The Complete Guide to Building Bigger Calves
All across gyms, beaches and city sidewalks, people are falling victim to what can only be known as “mediocre calves syndrome.” And, it’s most likely affecting you.
You’re arms are defined, your shoulders broad, and even your hamstrings and quads are in killer shape. Yet, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you beg of the gym gods of old, your calves never seem to grow. Each waking day you wonder if your body will ever be proportionally aligned.
It sucks, we know. But, you’re not alone.
It’s quite common for your calves to be lagging behind other muscle groups, and there’s a perfectly good explanation for this. In fact, deep down in the belly of your soul you know exactly why you’re not adding any mass to your lower legs.
That reason? You’re not training them correctly.
Yup, that’s it.
You step into the gym, you work on your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and if you still have some remaining gas in the tank, you perform two or three sets of calf raises. Six months down the road and you’re still scratching your head wondering why your lower legs look so puny.
Hey, it happens to the best of us. In fact, at the 1968 NABBA Mr. Universe, a certain individual who goes by the name Arnold Schwarzenegger came in second place because of his small calves. Of course, as we know, the rest of his career didn’t turn out so badly.
Just like young Arnold, the majority of us are guilty of not prioritizing our lower legs. Which is the problem with most stubborn muscle groups: they typically take a back seat to other areas that are easier to develop.
This is quite unfortunate considering the many benefits that a set of strong and powerful calves can provide such as:
- Improved knee flexion
- Prevention of achilles tendon tears
- The ability to jump like Mike
So how exactly should you train your calves?
Well, for starters, pumping away several calf raises at the end of your workout will not excuse you from #teamnocalves. There’s more involved if you want to develop strong and powerful calves. Calves that allow you to push harder from the ground, look amazing when wearing shorts, or that complement a pair of heels.
To turn those calves into cows you’re going to have to not only train harder, but train smarter. And in this article I will show you the calf muscles you need to be targeting and how to modify your training regimen to hit them from all sides. Plus I’ll give you a calf workout you can do immediately.
Why calves are so difficult to grow
Compared to other muscle groups, your calves are put under much more tension everyday. When you walk up a flight of stairs, when you try to catch your bus ride home, or when doing chores around the house. Unless you’re spending the next several weeks binge watching every season of Game of Thrones, you’re calves are constantly working.
Unfortunately, this makes the calves difficult to develop. Which brings us back to the figurative totem pole and the priority list that your lower legs fall under.
As with any muscle, the less often you hit it, the less it will get developed. And when those muscles are already accustomed to lots of volume throughout the day, then you can only imagine how much harder they need to be trained.
The solution: Train them nice and early.
By prioritizing your calves to the the beginning of your workout instead of the end you’ll be able to:
- Train them under heavier loads
- Prevent them from fatiguing faster
- Avoid compromising your form
“Ok, that sounds great and all, but my friends keep telling me that I don’t have the right genetics to ever grow my calves.”
Well, you’re friends actually bring up a very good point. In fact, one of the top reasons why most people hardly train their calves is because they don’t want to waste their time trying to build upon muscles that will never grow; either you’re born with the ability to add muscle to your lower legs or your not.
And, unfortunately, there’s some truth to this.
Individuals with calves that are sitting high up on the tendon (high calves) have the opportunity to become great runners and improve their vertical jump, however, it will be hard for them to grow their caves much. As opposed to those whose calves sit lower on the tendon and have much bigger muscle bellies.
For example, the picture on the left shows an individual with high calves. This person will find it difficult to grow their calf muscle. The picture on the right shows an individual with low calves, which has a higher potential for growth.
Furthermore, individuals with a larger ankle circumference will also have greater potential for calve development.
Now, I’m not telling you this in order to discourage you. That’s absolutely the last thing I want to do. I believe that everyone has the ability to add some size to their lower leg. Just be forewarned of the possible limitations.
Your Calf Muscles and How to Target Them
Instead of just aimlessly doing calf raises and assuming that your legs will get bigger (because they won’t), you have to understand how your calf muscles work in order to make them grow.
Listen closely because this next part will be extremely important towards the development of strong and powerful calves.
To begin, let’s talk about the two muscles that make up your calves: the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
Both of these muscles run the entire length of the lower leg and connect behind the knee and at the heel. They are responsible for adding symmetry, size, and width to your lower legs. Or in other words, these are the muscles that will make your lower legs look big and sexy.
Ever notice that upside down heart shape on a pair of well-developed calves? Yup, that’s the gastroc.
