Saturday, March 9, 2013

All about training the calves. By Vic Goyaram

All about training the Calves
Researched and Composed by Vic Goyaram

In the history of resistance training calves hold the presidential position of the least trained and perhaps the most inappropriately trained muscle.  Over the last couple of months, how much attention have you given to your calves compared to your arms and chest? We all wish to have 19" or 20" arms and find ways and means to go get them but how serious are we about developing calves? Calves top the neglect list for a variety of reasons: they are a pain in the you-know-where to train, they do not respond well to training in most people, they are pretty much covered most of the time except in summer (out of sight, out of mind) or you simply quit training them out of frustration about the absence of any noticeable progress. This article attempts to shed light on key aspects of calf training and development. We will address the genetic aspect of calf development, common calf training mistakes and provide some solutions.
Anatomy and genetics of calves

Calves are not only Gastrocnemius and Soleus 
The calves are very often anatomically described in most training articles as consisting of the soleus and the gastrocnemius. This is very incorrect as it fails to appraise calf muscles running in front of the tibia bone that has a lot of growth potential, contributes a lot to calf strength and the appearance and mass of the calves when looked from the front. These front calf muscles consists of the Peroneus, extensor digitorum with the tibialis anterior claiming the lion's share (Fig 1).  We will cover some exercises that hit the front calf muscles. 
Fig 1.: The anatomy of the calves. The calves are not made up
only of the soleus and gastrocnemius but also of front calf muscles
"Either you have them or you don't"
For no other body-part than calves does the saying "either you have them or you don't" hold true in bodybuilding.  Indeed, how your calves are built, their attachment and muscle fibre allocation are largely determined by genetics. Some people do not have much muscle cells to build on in the calves. One example is Dennis Wolf who has little muscle fibre allocation in his calves in comparison to Ben Pakulski (Fig 2).  In general, black Africans are less gifted in the calves department in the sense that they have very short calf muscles and long achilles tendon. Just compare the calves of Ronnie Coleman to that of Dorian Yates (Fig 3) and you will notice the massive difference in the length of the gastrocnemius. This "high calves curse" as it is sometimes called is an advantage as far as speed is concerned but a massive disadvantage when it comes to developing massive and full calves (Fig.4). Exceptions to this rule are guys like Chris Dickerson and Sergio Oliva who both owned massive pairs of calves.
Fig 2: Dennis Wolf (left) has both high calves and fewer muscle
fibres than Ben Pakulski (right) in his calves. 
Fig 3: Ronnie has high calves while Dorian has full calves that
attach very low.
Fig 4: Black Africans generally have high and
skinny calves, a massive advantage for sprinting.
Can we blame genetics alone for poor calves?
Bad genetics has too often taken the blame for poor calves but the problem in my opinion is that calves are inadequately trained. By inadequately I mean that calves either don't get enough training sessions or are not trained with the same intensity as arms and chest for example. This is indeed true as how many people do you see training calves in your gym everyday? Very few. The fact that most gyms are equipped with numerous benches and fewer squat racks and calf stations reflects this reality. 

Bad genetics is an important factor but I am sure that some of you have overcome bad arm or chest genetics with intense workouts to slap new mass onto your arms and chest. The same can be done for the calves. No matter what your genetics you can train hard to improve your calves.  You must strive to get your calves as big as your arms. For instance Steve Reeves (Fig 5) had both arms and calves stretching the tape at 17.5".  
Fig 5: Symmetrical development. Reeves' calves were the same
size as his legs. Trey Brewer's quads that are out of
proportion to his calves. 
How to attack the calves?
While most people are content with throwing a couple of sets of calf raises at the end of their leg workout we are here for some real progress. Training calves are indeed painful because of an abundance of nerve endings there but you must learn to love the excruciating pain.  In this section I will provide some essential pointers as well as a sample routine that has worked wonders for me. 

Pointer 1: Train with the right frequency and intensity
Calves have a very high recuperative power. The calves are designed to be really tough as they hold your bodyweight the whole day. You can train your arms until you are unable to move them. You can train your quads until you are unable to walk but no matter how hard you train your calves you will always be able to walk home. Calves are that tough and need to be trained accordingly. In my opinion, calves need to be trained more than once per week using different repetition ranges. I have seen that cycling the frequency allows for good progress, whereby you train calves 3 times for one week and then only twice the next week with probably a couple more sets. Always experiment.

Pointer 2: Nobody cares if you can calf raise 2000 lbs. 
People lifting excessive poundages for fast, bouncy quarter reps are a very common sight in gyms. This does nothing by way of stimulating the calf muscles. Nobody cares if you can calf raise 2000lbs on the leg press if you don't have the results to show for it. You need to develop calves that look like they can press 2000lbs, rather.  Each repetition should be performed in a slow controlled manner with a full range of motion.  Partial repetitions can  be used in exceptional cases and shouldn't be the norm. 

Pointer 3: The right speed and tempo
A good tempo is 1 second up, 3 seconds hold and 2 seconds down. This will ensure optimal time under tension. You must learn to feel each rep and not bounce up and down with reps that last only a fraction of a second.

Pointer 3: Variety in training
Calf exercises are more than just standing and seated calf raises. That's what people most commonly do. You can do calf exercises on a variety of equipment or with no equipment at all (more in the exercise description section below). Moreover, you can hit calves from a variety of rep ranges too, not just low reps for the gastrocnemius and high reps for the soleus. In the sample program that I will provide calves are trained with high, moderate and low reps using a program adapted from Neil Hill's Y3T program. Always bring the element of surprise in your calf training. What works for others may not necessarily work for you.

