In the world of bodybuilding, you have no good excuse to not train a muscle. This idea holds true almost exclusively, with one exception. If there was an Overton window of neglected musculature, the calves would probably fall into that category as the only part of your body that you “just can’t grow.”
Some chalk their muscular misfortune up to genetics, while others decry their calves as simply too stubborn to add size to, as though their calves were sentient and actively fighting back.
Even if your calves did have a mind of their own or were resistant to the same mechanisms of hypertrophy that work just fine for your chest, back, or shoulders, you still need to put time into calf work if you want a proportional and aesthetically-pleasing physique.
This article will break down three different calf workouts by difficulty and dig into the science behind the conversation around calf training so you can make the most of your time in the gym.
Best Calf Workouts for Bodybuilding
Beginner Bodybuilding Calf Workout
When you’re brand new to the gym, your muscles grow like weeds. This holds true head to toe, and may even be the case for your calves. The difference, though, is that calf training doesn’t happen by accident.
The nature and location of the calf muscles mean that you’ll have to give them some dedicated attention from day one if you want them to bulk up.
Fortunately, as a gym newbie you’re so sensitive to resistance training that you probably don’t need too much in the way of excessive calf exercises to kickstart some early growth. Two loaded movements — one for each compartment of the calves — should do just fine when you’re starting out.
How to Progress
Your calves may well be acclimated to your body weight, but likely aren’t used to working under external resistance. As such, your primary focus should probably be introducing as much progressive overload as possible.
Try to increase the weight you use on both exercises each session for as long as possible, even if it’s only five pounds per week.
Intermediate Bodybuilding Calf Workout
Once you’ve exhausted your “newbie gains”, where hypertrophy seems abundant and indefinite, your training needs to spice up a little bit. This goes doubly true for the calves, which may have begun to lag behind the growth rate of your other muscles.
To remedy this, it’s time to kick up the volume and add a couple of intensity techniques so your calves have no choice but to keep growing.
When progressive overload begins to falter, you need to ante up in other ways. For the calves, this means tuning up the volume quite a bit and being unafraid to work with some specialized techniques. The meat and potatoes of your workout, though, remains the same.
- Half Squat Jump: 5×5
- Machine Seated Calf Raise: 4×12, plus one drop set.
- Standing Calf Raise: 3×15
- Bodyweight Calf Raise: 100 reps in as few sets as possible.
Note: For the half squat jumps, you don’t need to work with very much external load. An empty (or slightly loaded) barbell on your back should do just fine. The purpose of this movement is to introduce some dynamic, power-focused stimulation early on to help fire up your calves for the work to come.
How to Progress
Making progress on an intermediate calf workout might have to entail a greater attention to detail than you’re used to. Try to add weight or bump up the reps when possible, but devote the majority of your focus and diligence toward impeccable technique on every rep.
Don’t bounce at the bottom, take things slow on the eccentric portion, and grit your teeth through the giant cluster set at the end to fully torch your calves.
Advanced Bodybuilding Calf Workout
As a dedicated physique athlete, your calves are a necessary part of the package you bring to the competition stage. Barring that, wimpy calves don’t do you any favors if you just want to look good at the beach.
If you’ve been in the gym for a while but your calves don’t show it, you need to break out the big guns and dig deep to make them grow.
Forcing the calf “issue” is all about packing as much intensity into your sessions as possible. You may also need to get cozy with some out-of-the-gym work for your calves as well. Regardless, this workout will bring the pain in the best way.
- Stair Climber or High Incline Treadmill: 10 minutes as a warm-up.
- Donkey Calf Raise: 3-4×12-15
- Seated Calf Raise: 4×15 with two drop sets.
- Single-Leg Bodyweight Calf Raise: one set on each leg to failure.
How to Progress
You can only add so many sets, reps, and time toward your calves before that effort overpowers your overall workout routine. As such, you may find it impractical to perform this workout more often than twice or thrice per week.
Instead, you can pack in some free extra volume by performing extra calf work at home. A few sets of 10-20 reps periodically throughout the day adds up to some noteworthy volume over time.
Anatomy of the Calves
There’s no getting around it — the calves are a pretty straightforward muscle group. That said, there’s nuance to all of human anatomy. If you want to optimally train a given body part, even one as “simple” as the calves, you need to understand both the structure and function at play.
Of the two primary compartments that make up your calves, the gastrocnemius is the more complex. It is biarticular, meaning that it crosses your knee joint while also inserting on your heel bone.
This means your gastroc does have a limited role in performing knee flexion (though nowhere near as much as the hamstrings do), and that the best way to isolate your gastrocnemius is to perform standing calf raises with no slack in the tissue.
The soleus sits underneath your gastrocnemius, but is actually the larger of the two muscular compartments. Further, it originates on your tibula and fibula bones and inserts on the heel, making its only job that of ankle plantar flexion.
Seated calf raises require that you bend your knee, which puts some slack in the gastrocnemius muscle. This ensures that seated calf raises target your soleus more than any other tissue.
