biceps, shoulders and pretty much every other muscle in your body, putting them under stress won't result in growth.
Well, we're here to tell you that theory is nonsense. It's not that you can't strength train your calves, it's more a case of finding the right exercise to target them, and there's no better exercise to begin with than calf raises.
What's more, as long as you've got the correct exercise it doesn't really matter what weight you perform your calf raises with. A study published in the journal Physiological Reports, strength trainer and exercise scientist Brad Schoenfeld got 30 untrained students to do calf raises in different ways on different legs. On one leg calf raises were performed with a weight that they could comfortably manage for 6 to 10 reps, while they trained their other leg with a load that allowed 20 to 30 reps.
After 8 weeks of strength training, Schoenfeld found that their muscle thickness had increased just as much in the calves trained with light weights and many repetitions, as in the calves trained with heavy weights and few repetitions.
So pick up a heavy, or light, weight and let's get going on those calf raises. We promise you, your legs will thank you later.
Your Calf Muscles
We'll get onto how to train your calf muscles in a minute, but before we tell you how to train them it's probably not a bad idea to find out what muscles you're going to be training. Your calves have two primary muscles: the soleus and the gastrocnemius. The soleus is the deeper muscle that plays a role in ankle stability and plantar flexion, while the gastrocnemius is the more superficial two-headed muscle that contributes to plantar flexion and also assists with knee flexion.
How to Do Calf Raises
Okay, so this is a pretty simple move to learn, but we've broken down how to do calf raises with perfect form below. In our example, we're presuming you're going to be doing the move with weights, although this exercises could just as easily be performed with just your bodyweight.
Stand upright holding two dumbbells by your sides and your shoulders back.
Place the balls of your feet on an exercise step or a weight plate. Make sure your heels aren't touching the floor.
With your toes pointing forwards, raise your heels off the floor and contract your calves. Slowly return to the starting position.
Calf Raises: Form Tips
You've got the basic move down, now perform it with a little more finesse using these extra form tips.
Calf raises are not a cardio move. We're looking to build strength here, so slow the movement down and consider adopting a 1-2-1 ratio, which accounts for a one-second contraction up, a two-second isometric hold at the top of the movement and then a two-second eccentric movement on lowering.
However, if you're looking for a way to turn calf raises into a cardio move, check out our variations below.
Seated calf raises are excellent for targeting the soleus muscle in your calf, but you're going to get more bang for your buck if you perform calf raises while standing tall.
Your Nike Metcons may make you look good at the gym, but you want your calves to do all the work without any help from springs and extra cushioning. The solution: ditch the trainers.
Other Ways to Get Big Calves
While calf raises may be the biggest and best weapon in your calf-building arsenal, they're not the only one. If getting big calves at all costs is your goal, we've covered 10 ways to build your calves, as well as calf exercises and calf-popping workouts in the article below (simply titled Get Big Calves). However, if what you're really looking for are some calf raise variations then keep reading.
Calf Raise Variations
Standing Barbell Calf Raise
Stand upright with a barbell supported on your upper back.
With your toes pointing forwards, raise your heels off the floor and contract your calves.
Slowly return to the starting position.
Why: A barbell on your back is going to allow you to increase the load and therefore increase the difficulty. Expect your core to get a good workout with this too.
Single-Dumbbell Calf Raise
Put a weight plate on the floor and rest your toes on it whilst sitting on a bench.
Place a dumbbell on your knee, your right hand holding the handle while your left hand holds the top.
Lift up your toes as high as possible. Pause, then lower it back onto the weight and repeat.
Why: By sitting down and performing single raises you're going to isolate the biggest muscle in your calves, the soleus muscle, even more.
Seated Calf Raise
Sit down at a leg press and rest your feet so just your toes are resting at the bottom of the platform.
Push back as far as you can while keeping your feet against the platform.
Return under control to the start position and repeat.
Why: Similarly to the single-dumbbell calf raise, this move will allow you to isolate your soleus muscle, while removing the need to balance your upper body.
Raised Calf Raise
This is performed in exactly the same way as a normal calf raise, but instead of standing on an exercise step or a weight plate, stand on a step that allows your heel to drop lower than the rest of your foot at the bottom of the movement.
Why: The raised calf raise will allow you to achieve a greater range of motion in your calf during the exercise. Considering the calves kick into action during the lowest and highest points of each lift, that's pretty important.
Set yourself a comfortable distance from the box with feet shoulder width apart.
Drop quickly into a quarter squat, swing your arms and explode upwards to jump onto the box.
Land as softly as possible. Now step backwards off the box under control.
Why: The alternative to adding more load to calf raises with a barbell is to try a set of box jumps, where you use your calves when jumping and landing. This is also a great way of turning calf raises into a cardio, rather than solely a strength, movement.
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