Located at the top back of the lower leg and comprised of the stronger fast twitch muscle fiber, the gastrocnemius is the largest of both calf muscles. But while being more explosive and having the capability of producing the highest level of muscle tension, they do fatigue faster. For this reason it is best train them first; ideally with heavier weights and lower reps.
How to target the Gastroc
The Gastroc is best hit by performing movements where you’re legs are fully locked and not bent at the knees. Standing calf raises are a good example of exercises that work the gastroc.
It should be noted that standing calf raises also partially work the soleus (which we’ll get to shortly). However, by paying attention to form and always keeping your legs locked out, you’ll avoid putting too much tension on this smaller muscle.
As an alternative, you can also do donkey calf raises which localize both the gastroc and hamstring.
Positioned right under the Gastroc, the soleus is known as the muscle that gives width to the lower leg. It’s also responsible for pushing off of the ground and providing stabilization. Or in other words, it prevents you from falling forward on your face by maintaining your posture.
Unlike the gastroc, the soleus is comprised of slow twitch muscle fibers so they generate less power and strength. But what they lack in strength they make up in recovery and endurance. And due to the fact that it takes them longer to fatigue, they can be trained more frequently.
How to Train the Soleus
If the gastroc will help you to build powerful calves, then the soleus will complete the process by helping you to add size.
You can target the soleus by performing bent knee exercises such as seated calf raises. And since this muscle is comprised of slow twitch muscle fibers, you can train them longer by performing more reps.
Tibialis Anterior (Bonus)
Also known as the muscle running down your Shin, the tibialis anterior is not necessarily part of your calf, yet, training it can make them appear even bigger when viewed from the front and sides.
Located on the front portion of the lower leg, the TA is responsible for providing power, size, shape and endurance. Quite a lot for such a small and overlooked muscle.
How to Train the Tibialis Anterior
Targeting the TA involves dorsiflexing the foot (bringing the foot up into your chins). An easy way of doing so is to place your heels at the edge of an elevated surface, and then proceed to bring in your toes towards your chin. However, by adding a little resistance you’ll be able to build up this muscle faster. So, instead, tie one end of a resistance band to your foot (around the tip), and the other end around a sturdy object. Sit far enough that the band is taut while your toes are pointing forward. Proceed to bend your toes in bringing the tip of your foot towards your chin. Return to the starting position and repeat.
Applying the proper tension
Now, before you begin banging away reps of calf raises, there’s one final ingredient to turning those calves into cows: time under tension.
“Time under what?”
Ok, to illustrate, think of your lower legs as a spring. If the spring is constantly bouncing up and down then it doesn’t have much time to create tension; there’s not much work involved and the bounce is typically the same. Without much tension the spring won’t be able to bounce to its maximum height. Which is pretty lame.
In a similar way, when you quickly perform calf raises your lower legs acts as a spring causing your achilles tendons to do most of the work. With little muscle tension involved, your calf muscles are removed from the equation thus limiting their potential growth.
The solution: Slow down.
Yep, it’s that simple.
By slowing down the pace instead of banging out hundreds of fast paced calf raises your muscles will spend more time under tension thus promoting growth.
Putting it all together
So now that you have a better understanding of what’s involved in sculpting bigger and stronger calves, it’s time to put all this knowledge to good use.
We’re going to begin by working the gastroc.
Straight legged calf raise – 5 sets of 6 reps with a X132 tempo*
Remember, the gastrocnemius recruits fast-twitch muscle fibers, so grab a pair of heavy dumbbells or load up the calf raise machine when performing your calf raises.
Here’s why the added time under tension works:
By exploding up during the beginning of the movement you are maximizing tension. Holding your position at the top promotes stabilization. And the three second slow eccentric promotes muscle growth.
Next, let’s work the soleus.
Seated calf raise – 4 sets of 20 reps with a 2122 tempo*
By making use of slow twitch muscle fibers, the soleus is able to endure more reps. The same time under tension idea applies here.
*Tempo is measured using time under tension. For example: X132 would be read as exploding when initiating the movement, holding the position for 1 second at the top while squeezing the muscle, a 3 second eccentric (descend), and 2 second pause at the starting position.
Straight leg calf raise – 5×6 Tempo: X132
Seated calf raise – 2×20 Tempo: 2122
3 minute rest in-between sets.
Perform this routine twice per week at the beginning of your leg day or as a stand alone workout for the next two months. You’re calves will thank you for it.
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