When it comes to calves, you’ve always heard that either you have them or you don’t, right? Many believe that genetics alone determine whether or not you have good calves.
While genetics certainly does play the biggest role in calves’ development, maximizing your development of the lower legs is possible through proper selection and performance of the right exercises along with a proper nutrition and recovery regimen.
Calves are one of the most stubborn muscle groups in the body to grow, but if you can stick to what we are going to cover in this article, you will most certainly grow your calves bigger than ever.
In this article, we are going to cover:
- The anatomy of the calves and what their function is.
- Why calves are so stubborn and the best training approaches.
- How to progressively overload the calves.
- The best exercises for growing your calves.
- Workouts you can implement to increase growth.
- Supplements to help speed up recovery and growth.
Anatomy and Function of the Calves
Before I explain what the anatomy and function of the calves are, I want to touch on why looking at their anatomy is so important.
If you understand the anatomy and function of a muscle, such as where their origin and insertion are or which joints they cross, or even which types of muscle fibers primarily make up the muscle, this lends a load of information on how to effectively train the muscle.
Unless you have large, striated calves, on the surface they appear as one muscle group. There are actually three “heads” of the calves.
Ottinger (2023) “says the calf muscles are collectively known as the triceps surae…the two main muscles involved are the Soleus and the Gastrocnemius.”
To break that down further, the muscle you actually see when you look at your calves is the gastrocnemius, and it divides into the lateral and medial heads.
Laying under the Gastrocnemius is the soleus. That is where the three-head reference comes from. One of the big differences between the two muscles is their origin. The Soleus originates from the back of the Tibia (shin bone) and inserts into the Achilles tendon.
The Gastrocnemius originates from the Femur (thigh bone) and inserts into the Achilles tendon. While both muscles act on the ankle joint, only the Gastrocnemius crosses both ankle and knee joints.
Now that you know the anatomy of your calves, let’s talk about what they actually do. The calves are one of the most active muscles in your body. Everything you do when you are standing (such as walking, running, and balancing) involves your calves. Since both muscles are acting on the ankle joint, the primary function is plantar flexion, which means pointing your toes. The calves are also undergoing activity when you dorsiflex, which is the “backward bending and contracting of your foot” (Morrison, 2017). An easier way of picturing this is to think of bringing your knees over your toes. Moreover, this action is actually a stretching of the muscles. Finally, your calves are also slightly involved in eversion (turning your foot outwards) and inversion (turning your foot inwards).
Why Calves Are So Stubborn And Best Training Approaches
Remember the previous section where I talked about the importance of calves in just about everything you do when you’re on your feet? That is the primary reason that they are so hard to grow.
Since your calves are so involved with everything, this makes them one of the most efficient muscles in the body at performing their actions. Your body does not see this everyday movement as a stressor that forces your body to adapt. Another example of this phenomenon would be your jaw muscles. They’re not getting bigger every day by chewing food, and that is because they have grown efficient at performing their actions.
This leads me to the next point, which concerns the approaches you can take during your training to maximize the effectiveness of the exercises mentioned below.
Since calves receive so much activity, one of the best ways to grow them is by increasing the frequency with which you train them. John Meadows, IFBB Pro, says to “train your calves 4-5 times a week.” You can do this because your calves are mostly slow twitch fibers. These slow twitch fibers are more geared for longer endurance exercises and are more resistant to fatigue than fast twitch fibers. This means they are not going to get as sore as muscles made up primarily of fast twitch fibers. On the other hand, this means that your typical 6-12 rep range exercise is not going to be as beneficial as going higher into the 15-25 rep range. The good news about calf training is there are only so many exercises you can do to isolate this area, which makes it easy to throw one exercise in for 2-3 good sets at the end of any workout.
The second approach I would consider is to pause at the bottom (feeling a deep stretch) of each calf exercise. Going back to your anatomy, the Achilles tendon is awesome at storing energy and releasing it quickly. “Pausing your end ranges of motion on any calf raise will limit the elastic rebound of the Achilles and force your calf muscle to do more work” (Coates, 2020). This means you don’t want to be bouncing up and down during calf raises.
