Calf Workouts That Work: Build Beastly Calves

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Beefy diamond-shaped calf muscles not only round out an aesthetic and balanced physique, but also indicate a strong, powerful, and functional lower body. Sadly, many athletes have a hard time increasing the size of their calf muscles due to the muscle group’s high fast-twist muscle fiber content.

The calf muscles respond well to not only heavy weights but also high repetitions, time under tension, and peak contractions. The calves are comprised of four muscles – gastrocnemius, soleus, tibialis anterior, and popliteus.

The gastrocnemius is the largest muscle in the calf, comprised of the medial and lateral heads, that runs along the back of the lower leg. It originates from the femur and inserts in to the calcaneous, also known as the heel bone. This muscle makes up the meat of the calf muscle and plays roles in plantar flexion of the ankle and knee flexion. [1]

Jump RopeThe gastrocnemius engages most heavily during calf raise movements in which the knees are fully extended. The soleus runs along both sides of the lower leg and is comprised of only one head – the soleus. It originates from both the tibia and fibula and inserts in to the heel bone. [2]

The soleus is most effectively isolated by performing seated calf raise variations in which the knees are flexed at approximately 90 degrees, the shins are perpendicular to the floor, and the thighs are parallel with the floor. The tibialis anterior is the muscle with one head running along the front of the lower leg, commonly referred to as the shin. It originates from the tibia and inserts in to the tarsal and metatarsal bones in the foot.

The tibialis anterior assists in dorsal flexion of the ankle as well at supination of the intertarsal, which involves the movement of the sole inward. [3] The smallest muscle in the calf is the popliteus, a muscle with one head commonly referred to as the knee flexor. It originates from the femur and inserts in to the tibia. Don’t let the size of this muscle fool you – it plays crucial roles in knee flexion, internal rotation, and knee stability. [4]

You must perform exercises that engage all four calf muscles if you want to build a balanced, healthy, and injury-resilient physique.

The three workouts presented below will target, strengthen, build, and shape the calves based on your training experience. If you’re new to weightlifting start with the beginner workout. You should also start with the beginner workout if you’re an intermediate lifter new to direct calf training.

You may progress faster and move on to the intermediate specialization workout faster than novice trainees but it’s worth starting with the most basic movements to reinforce proper motor patterns and calf muscle activation. Those with 5+ years of lifting experience and/or 6-12 months of direct calf training can start with the intermediate or advanced specialization workout.

Perform the beginner, intermediate, or advanced workout at least twice per week on non-consecutive days. Maximize routine effectiveness by performing the workout at the beginning of a lower body workout, end of an upper body workout, after cardiovascular activity, or on a separate training day from your other workouts.

Box Jumps

Calf Workouts

Beginner Calf Specialization Workout

  • Box Jumps – 3 sets of 4 to 6 jumps

Box jumps are an excellent movement for developing athleticism, explosiveness, and the calf muscles. If you’re brand new to box jumps begin with your bodyweight and a six to twelve-inch-high box. Place the box in a flat surface and relatively open area away from benches, racks, free weights, and machines.

Stand about six inches away from the base of the box and take a hip width stance with your toes pointing forward. This is your starting position. Initiate the movement by breathing in as you flex your hips and knees and lower to a quarter-squat depth. Quickly switch directions and pump your arms upward as you push through your heels and fully extend both your hips, knees, and ankles.

You should leave the ground and land on the top of the box with both feet at the same time. Step or hop down to the floor and repeat for the desired number of repetitions. Increase the box height or wear a weighted vest to increase difficulty.

  • Plate-Loaded Standing Calf Raise – 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

The plate-loaded standing calf raise will blast your gastrocnemius, leave you with a sick pump, and improve your ankle flexibility. Set up for the movement by setting the shoulder so that they’re one notch lower than shoulder-height and selecting a conservative starting weight.

Step up on the platform so that your midfoot and toes are in-contact with the platform and heels are hanging off the end. You may have to crunch down slightly to slide underneath the shoulder pads.

Fully extend your knees and hips so that your heels are pointing towards the floor, spine is neutral, and shoulders are in-contact with the pad. This is your starting position. Slowly push through your toes without moving your knees and hips so that your heels raise above parallel.

Press through your toes until you feel a nice contraction in the back of the lower leg – hold this position for one to three seconds before slowly lowering yourself to the starting position. It’s important to keep your knees in-line with your toes throughout the entire movement and not bounce at the bottom of the movement as this takes stress of the target muscles.

  • Dumbbell Seated Calf Raise – 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps

The dumbbell seated calf raise is an easy-to-load movement isolating the soleus that requires a flat bench, low box, and dumbbells. Place a low box or step-up platform to the left or right side of the flat bench. Select two dumbbells of the same weight and sit on the middle center of the bench.

Place your toes on the box or platform so that your shin is perpendicular to the floor and upper thighs are parallel with the floor. Gently place one of the flat sides of each dumbbell on the lower quad of the left and right legs. This will be your starting position. The grip on the dumbbells should only be tight enough so that they do not fall of the leg.

Press through your toes and extend your ankle until you feel a nice contraction in the calf – hold this position for one to three seconds before slowly lowering the calves to the starting position. Increase the intensity of this movement by removing the stretch reflex and holding the bottom position of the movement for three to five seconds.

  • Smith Machine Reverse Calf Raise – 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps

The smith machine reverse calf raise is an excellent movement for isolating and blasting the tibialis anterior. Place a low box or step-up platform directly below and in-line with the Smith Machine bar. Move the barbell so that it’s hooked in at shoulder height and place an even amount of weight on either side.

Place your heels on the box or platform and stand underneath the bar so that it’s resting on your upper trapezius muscle (re: upper back). Your toes should be hanging off the box or platform. Fully extend your hips and knees and unrack the barbell from the hooks – this is your starting position. Slowly lower your toes until you feel a nice stretch in the front of the lower leg.

Hold this position for one to three seconds before pushing through your heels and pulling your toes towards your shins. At the top position your toes should be above-parallel. Hold this position for one to five seconds before lowering to the starting position. At the end of the set be sure to hook in the barbell to the pins before dismounting.

  • Bodyweight Standing Calf Raise – 1 rest-pause set of 50 reps

Rounding out this brutal calf workout is one rest-pause set of standing calf raises using your body weight only. Set a low box or step-up platform adjacent to a free-standing beam or facing a wall. Step on to the box or platform so that only your toes and midfoot are in-contact and the heels are hanging off the edge. You may find yourself needing to gently hold on to the beam or wall to stabilize yourself.

Fully extend your hips and knees – this is your starting position. Slowly push through your toes and extend your ankles as much as comfortable and then slowly lower yourself to the starting position. Hold the top position for one to three seconds; it’s not a race to complete the 50 reps as quickly as possible.

If you cannot perform 50 reps consecutively then focus on resting as little as possible and decreasing the number of sets it takes to complete all of the reps. For example, it may take your 5 sets (20, 10, 8, 7, 5) with 15 seconds of rest between each set the first time. The next time you perform the workout shoot for completing the reps in 4 sets or only resting 10 seconds in between each of the 5 sets.

Calf Press

Intermediate Calf Specialization Workout

  • Jump Rope – 500 skips

Jump rope is a dynamic movement building not only coordination and cardiovascular conditioning but also pumping blood in to the calf musculature. Select a moderate weight jump rope that when stood on with flat feet and hip-width stance, has a length that allows the handles to reach armpit height.

Perform the movement by keeping your upper arm in-line with your torso, forearms in-line or slightly in-front of your shoulders, chest high, and spine neutral. Jump just high enough to clear the rope every skip time, ensuring your heels never touch the ground and you land on the ball of your foot each time. Your calves will be working hard during this movement.

My personal favorite combination is 100 dual-leg, 100 alternating, 100 high-knee, 50 left-leg-only, 50 right-leg-only, and 100 dual-leg. Progress by using a heavier jump rope, performing the skips in a shorter period of time, or adding skips.

  • Calf Raise on 45 degree Leg Press – 1 rest-pause set of 75 reps

Set up for this exercise by placing an equal amount of weight on either site of the leg press and adjusting the back support so that you can comfortably place your entire back on the support while also resting your butt on the bottom support pad.

Sit down, take a hip-width stance, and place the toes and balls of your feet on the bottom of the leg press platform. Your heels should not be in-contact with the platform. In the starting position of this movement your knees should be extended (but not hyperextended) and heels should be facing away from you and pointing towards the ground.

It’s ok if the leg press platform no longer rests on the safety pins after extending your knees – don’t unhook the safety unless absolutely necessary due to range of motion limitations. Initiate the movement by pressing through your toes and pushing the platform away from you without allowing your back and butt to leave the support pads.

Flex your calves at the top of the movement for one to five seconds before lowering to the starting position. Aim to complete the 75 reps in a minimum of 4 sets and maximum of 7 sets. Increase the intensity by added weight, holding the stretch or contracted position for a longer period of time, or decreasing the rest periods between each mini set (shoot for 15 to 30 seconds).

  • Plate-Loaded Seated Calf Raise – 2 sets of 10 reps, 1 triple drop set

The plate loaded seated calf raise is one of my personal favorite movements for emphasizing soleus engagement and contraction; prepare yourself for serious delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) when these are performed correctly. Select a conservative starting weight, which for most will be a 25 or 45-pound plate.

Place the toes and balls of your foot on the platform and position the upper thigh pad so that it’s snug, but not uncomfortable. In the starting position your heels will be pointing slightly downwards (but not overly so due to the safety pin), shins will be perpendicular to the floor, and thighs will be parallel with the floor. Initiate the movement by pressing through your toes just enough so that you can remove the safety pin and then lightly grasp the handles, ensuring your chest stays up and spine stays neutral.

Extend your ankle until you feel a nice contraction in the soleus and hold for the desired duration before slowly lowering the heel and flexing the ankle so that its slightly lower than the safety pin height. Ensure you don’t bounce at the bottom of each repetition and that the apparatus is pressed height enough for the safety pin to engage once your complete the desired number of repetitions.

After completing the first two sets you’re going to want to place three weight plates of equal quantity on the apparatus. These may be 5s, 10s, 25s, or even 45s. After completing as many reps as possible with good form remove one weight plate, continue performing reps to technical failure, remove the second weight plate, and terminate the set once you can no longer perform reps with good form with the one weight plate remaining.

  • Smith Machine Standing Calf Raise – 3 sets of 60-second timed sets

The smith machine is an excellent tool for performing timed sets of standing calf raises because it has safety catches in the event you reach muscular failure and have to quickly rack the bar. Set up for the movement by placing a low box or step-up platform directly below and in-line with the Smith Machine bar. Set the bar height so that it’s one notch lower than shoulder-height and place an even amount of weight on either side.

Step up on the platform so that your midfoot and toes are in-contact with the platform and heels are hanging off the end. You may have to crunch down slightly to slide underneath the shoulder pads. Fully extend your knees and hips so that your heels are pointing towards the floor, spine is neutral, and bar is resting on your upper trapezius muscles (re: upper back). Maintain an even raising and lower tempo, ensuring you contract the calves hard at the top of the movement and allow a nice deep stretch at the bottom of the movement.

Aim to continuously perform repetitions for 60-seconds; while this may not seem like a lot on paper it will feel like an eternity after your calves are fatigued from the previous three exercises. Start with a very conservative weight here and progress by adding weight to the bar or performing more repetitions (using a reasonable rep tempo) in the 60-second window.

  • Dumbbell Reverse Calf Raise – 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps

The tibialis anterior is rarely isolated but when trained appropriately it can significantly improve posture, lower leg health, and stability during compound lower body exercises. Set a low box or step-up platform adjacent to a free-standing beam or facing but not touching a wall. Step on to the box or platform so that only your heels are in-contact and the toes and ball of your feet are hanging off the edge.

You may find yourself needing to gently hold on to the beam or wall with one hand to stabilize yourself. Select a dumbbell of conservative weight and hold it in the hand that’s not in-contact with the beam or wall. Slowly lower your toes until you feel a nice stretch in the front of the lower leg.

Hold this position for one to three seconds before pushing through your heels and pulling your toes towards your shins. At the top position your toes should be above-parallel. Hold this position for one to five seconds before lowering to the starting position. Keep your chest up, spine neutral, and torso is in-line with your hips throughout the entire movement.

Hang Clean

Advanced Calf Specialization Workout

  • Hang Power Clean – 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps

At this point in your training career you’ve hopefully been exposed to or are fairly competent in full or partial variations of Olympic movements. The hang power clean is an excellent movement for developing explosiveness, athleticism, training the triple extension (hips, knees, and calves), improving wrist flexibility, and building both the calf and upper back muscles. It’s also far less technical than the full clean.

With a hang variation of the power clean the bar will not descend below knee height – this further taxes the calves and upper back to complete the movement rather than the hips and posterior chain. Place an equal amount of weight on either side of the bar and take a clean-width double overhand (pronated) grip on the bar. A clean-width will be somewhere between your bench and deadlift grips.

Unrack the bar so that your chest is up, spine is neutral, and bar is resting on your mid-thigh. In controlled manner flex your knees and hips while staying on your heels to allow the barbell to slide down your thigh until it’s slightly above knee height. Without resting at this bottom position quickly change directions by simultaneously your hips, knees, and calves.

Pull your elbows towards the ceiling and quickly whip the upper arm underneath the bar so that the bar finishes and racks on the front delts. Do not let your hips dip below the quarter squat position during this explosive pull. Unrack the barbell from the shoulders, return to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of reps.

  • Dumbbell Single Leg Standing Calf Raise – 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps per leg

Set a low box or step-up platform adjacent to a free-standing beam or facing a wall. Grab a dumbbell with your left hand and step on to the box or platform so that only your toes and midfoot of your left leg are in-contact and the heels are hanging off the edge. Your right leg should not be in-contact with the platform and your right arm will be holding the beam or wall to stabilize you throughout the movement.

Hold the top position for one to three seconds and bottom position for three to five seconds to remove the stretch reflex and blast the gastrocnemius. Don’t allow the dumbbell to pull you to one side – Keep your chest up, spine neutral, and torso is in-line with your hips throughout the entire movement.

  • Plate-Loaded Donkey Calf Raise – 1 rest-pause set of 60 reps

The donkey calf raise was a quintessential exercise for bodybuilders during the Golden Era. The most infamous variation involves perform the donkey calf raise with a person sitting on your back. The plate-loaded variation is much less awkward, easier to track progression with, and does not require another person to perform.

Select a conservative working weight and set the initial hip/lower back height so that it’s snug but not uncomfortable at the bottom of the movement, when your knees are slightly flexed and heels are pointing towards the ground. As with all other non-reverse calf raise variations ensure only your toes and balls of your feet are on the platform. Press through your toes until your ankles are extended as much as comfortable and hold that position for the desired duration before slowly lowering to the starting position.

Grasp the support handles lightly through the movement and keep the spine neutral. If you feel discomfort or excessive strain on your hips and lower back, then terminate the set immediately. Aim to complete the 60 repetition in a minimum of three sets and maximum of six sets.

  • Smith Machine Seated Calf Raise – 3 sets of 75-second timed sets

Similar to the dumbbell variation of this movement outlined above you will need a flat bench and low box or step-up platform. Place an even amount of weight on either side and unrack the barbell so that it’s rest above your knee on your lower quadriceps. If the pressure is uncomfortable then you may place a towel or pad in between your thighs and the bar.

Your heels will be pointing slightly downwards, shins will be perpendicular to the floor, and thighs will be parallel with the floor in the start position. Initiate the movement by pressing through your toes just enough so that you can unrack the barbell from the hooks and then lightly grasp the barbell, ensuring your chest stays up and spine stays neutral.

Extend your ankle until you feel a nice contraction in the soleus and hold for the desired duration before slowly lowering the heel and flexing the ankle so that its slightly lower than the safety pin height. Perform each rep using a smooth and controlled tempo and carefully hook the barbell back in before dismounting. During the 75-second timed sets you should expect to perform between 12 and 20 repetitions depending on your rep tempo.

  • Reverse Calf Raise on 45 degree Leg Press – 3 sets of 20 to 25 reps

Place and equal amount of weight on either side of the apparatus and adjust the back support back support so that you can comfortably place your entire back on the support while also resting your butt on the bottom support pad.

Sit down, take a hip-width stance, and place the heels of your feet on the top of the leg press platform. Your toes and balls of your feet should not be in-contact with the platform. In the starting position of this movement your knees should be extended (but not hyperextended) and toes should be facing upwards and slightly towards you. You will likely have to unhook the platform from the safety pins so that you can achieve the desired stretch and range of motion.

Initiate the movement by pressing through your heels, pulling your toes towards your shins, pushing the platform away from you without allowing your back and butt to leave the support pads. Flex your tibialis anterior at the top of the movement for one to three seconds before lowering to the starting position. These are high-rep sets so be prepared for a serious burn and hypertrophy-inducing pump.

  • Jump Rope – 750 skips

As discussed above the jump rope is an excellent tool to build ankle strength, calf size, and aerobic capacity. At this point in your training career you should be knowledge of how to perform this exercise with proper form. The jump is an excellent finisher for pumping the calves with blood.

Perform 200 alternating-leg, 100 left-leg-only, 100 right-leg-only, 200 dual-leg, 100 high-knee alternating-leg, and 50 alternating-leg with as few rests and missed skips as possible. Progress by using a heavier jump rope, performing the skips in a shorter period of time, or adding skips.

Comment below to share your experience with these specialization workouts as well as any personal calf-building tips and tricks.

References

1) “Gastrocnemius.” ExRx (Exercise Prescription) on the Internet. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 July 2016.
2) “Soleus.” ExRx (Exercise Prescription) on the Internet. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 July 2016.
3) “Tibialis Anterior.” ExRx (Exercise Prescription) on the Internet. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 July 2016.
4) “Popliteus.” ExRx (Exercise Prescription) on the Internet. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 July 2016.

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Name: Nick Ludlow

Bio: When it comes to fitness I enjoy reading about historic weight lifters, non-conventional weightlifting approaches, nutritional protocols, and the science behind supplements.