Quads, hamstrings, glutes. Those are the usual suspects when you go about planning a comprehensive leg day. You’ll focus the biggest compound lifts of your routine on those muscles with your squats and deadlifts, and then hammer them even more with accessory movements. But if you’re only training those muscle groups, you may not be working through a complete lower body workout.
Don’t forget your calves. They’re easy to neglect in the gym, especially on serious leg days, because squats and other leg lifts will likely leave you tapped out and eager to get off your feet. But your calves are also a visual temperature gauge for how closely you’re paying attention to your leg training as a whole. The muscles serve as your lower body’s forearm, and especially when you’re rocking shorts or tapered pants, they’re hard to hide (or, if they’re on the smaller side, harder to make more noticeable).
And don’t forget how much your calves influence your performance when you go for a run, play pickup basketball, or hit the flag football field. They’re key drivers of your sprinting and leaping ability. If you totally disregard their development, you’re missing out on more than just gains–your abilities and pride in your game are on the line.
Calves take a lot of time and effort to strengthen and build. There’s no getting around it. But there is a way to build stronger calves. I’ll break it down for you right now.
Your Calf Muscle Anatomy Lesson
To some extent, you’re always training your calves when you train legs. When you look at your most popular leg moves (squats, lunges, deadlifts) it’s important to understand that they work from the ground up. In the same way you need your forearms to grip implements when you train pulling and pressing motions, you need assistance from your calves to create the base for your lower-body moves.
This means the most with regards to the musculature of the feet and the ankle complex. The ankle is made up of two joints, the talocrural joint and the subtalar joint. The talocrural joint is your upper ankle joint, driving both the flexing and extension of your foot. The subtalar joint lets you shift on the base of your feet toward the center or the outside. Both joints don’t just need strength in the surrounding muscles, but mobility, too.
The calf muscles have three main parts. The largest and outermost muscle is the gastrocnemius. When you think of the calves, this is the baseball-sized muscle. There are two heads to the muscle, the lateral head which sits on the outside of the lower leg and the medial head that sits on the inside of the leg. The two heads can both work together. The gastrocnemius oversees the pointing of your toes. Easy rule: When the heel is above the toes, and your muscle is being flexed, that’s the gastroc.
The soleus is the other muscle, and it has similar responsibilities, with one key difference. The gastroc attaches above the knee, and the soleus below the knee. So whenever the knee is bent, the soleus is doing the work. When the knee is straight, the gastroc is doing the heavy lifting.
Variety Is Everything for Calf Muscle Training
Because of the mobility of the ankle joint, foot positioning is a big key to how you’re training your calves. Small differences in positioning, from inversion to eversion or even just how you’re driving through the balls of your feet, will affect how you attack your calves.
To build three-dimensional calves, you need a multitude of approaches. That’s why hikers often have well-developed calves: They’re constantly working the concentric and eccentric contractions of those muscles from variable angles as they clamber over ledges, rocks and steps of different shapes and sizes. They’re also doing hundreds of reps at a time.
Varying rep schemes are also critical. Think of doing reps between 10 and 25, alternating between volume and strength days. That also means that you shouldn’t be afraid to load up the weight on those strength days, either.
Calf training isn’t all muscle moves, either. Plyometric movements are how athletes set themselves apart in competition.
The force you can produce using your calves might be the difference in your strength, your power, and your overall athletic ability. It also means the best calf exercises and workouts won’t just be mere muscle-building moves.
Your Moves for Better Calves
Pick two or three of these calf exercises to do three or four times a week. Do three sets of each.
Remember: Your calves are used to high-volume work (think of how much they support you when walking all day), so they can be trained at greater frequency.
The top move when it comes to calf work. Either set up in a Smith machine, with the weight on your shoulders and the balls of your feet on a slightly elevated platform. Tighten your core and glutes and keep your knees straight. Lower your feet until your heels nearly hit the ground, then press back up, trying to point your toes. That’s 1 rep; aim for 10 to 25 reps depending on the day.
These are great for working through progressive resistance and using resistance band.
Sit down with your legs straight out in front of you, one end of a looped resistance band around the balls of your feet, the other gripped in your hands, band taut. Bend at the ankle to press the resistance band away, pause and flex your calves, then return to the start position. That’s 1 rep; aim for 10 to 25 reps depending on the day.
Plyos are a great way to train the calves with respect to the ankle complex, and you’ll do that here. Set up with one foot on a box or bench. Explosively drive off that foot, jumping upwards off the bench; try to switch feet as you come down. Repeat on the other side. That’s 1 rep; aim for 10 to 25 reps depending on the day.
Isometrics are a great test for both your calves and your ankle mobility.
Stand with the balls of your feet on a block a few inches off the ground, holding onto something for support, but keeping the majority of your weight in the balls of your feet. Straighten your ankles as much as possible, flexing your calves. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Do 3 to 4 30-to-60-second sets.
This one’s all about plyometrics and explosion, and it’s as simple as it sounds.
Simply bend your knees and waist ever-so-slightly. Then jump up and down focusing on quick, small hops. Work to land and then take off quickly. Do reps continuously for 30 to 60 seconds. Do 3 to 4 sets.
Same idea as the bunny hop here: You’re moving quickly on your toes and jumping, a practical use of your calves. Aim to jump rope for 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off, for at least five minutes to start.
Once you get the hang of it, try other workout variations–just stay on your toes. Bonus: You’ll elevate your heart rate, too.
The speed ladder is as much about speed and agility as it is your calves. You can work through a variety of speed ladder drills, everything from running through the ladder boxes one at a time with each foot to hopping through them, to more complicated drills like the Ickey shuffle. Do 3 to 4 sets of each.
Yes, a stair run is one of the best way to train your calves, forcing you to flex and extend your foot constantly and repeatedly. Remember those hikers.
Don’t skip steps, though–this is different than running stairs to build up your cardio endurance. Aim to place a foot on each stair and run on the balls of your feet. Think of doing 20-second sets (depending on how many rows you have wherever you’re able to run stairs). Aim for 3 to 4 sets to start.
Much like stair runs, sprints will hone your calves by forcing you to repeatedly go through a full calf range of motion.
Think of running five to six 50 or 100-yard sprints to start. Aim to be as explosive as possible, and get plenty of rest between rounds.
Hill runs won’t just smoke your calves; they’ll crush your hamstrings, glutes, and quads, too.
Think of doing 20-second dashes up the hill, then walking or jogging back down to start; repeat this 5 or 6 times.