The third approach that you can add to your workout is toe position. The inner, or medial, head of the gastrocnemius is the harder of the two to activate, along with being the head that makes up the bulk of the visible muscle. “FPO (foot pointed outward) may induce greater gains in MT (muscle thickness) of the medial gastrocnemius head, whereas positioning FPI (foot pointed inward) seems to be better suited for increasing the lateral gastrocnemius head,” (Nunes, et al., 2020).
So, what does this mean? During standing calf exercises, to bias more of the medial head, turn your toes outward and to bias the lateral head, turn your toes inward. Doing them in a neutral position will hit both heads almost evenly.
The last approach that I would like to cover is going to be the difference between seated and standing calf raises. During standing calf raises, the gastrocnemius will be the most active muscle. During seated exercises, the soleus will be the prime muscle for plantar flexing of the ankle. This is because when you flex your knee, it significantly reduces the activation of the gastrocnemius as this muscle also crosses the knee joint. As I mentioned before, the soleus is not visible when you look at your calf. Doing more seated calf raises will contribute to the thickness of the calves. I suggest evenly switching between seated and standing to equally increase the size and thickness of your lower legs.
Just like any other muscle that you train, using progressive overload is still going to be the best approach to increasing the size of your calves. “Progressive overload is when you gradually increase the weight, frequency, or number of repetitions in your training routine,” (Chertoff, 2020).
By making these small changes to your workouts, you are forcing your body to continue to adapt or grow bigger. Some ideas you can throw in for your workout if you aren’t already doing them, are adding in some advanced training techniques such as supersets, cluster-sets, drop sets, or rest-pause sets. Taking a muscle beyond failure is an optimal way to increase the demand on your muscles, forcing an adaptation.
In my own experience, I see many individuals rushing through a set (bouncing up and down). Increasing the duration of the set by slowing the eccentric and pausing at the bottom is another easy example of progressive overload. As stated before, this also makes your calves work harder leading to faster size gains.
The Best Calf Exercises
The Standing Calf Raise
When you think of exercising your calves, this is probably the first exercise that comes to mind. This is because of the excellent isolation of the lower leg. You can do standing calf raises with a barbell, smith machine, dumbbells, standing calf raise machine, and even on an incline to increase the range of motion of the exercise.
The barbell or smith machine is going to be the easiest way to put the most amount of load on the calves. To perform this exercise, get under the bar like you would a squat or grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them at your side. Then, simply press your toes into the ground bringing you off the floor, and squeeze at the top for at least a second. Next, lower yourself down slowly (2-3 seconds) and hold at the bottom for a few seconds. Repeat for anywhere between 15-25 reps. If you feel like there are some imbalances between your calves, you can do these as single leg as well. To add an extra degree, as I mentioned before, use an aerobics step or a thick bumper plate to increase the range of motion.
The Seated Calf Raise
To hit more of the soleus and increase the thickness of your calves, this is the most beneficial exercise. The easiest way to perform this exercise is to use the seated calf raise machine. You can also put an aerobics step or bumper plate on the ground, sit on the edge of a bench and use the incline provided by those while holding a dumbbell or plate on your thighs. Again, push your toes into the ground and squeeze at the top for a few seconds, then control the weight back down and feel a stretch at the bottom for a few seconds.
The Farmers Walk (On Your Toes)
This is an awesome full-body exercise that is actually beneficial for your calves as well. To focus on the calves, perform this movement while on your toes. You can use dumbbells, a barbell, or a trap bar for this exercise. Load the desired weight on the bar or grab a pair of dumbbells and walk on your toes for 30 seconds to a minute. Besides helping with calf strength and size, this will also help with your balance tremendously.
The Jump Rope
You can improve the size and strength of your calves without lifting any weight at all. Simply using your body as a weight, grab a jump rope and jump without bending your knees. This will place all the action onto the ankle. Imagine pushing the balls of your feet into the ground each time you jump. This will help you spring off the ground. You can also do this exercise without the jump rope. Plyometrics (jump training) is an awesome tool for increasing the power, size, and coordination of your lower body. Shoot for 1-2 sets of jumping until failure.
The Leg Press Calf Raise
This exercise is another easy way to hit the Gastrocnemius and put more of a load on them as well. This method also allows you to change your foot placement to bias more of the lateral or medial head of the Gastrocnemius. To perform this exercise, add some weight onto a leg press machine, place the balls of your feet onto the bottom, let the weight push your feet towards you to feel a stretch, then push the weight away from you squeezing at the top for a few seconds. Control the weight back down until you feel a stretch and then repeat.
The Weighted Box Jump
If you want to focus more on the power of the lower legs, jumping with some weight is an easy way to do that. I would say this exercise isn’t the greatest at building specifically the calves, but this movement translates very well to other exercises by increasing strength and power. If you can move more weight on other exercises, then you will increase the chance for hypertrophy. This is also just an awesome lower-body exercise for coordination, balance, and speed. To perform this exercise, grab a box and set it up so it is 8-12 inches off the ground. Grab a dumbbell or plate and jump onto the box. Do not go to failure on this. You should leave at least 5 reps in the tank as a failure on this exercise could result in injury.
The Seated or Lying Hamstring Curl
You are probably thinking, the exercise says hamstring curl. You are right! Did you know this exercise also works the calves as well? “The most helpful tip to work your calves to a greater extent during the seated leg curl is called dorsiflexion…which means to bend the ankle upwards,” (Chou, par. 4). This allows for a greater stretch on the gastrocnemius. Try to squeeze your calves the whole time along with using your hamstrings and I guarantee you will feel this in your lower leg! While this should not be the primary exercise for calf growth, this can definitely be an awesome secondary exercise to add more demand to the muscle.
Working the calves is not as hard as it seems. To optimally train the calves, pick 3-4 exercises from the ones listed above, and do two exercises at the end of one workout and two exercises and the end of the other.
For the traditional calf exercises (standing and seated calf raises or leg press) shoot for 2-3 sets of 15-25 reps. That may seem like a lot, but remember your calves take a significantly more amount of volume to grow than other muscles in your body and they generally recover much faster as well. If you feel like that amount of volume is fine, then add more to the end of a third workout. Frequency is key with calves. I generally would recommend taking at least 2 days off a week, so this leaves you room to go up to 4-5 days a week for calf training if your body can handle it. Listen to your body and don’t train if you are sore. Tight and sore are two different things.
A sample calf workout would look like this:
- Standing Smith Machine Calf Raise with an Incline: 3 sets of 20 reps.
- Seated Calf Raise: 2 sets of 15 reps with a drop set on the last set.
- Leg Press Calf Press: 3 sets of 25 reps
- Farmers Walk on Toes: 3 sets until failure or 1-2 minutes.
- Standing Calf Raise Machine: 3 sets of 15 with a drop set on the last set.
- Jump Rope: 3 sets until failure.
Supplements to Improve Recovery and Increase Calf Growth
Your muscles store creatine as phosphocreatine, which is then used in ATP production. Without taking creatine, your phosphocreatine stores will never be full. Once they are full from the supplementation of creatine, your muscles will have more ATP, or energy, to use and will also replenish that ATP quicker between sets. This means you will be more explosive, get out a few more reps than normal, and also recover quicker.
This is the number one natural supplement that helps with muscle growth. When choosing creatine, opt for either a monohydrate or hydrochloride creatine as these are the most studied forms. Monohydrate holds a little more water in your muscles and sometimes can cause stomach upset. If that happens, switch to hydrochloride. With monohydrate, shoot for 20 grams/day for the first week, then 5 grams/day afterward. Every day you can take one serving of hydrochloride, usually between 750mg and 1.5 grams.
If you are not getting enough protein in your diet, then you physically will not be able to build muscle. If you are unable to get 1 gram per pound of body weight through food, then opting for a whey protein supplement can be an easy, convenient, and cost-effective method for supplementing protein in your diet. If you are lactose intolerant, look for an animal-based protein or a vegan option.
Essential Amino Acids (EAA’s)
You can sip these throughout your workout to drastically improve recovery and reduce fatigue during your workout. EAA’s help stimulate protein synthesis and aid in the process of rebuilding your muscles. Most will have electrolytes in them as well to aid in hydration throughout your workout. These are especially beneficial if you are struggling to hit your daily protein intake.
