But before I do so, let’s first have a look at the anatomy of the calves.
The calves actually consists of two different muscles: the gastrocnemius muscle, or gastroc for short, and the soleus muscle.
The gastroc has two heads - the medial or inner head, and the lateral or outer head. The gastroc attaches to the femor and through the achilles tendon to the heel bone. As such, the gastroc crosses two joints, namely the knee and the ankle. And because of its biarticular nature, the gastroc has two functions. The primary function of the gastroc is plantar flexion, meaning to point your toes down. But because the gastroc also crosses the knee joint, its other function is knee flexion, or bending the knee. As a result, the gastroc is also active during squats and leg curls, for example, or any other exercise where you bend your knees. However, the gastroc activation from these exercises is small, which is why you should still train your calves separately.
As a side note, if you want to remove the gastroc from the equation when doing leg curls, simply extend your foot as if you were walking on your toes. Because the gastroc is now shortened at the ankle, its capacity to further shorten and bend the knee is limited.
But enough about leg curls, let’s talk about the other calf muscle, the soleus, instead. The soleus muscle sits underneath the gastroc and is actually the bigger muscle of the two. It has only one head, which is attached to the tibia just below the knee joint, and it attaches to the heel bone via the achilles tendon. Thus, the soleus only crosses one joint, the ankle. Consequently, the sole function of the soleus muscle is plantar flexion, and it has no action at the knee at all.
Knowing about the anatomy and the function of these two muscles, we can infer which exercise is the best for training the calves: Heel raises. Or more commonly called, calf raises.
In fact, calf raises and their variations are the single most effective exercise for growing your calves. And although both the gastroc and the soleus are active during any calf raise variation, we can place a greater emphasis on either of the two by varying the knee angle.
To put greater emphasis on the gastroc, any standing calf raise variation with fully extended, straight knees will do. If your gym has it, then I would recommend using the calf raise machine. However, many gyms (including mine) don’t have this piece of equipment. In that case, you can also do straight-legged calf raises on the leg press. Alternatively, you can also do them with the smith machine or with free weights.
In contrast, calf raises with your knees bent at a 90 deg angle target the soleus muscle really well. That’s because the bent knees already shorten the gastroc to some extent, thereby limiting how much further it can contract. Basically, doing calf raises in a seated position more or less disables the gastroc, which means that the soleus has to work harder. Again, if your gym has a dedicated seated calf raise machine, I would use it. But if it doesn’t, sitting on a bench and putting some weight plates or dumbbells on your legs works just as fine.
And while these two exercises, the standing calf raises and the seated calf raises, seem fairly easy, there are some things you need to consider for optimal muscle growth.
When setting up for either of these calf raise variations, you want to place your feet on an elevated platform. The calf raise machines already have such a platform built into them. But if you don’t have access to those machines, you can stand on a stack of weight plates or an aerobic stepper. Doing the calf raises on an elevated platform allows you to go through a full range of motion: You can fully contract your calves at the top, and you can also get into a good stretch at the bottom of the movement.
So once you have your elevated platform and your weights ready, step onto the platform such that the balls of your feet are on the weights stack or the stepper, and the heels are suspended in the air. Personally, I place my feet parallel to each other with my toes pointing straight ahead. But depending on your anatomy, you might want to choose a slightly different foot position.
Because as it turns out, foot positioning doesn’t play a role for calf growth. Some early research suggested that internally rotating your leg would target the outer head of the gastroc more, while external rotation would put greater emphasis on the inner head of the gastroc. However, more recent studies failed to reproduce these findings. Meaning that it probably doesn’t matter at all whether you have your feet in a neutral, internally or externally rotated position. And it makes sense, because internal or external rotation mostly comes from your hips. And since neither the gastroc nor the soleus cross the hip joint, rotation in the hip shouldn’t influence the biomechanics of the calf muscles. Therefore, place your feet however feels most comfortable to you.
So once you are on the platform and found your ideal foot positioning, you can begin with the exercise itself:
Now that you know which exercises are best for training your calves and how to do them with good technique, how should you incorporate calf exercises into your workout routine?
If you haven’t already, I would train calves at the end of each leg day, ideally 1-2x per week.
For example, you could do seated calf raises on your first leg day, and single-leg standing calf raises on your second leg day. Personally, I like to include single-leg variations into my own training to prevent asymmetries and imbalances. But if you prefer a regular standing calf raise, that’s fine as well.
Because the soleus and gastroc have a very large proportion of type 1 (or slow twitch) fibres, your calves aren’t that easy to fatigue. This is why they profit from higher rep ranges.
For example, you could do 3 sets of 12-20 reps of a seated calf raise variation on your first leg day. And on your second leg day, you could do 2 sets of 10-15 reps per leg of a single-leg standing calf raise variation.
No matter your exercise selection and chosen rep range, always make sure to put technique first and go through a full range of motion. A bit of cheating towards the end of the set is okay if it helps you squeeze out some additional reps. But the majority of your reps should be done with good form and in a controlled manner.
Once you are confident with your technique, it’s time to focus on intensity and progressive overload. Since the calves are a relatively small muscle group and are able to recover quite quickly, I would train to failure, or at least very close to failure, on each set. Personally, I find it easiest to go all the way to failure on each set, especially because I’m doing only 2-3 sets for the calves (*per workout) anyway. But if you want to leave one or two reps in the tank, then that’s fine as well. I further recommend taking between one and two minutes of rest between sets, so your calves have time to recover. And if you find it’s becoming too easy, you can add more reps or more weight over time, in order to keep it sufficiently challenging.
But, that was it for today guys, my best exercises and training principles for growing your calves. I hope you liked it! And let me know if you still have questions :)
Nina is a virologist, aspiring bodybuilder and science communicator.
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