How to Get Big Calves: The Intermediate’s Guide
Okay, so you’ve pretty much figured out how to gain muscle on your upper body, quads and hams but what about those two underpins called calves? How are they stacking up in proportion to the rest of your body? Do you look like a candy apple? How about a team mascot with no pants?
Calves are the one muscle group that you either love or hate. As most of you hate them (or you wouldn’t be reading this) my bet is that you blame genetics. The infamous “G” word is safe harbor for those of us who lack the ability to grow our calves to any appreciable level.
Related: The Calves Workout That Can’t Fail
Calf training isn’t fun. It’s mostly not that enjoyable. When’s the last time you finished a set of standing calf raises and fist-bumped your buddies about what a great set it was? Well, as I see it you have two options: You can either wear pants for the rest of your life everywhere you go or you can do something about those lower leg pencils.
MTS Nutrition CEO Marc Lobliner discusses how to build bigger calves.
The argument for bigger calves
When building your physique you crave balance. You want to create a proportionate, symmetrical structure that not only impresses others but makes you feel complete and accomplished. When it comes to building bigger calves there really is no argument. Everyone wants them.
It goes without saying that you want bigger calves. I truly believe anyone can grow better calves. They may not inflate to the proportions of gargantuan size but you can improve on what you have to the extent of coming closer to a well-rounded physique – a physique that doesn’t elicit snickers and stares for all of the wrong reasons.
The first step is to get over the dreaded “G” word – genetics. That issue can be argued over and over again, but for the sake of moving forward let’s simply accept that you have been dealt the wrong cards. Okay, now let’s figure out ways to improve on what you have and never mention that word again.
The real story behind bigger calves
What is your current calf workout like? A few sets of standing or seated calf raises done at about the intensity of second gear? Do you throw them in at the end of a leg day attempting to keep your legs straight on top of a shaky foundation which just finished war with squats and other brutal upper leg exercises? Much like the infamous red-headed step child (sorry red heads) your calves get little attention. You need a new outlook on how and when to train them to reap any reward.
For the purposes of revamping your attack you will be significantly shifting your frequency and technique. You will be training them more often and paying strict attention to form, function and angles of the calf’s working mechanics. But first let’s look at a few categories calves can be split into so you have a better understanding about constructing an effective plan.
Your calf arsenal
The following is a short list of categories of the different types of calf exercises. Although this isn’t an exhaustive list it does break down the types and their subsequent movement variations.
Straight leg calf raises: Whether it’s performed on a standing calf raise machine, Smith machine or any type of leg press the straight leg variety primarily works the two-headed heart-shaped muscle called the gastrocnemius. The muscle is what gives the calves their shape – big, bulging muscle bellies of the lower leg. This is achieved by putting them in their strongest position possible which is as straight as possible at the knee.
Bent leg calf raises: Bent leg calf raises, such as those achieved with the seated version, works mainly the soleus muscle of the calf – that long, flat and wide muscle that underlies the gastrocnemius. This muscle gives the calf its wide and thick look. Seen as the unsung hero, underdeveloped soleus muscles will make your calf look narrow and on the thin side. Be sure to avoid bouncing on any seated exercise and stay extremely strict on all reps.
Unilateral raises: Also known as single-limbed exercises, unilateral calf raises, for example, will quickly let you know which side is deficient and lacks strength. Another great benefit of single-leg calf raises is the fact that you more precisely activate each lower leg more effectively than with bilateral lifts such as traditional standing calf raises. Start with your bodyweight and then when it’s time to progress add a minimal amount of weight such as a ten-pound dumbbell.
Compound presses: Compound exercises, meaning multi-joint in nature, are tough to come by in the world of single-joint calf work, but there is a technique to load up the weight and use other muscles for assistance. For example, the leg press/sled calf raise can be performed by bending slightly at the knees on the descent and then having your thighs assist on the contraction of the calves on the way up. Some will think you’re cheating the weight up (plus you should perform all of your calf exercises in this manner) but this is a highly effective way to overload your calves.
Plyometric exercises: Lastly most gym-goers don’t think of plyometric exercises as effective calf builders but they have the possibility of being a game changer. Explosive loads on the calves are a completely different mode of exercise versus the normal cadence of slow and controlled stretches and contractions of the calves at a very methodical pace. Have you ever seen the calves of a sprinter? They practice plyometric style training every, single day.
Angles of attack
Now that you have a better understanding of what’s at your disposal, let’s break down several facets of calf training as it relates to angles of stress.
Traditional mass builders: These are the big, heavy-loaded exercises that move the most amount of weight possible. Compound presses and standing calf raises are good choices. You can also add any plyometric calf exercises here although no external load is applied.
Stretch angles: These angles place the calves in the best stretch position. This is achieved by angling the upper body to the lower body such as with leg press calf raises, donkey calf raises or any other machine where you are bent over and placing a stretch on the calf.
Contraction angles: of course with all calf exercises you have the opportunity to fully and effectively contract the muscle, but you want optimal contraction. Go with seated calf raises with a two or three second count at the top position. Avoid bouncing at all costs.
High or low reps?
The debate over high reps or low reps for calves will be debated for years to come. It seems there’s a new study backing up each school of thought every day. The universal truth is that muscular failure must be met no matter which rep range you choose.
You must experiment with what works for you. Everyone has different fiber make up in their calves so some will benefit from heavier loads while others will do better with longer times under tension as with higher reps.
The single biggest difference you can make in your calf training is manipulating frequency. If you’re one to only train calves on a leg day then you might be stimulating growth only once per week.
Increasing frequency spurs protein synthesis, recovery and rebuilding more often giving you more opportunity for growth. Think about it – as opposed to once per week training, simply increasing it to twice per week doubles the stimulus for growth. Try training calves twice, three times or even four times per week.
The calf workouts
Below are three uniquely different calf routines built for any training situation. One for the traditional gym-goer, one for the home trainer and the last is for bodyweight only enthusiasts. Use one, two or all three for each calf session and get ready for new growth.
Perform three sets of 10 to 20 reps of each exercise. Rest 30 to 45 seconds between sets.
Gym calf workout
- Standing calf raise
- Leg press calf raise
- Seated calf raise
Home gym calf workout
- Calf jump
- Single-leg dumbbell calf raise
- Floor raise with dumbbells
Bodyweight calf workout
- Single-leg bodyweight calf raise
- Calf jump
- Double leg calf raise off floor