The Myth of “Stubborn” Calves
In fitness circles, stubbornness refers to any quality that may not change or adapt as readily as you’d like. People often refer to the fat on their lower stomach, thighs, or buttocks as “stubborn fat” because it is particularly difficult to get rid of through dieting.
This idea exists in the training space in a similar capacity. Your chest is a large and robust muscle with different functions and a variety of practical ways to train it. As such, you rarely hear people say they have “stubborn pecs.”
The same isn’t true for the calves, which are commonly considered difficult to grow, even with proper training. But what does science have to say on the matter?
Broadly speaking, your muscle fibers have two distinct types — Type I and Type II, which are commonly referred to as “slow-twitch” and “fast-twitch”, respectively. You can think of Type I (slow-twitch) fibers as more suited to repeated, long-duration contractions, while your fast-twitch Type II fibers are excellent at producing high power in short bursts.
Research delving into the fiber composition of the calves has revealed that they are very predominantly slow-twitch, (1) which makes sense. Your calves help facilitate each step you take. They have tremendous endurance capabilities.
However, some literature has concluded that Type I slow-twitch muscle fibers are less susceptible to growth than their Type II cousins. (2) This may help explain why your calves feel resistant to the same treatments that work on your biceps or back muscles.
Similarly, your calves may have a blunted hypertrophic response due to a lower number of androgen receptors in the tissue.
To cut through the heavy science, androgen receptors are what testosterone binds to during the process of muscle protein synthesis. More androgen receptors may mean a greater potential for muscle growth.
When attempting to measure androgen receptor density throughout the body, some researchers found that the calf muscles have among the lowest concentration of any area in the body. (3) (With the neck and trapezius muscles actually having the highest.)
However, this idea is far from conclusive and hasn’t been definitively observed in a laboratory setting. It may just be another potential contributor to why you feel your calves aren’t growing — though likely not the root cause.
Another possible culprit for subpar calf development has less to do with anatomy or physiology and more to do with your choices in the gym. It’s possible that you may have “stubborn” calves simply because they don’t receive as much quality attention as your chest or abs do.
Since calves don’t really steal the show, many athletes simply relegate them to the end of their leg workouts. As an afterthought — and after a full hour or two of heavy leg training — you probably don’t have much energy or focus left in the tank to devote to your calves.
Simply leaving calves until the end of your workout may contribute to why they aren’t growing as readily as the muscles you train while you’re fresh and energized. If you want calf growth to be a priority, you should probably train them at the start of your workout.
Calf Training Tips
Are things as simple as including one seated and one standing calf exercise, twice per week? Yes and no. Your calves aren’t the most nuanced muscle in the body, but there are still ways to ensure you get the most bang for your buck.
Find the Right Angle
Unsurprisingly, your technique matters a great deal in bodybuilding — even for the most benign of movements. Personalizing your form can help you feel a more comprehensive contraction in the muscle.
Moreover, some literature suggests that adjusting your foot angle during calf raises may increase muscular activation. (4) Start with your feet pointed forward and tweak as needed until you find the deepest squeeze.
Weight Over Tempo
It is important to take your calf training slow and steady. Your Achilles tendon has a lot of built-in elasticity, which can distract from the targeted tension on the gastroc or soleus itself.
However, you don’t want to go too far in that direction and eschew heavy training entirely. Literature backs the idea that — for the calves and all other muscles — a slow tempo may produce better results than a normal rep speed with moderate weights, but heavy loading at any speed works better than both. (5)
Don’t be afraid to load up on weight as long as you can maintain proper technique and a full range of motion.
There’s no need to beat around the bush — calf training is a necessary evil. Your calves don’t steal the show or turn heads the way mountainous biceps or sculpted glutes do.
That said, well-developed calves are a great capstone to your physique. Their absence is noticed more often than their presence is felt, which should be more than enough of a reason to dedicate at least a little bit of time toward training them properly. Your physique will thank you.
- Albracht, K., Arampatzis, A., & Baltzopoulos, V. (2008). Assessment of muscle volume and physiological cross-sectional area of the human triceps surae muscle in vivo. Journal of biomechanics, 41(10), 2211–2218.
- Mitchell, C. J., Churchward-Venne, T. A., West, D. W., Burd, N. A., Breen, L., Baker, S. K., & Phillips, S. M. (2012). Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 113(1), 71–77.
- Kadi, F., Bonnerud, P., Eriksson, A., & Thornell, L. E. (2000). The expression of androgen receptors in human neck and limb muscles: effects of training and self-administration of androgenic-anabolic steroids. Histochemistry and cell biology, 113(1), 25–29.
- Riemann, B. L., Limbaugh, G. K., Eitner, J. D., & LeFavi, R. G. (2011). Medial and lateral gastrocnemius activation differences during heel-raise exercise with three different foot positions. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 25(3), 634–639.
- Schuenke, M.D., Herman, J.R., Gliders, R.M. et al. Early-phase muscular adaptations in response to slow-speed versus traditional resistance-training regimens. Eur J Appl Physiol 112, 3585–3595 (2012).
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