Omega 3’s or Fish Oils
The American diet is lacks these triglycerides. Supplementing can help with joint health, heart health, cholesterol and blood pressure, inflammation, hormone health, and more! If you are unable to eat foods that are high in omega 3’s (salmon, mackerel, sardines, oysters, herring) then supplementing is an easy way to fill those gaps.
A good pre-workout can help with intensity and endurance during the workout, which will over time help to increase muscle. Logically, if you are able to work out harder and place more demand on the muscle than you normally would, then this would help growth happen faster.
In conclusion, you can grow your calves! To sum up this article:
- Train your calves with frequency. Calves need more volume than other muscles in your body. You should be aiming for 2-5 direct calf workouts per week. In addition to more volume, calves need a higher rep range for best results. Shoot for the 15-25 rep range when doing direct calf work.
- Take the Achilles out of the equation. Pause at the bottom of each exercise to feel a stretch for a few seconds before the concentric portion of the exercise. No more bouncing up and down to get through the workout.
- You must progressively overload the calves, just like any other muscle, to see optimal growth. Add in some advanced training techniques, increase the duration of the exercise, increase the weight, and increase the repetitions.
- Include a seated and standing variation to target the soleus and the gastrocnemius accordingly. Remember, seated will hit the Soleus and standing will hit the Gastrocnemius. Be sure to consider toe position during standing exercises. Point your toes outward to hit the medial head and inwards to hit the lateral head of the Gastrocnemius.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best calf exercise for mass?
The best calf exercise for mass would be one that focuses on the Gastrocnemius, such as the standing calf raise variations, and one that focuses on the Soleus, such as the seated calf raise.
Can I grow my calves if I have bad genetics?
Yes. While genetics do mostly determine how big your calves can get, proper training, nutrition, and recovery can help grow your calves to the biggest they can be for your body.
Can men and women do the same calf exercises?
Yes. The anatomy of the calves is the same for men and women. This means both can perform the same exercises and rep ranges.
How often should I train my calves?
You should train calves more frequently than other body parts. I would try to hit your calves 2-5 times per week depending on how well you recover. Remember to take at least two full rest days.
I have really tight calves that prevent me from the full range of motion, how do I train them?
Before performing the exercises, foam roll for about a minute on each calf. Then perform a standing calf stretch for 30-45 seconds. This should help with mobility and range of motion. Doing this often will have more benefits.
- Ottinger, Charlie. “Calf Training 101.” The Muscle PhD, 13 Mar. 2020, www.themusclephd.com/calf-training-101/
- Nunes, João Pedro & Costa, Daniella & Kassiano, Witalo & Kunevaliki, Gabriel & de Castro e Souza, Pâmela & Rodacki, Andre & Fortes, Leonardo & Cyrino, Edilson. (2020). Different Foot Positioning During Calf Training to Induce Portion-Specific Gastrocnemius Muscle Hypertrophy. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 34. 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003674.
- Cronkleton, Emily. “Dorsiflexion: Ankle, Foot, Muscles, and More.” Healthline, 14 july 2017, www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/dorsiflexion#:~:text=What%20is%20dorsiflexion%3F.
- Meadows, John. “Train Your Calves Every Day.” T NATION, 12 Nov. 2013, www.t-nation.com/training/train-your-calves-every-day/
- Chertoff, Jane. “Progressive Overload: What It Is, Examples, and Tips.” Healthline, 30 July 2020, www.healthline.com/health/progressive-overload
- Coates, Andrew. “Tip: The Calf Exercise That Gym Bros Screw Up.” T NATION, 26 Aug. 2020, www.t-nation.com/training/tip-the-calf-exercise-that-gym-bros-screw-up/
Sam Lipscomb has been an avid health and fitness enthusiast for over 6 years now. He is a Certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist who has spent years learning about health, nutrition, fitness, the human body, and supplements in order to better help the individuals he interacts with.
His goal has been to learn everything he can to help others achieve their fitness goals and get accurate fitness information.