Pointer 4: Intensity techniques
Calves lend themselves very well to high intensity techniques like drop sets, supersets and static contractions. Whatever it takes to get them growing as long as you don't go overboard. 

Pointer 5: Barefoot or shoes?
Performing calf exercises barefoot may give you a better feel and better grip on the block.  If your gym does not allow barefoot training then make sure you use shoes that allow enough flexibility at the ball of the foot to allow you to perform your repetitions properly. Most training/ running shoes can do the job.

Pointer 6: Changing toe orientation?
It is a common practice to change toe orientation to try emphasize the inner and outer gastrocnemius muscles in calf raises. Remember that you cannot isolate the inner or outer gastrocnemius. There are two schools of thoughts on this one. We will deal with it in a more in-depth article in the future in which we will analyse the evidence for and against.  

The best calf exercises and performance pointers

Standing Calf raise & variations
These can be performed on a standing calf raise machine. When the knees are extended the gastrocnemius takes the load of the work. Therefore, the standing calf raise works the gastrocnemius more than the soleus. For reasons of stability and safety the standing calf raises are best performed in a Smith Machine or a Standing Calf raise machine.  Standing calf raises whole holding a dumbbell (Fig 6) are nice but not enough to overload the calves, in my opinion. Your forearms will most likely give up before you have done enough reps to tax the calves fully, even if you perform the exercise with one calf at a time.
Fig 6 : Eva Andressa paid her dues with standing smith machine
calf raises 
and enjoys the rewards. 
The knees must be kept stiff during the entire set and not move in order to reduce the involvement of the quads. Furthermore, do not forcefully lock out your knees when you are going heavy in order to minimise the risk of injury. 
Fig 7 : The Standing Calf raise machine works wonders
provided the machine design is right
Donkey calf raises
Donkey calf raises are great for working the gastrocnemius. If you gym has a machine for this exercise go ahead and use it. Otherwise you can have your buddies sit on your back. I am sure you have in mind the famous pictures of Arnold performing donkey raises with his friends on his back. 
Fig 8: Donkey calf raises can be performed with a machine

or better, with a sweetheart on your back

(Photo courtesy: Ironman magazine)
Calf raise on leg press machine
This is another personal favourite. I suggest to maintain a slight bend in the knees. You can use a vertical, horizontal or a 45 degree leg press machine for these. But be safe.
Fig 9 : Calf raise on the incline or vertical leg press
Reverse hack squat calf raises
This is probably my favourite exercise right now. Leaning against the back pad makes the movement comfortable. 
Fig 10: Reverse hack squat calf raises
(Photo courtesy: South African IFBB Pro Marius Dohne)
Seated calf raises
The seated calf raise works the soleus muscles to a greater degree. Indeed, the more bent your legs are the less involvement there is from the gastrocnemius and the more stress is born by the soleus. 
Fig 11 : Seated calf raises recruit the soleus muscles to a
greater degree (Photo courtesy:
Tibialis raise variations
Most calf training articles and programs do not make provision of the tibialis and front calf muscles.  In the standing Smith Machine tibialis raise the tibialis are targeted very well. Rest your heels on the block rather than your toes. Raise your toes to full contraction. Perform the movement slowly. Experiment to find your groove. A Smith machine is recommended for safety and stability reasons.
Fig 13 : Standing tibialis raise in the Smith machine
Sample calf specialisation routine
I decided to give my calves special attention about 3 months ago by training them three times a week using a program adapted from the Y3T system. I brought my calves from 16.4 to 17.3 inches (cold measurements). They are slightly in line with my arms (17.2", cold). I aim to bring the calves at 18' over the next year. The program is given below. 
Fig 14: My calves at 17.3"
Session 1: High reps
Calf raise on hack squat machine (reverse) 5 x 30 reps
Seated calf raise 5 x 30 reps

Session 2: Moderate range day
Calf raise on leg press machine 4 x 15-20 reps
Seated calf raise 4 x 15-20 reps

Session 3: Heavy day
Calf raise for gastroc (any equipment) 4 x 8-10 reps
Seated Calf raise 4 x 10-12 reps

Concluding thoughts
I hope the above has been of help. There will be more calf training articles coming dealing with muscle activation patters, a potential benefit of occlusion training and other special techniques. Feel free to drop us a comment or question in the box below. 

"A nice pair of calves looks sexy on a lady
So ladies, work your calves too!"
©,2013, Veeraj Goyaram, Bodybuilding Mauritius. Any reprinting in any type of media is prohibited.
Disclaimer: The Content on this site is intended to be used for educational and entertainment purposes only. It is not intended to be and should not be interpreted as medical advice or a diagnosis of any health or fitness problem, condition or disease; or a recommendation for a specific test, doctor, care provider, procedure, treatment plan, product, or course of action. BODYBUILDING MAURITIUS is not a medical or healthcare provider and your use of this site does not create a doctor / patient relationship. We disclaim all responsibility for the professional qualifications and licensing of, and services provided by, any physician or other health providers posting on or otherwise referred to on this Site and/or any Third Party Site. Never disregard the medical advice of your physician or health professional, or delay in seeking such advice, because of something you read on this Site. We offer this Site AS IS and without any warranties.  Correspondence:


  1. well great article. for one thing am sure about myself that am on the right track. thnxs for all ur updates.. gr8 job. :)

    1. Thanks a lot for your positive comments. Keep following our site on a regular basis for regular updates. Check our facebook page also if you are not already there: