The trouble with calves is that
they've had a lot of bad press.
For decades, generations of
muscle writers have been telling us
how difficult the calves are to develop.
There's been so much negative
propaganda about calf development
that lots of people don't even try-they
are beaten before they begin. At best
many only make a half-hearted effort in
Stubborn is the most overworked
adjective in many of these calf articles.
Yes, calves, compared with some other
muscle groups, may be hard to
develop, but that doesn't mean that
they are impossible to build. Calf
development is something that should,
like any other aspect of weight
training, be tackled intelligently. Do
this and you'll reap rewards.
Given that calf development can be
tough going, let's look for a moment at
the other end of the scale. The muscles of
the neck are amongst the easiest to
develop. The reason for this is that they
are seldom, in normal everyday life,
given any real work-i.e., work against
resistance. Once the neck is subjected to
resistance work, it rapidly blossoms.
The calves, on the other hand, have
been severely caned from the day you
learned to walk. They are used to
operating against resistance through
walking, running, climbing stairs, etc.
Now, in the case of the genetically well
blessed few, this natural or incidental (if
you will) exercise is enough to promote
reasonable growth. These lucky folk, if
they start training, usually find no special
difficulty in adding an inch or two on their calves. In the case of Mr. Average,
however, things may be very different.
The main calf muscle is the
gastrocnemius. The gastro is the muscle
we usually think about when considering
the calves-it's the prime mover in the
heel raise movement. It's the gastro that's
responsible for that beautiful, but elusive
diamond shape, seen only in the best developed
Calf Development And Calf Potential
Are affected by and dependent on various
- Overall bulk and in
particular thigh size:
Calf size is normally relative to, and to an
extent dependent on, overall bodyweight
and general bulk. You can't expect a
decent-sized calf if you're lacking in
thigh bulk. After all, the thighs are the
"roots" of the lower limbs. Yes, I know
that there are guys with big thighs and
poor calves, but we're coming to that.
The point I want to make here is that you
won't see a 17-inch calf backed up by a
thigh that measures a mere 22 inches. It's
a law of Nature-big branches, like big
trees, have big roots.
There's a sub-division which has
great bearing on the bulk and size factor,
and that's bone size and thickness. More
on this later, but for now remember that,
like your leverages, bones are
- Attachments/leverages and
This is just another way of saying
genetics. In other words, it's what you
were born with and what you have to
make the most of. The ideal calf is long,
low and full-bellied.
People with this type of configuration have got it made. Lots of
people, however, have a shorter, higher
calf which gives an appearance of long
ankles. If you fall into this latter category
you can still increase your calf girth, but
you can't alter muscle lengths or
attachments; so again, you just have to
make the most of what you've got.
- Racial and hereditary characteristics:
It may sound a bit strong, but it's an
anthropological fact that people of
different ethnic, racial or geographical
groups have varying and distinctive
physical characteristics. Black people
often have the high calf muscle together
with that long-ankle look mentioned
earlier. The heel bone often protrudes
more than in their white counterparts.
Yet again, it's a matter of making the
most of what Nature has provided. The
large number of black bodybuilders
(many of whom have had to contend with
this genetic handicap in the calves) who
make it big in world class events is proof
of what can be done in this direction.
While considering competitive
bodybuilding, think of the large number
of men, black and white, who never quite
take top honors due to their calf
development never quite matching up to
their other bodyparts due to genetic or
hereditary limitations in this area.
- Bone girth and calf size
The heavier the bone structure in the
lower leg, the greater the potential for
calf size. Ankle measurement gives a
figure that's as close to actual bone size
as you're going to get without
performing a little dissection.
To give some idea of the calf-toankle
relationship I'm going to quote
some facts about some well-known
underpinnings. I've gone back half
a century to bring you these statistics,
for two reasons:
- In those days, muscle was natural and
not drug-driven. It would mislead to
use hothouse-reared anabolic athletes
as examples of what can be achieved.
- It's rare nowadays to see any
published information on competitors'
girths. Some of the "golden oldies"
may have been accused of being tapehappy,
but some of today's crop seem
to be tape-shy.
Facts From 1950 London NABBA Mr. Universe Contest
Here are some facts taken from the
official figures published for the 1950
London NABBA Mr. Universe contest.
This was the year of the legendary Steve
Reeves and Reg Park battle, which
Reg Park (*pictured on right) had calves of 17-1/2 inches
on a 9-1/2 inch ankle. Great calves, by
any standards. Steve Reeves, with the
same ankle size as Reg, had a calf of 17-
7/8. For me, Steve was "the man with
golden calves," albeit that they were
perfect diamonds in shape. I think it's
safe to say that Steve's unparalleled
calves set the standard by which all
others have since been judged.
Oscar Heidenstam had the biggest
ankle and calf measurements of the show.
Truly massive at 10-1/2 and 18-1/4
respectively! For sheer size, calves were
Oscar's most outstanding bodypart.
These three men give some idea of
what can be achieved given the right
Reub Martin, famous for the bulk and
spread of his shoulders and back, had the
smallest calves among the taller men. He
also had a somewhat lighter bone
structure in his legs than his upper body.
For this contest he only registered a 15-
1/2 calf with a 9-inch ankle. His thigh was
only 24-1/2. Compare this with 26, 26-1/2
and 27 inches of Reeves, Heidenstam and
Despite his shortcomings in the leg department, Reub
was one of Britain's top physiques. He
liked to refer to himself as a strength athlete rather than a bodybuilder. And he
had the record to back it up. He took the
British heavyweight lifting title in 1947,
and was also famous for his straight-arm
pullover of 200 pounds, which was
around his own bodyweight.
Reub told me that they measured him and Reeves
(backstage at the Universe show) together
for shoulder-width, with calipers, and
they were identical though Martin was a
bit shorter than Reeves, so that would
have made Reub look a tad wider.
Reeves was much lighter boned in the
legs than Heidenstam, and his calf was
half an inch smaller. However, as his
ankle measured a full inch less than
Oscar's, the shape and overall appearance
of Steve's calves were superior.
Worthy of mention in the mediumheight
class, is Spencer Churchill who
had shapely 16-inch calf on a 9-inch
Incidentally, as one of Spence's
training partners at that time, I know that
he worked very hard to achieve this
proportion. He's an example of the
pleasing effect of a lot of muscle on a
relatively light frame.
Reub Martin never paid much
attention to his calves. Perhaps this may
have been partly due to the fact that as a
handbalancer and Roman rings
performer, extra weight at the lower end
could be a drawback.
Nine inches can be considered a
medium ankle measurement and though
really big calves aren't impossible to
build on this foundation, they are rare.
The heavy-boned brigade go from 9-1/2
upwards and that's where you'll find the
18-inch calves. However, light-boned
men can take heart from the fact that the
smaller the ankle is, the bigger the wellformed
The moral of the story so far is to
make the most of what you've got,
don't be deterred by thoughts that
bigger and better calves are not for you,
and grit your teeth and get on with it!
Let's get down to the nuts and bolts of
calf building. As lubrication, all I can
offer you, in parallel with Winston
Churchill, are "blood, sweat and tears."
I'm not promising that a "calfless
wonder" can win awards for best legs,
but he can build better calves.
Calf raises are the key to your calf
routine. There are several forms but, in
my opinion, the basic, standing calf raise
is the best.
The donkey raise with a partner
seated on your back may be a fair
substitute for beach training purposes,
but that's all. Seated calf machines are
very comfortable, but only really work
the soleus which is a small muscle that
lies deep to the gastro and gets plenty of
work in normal standing calf raises.
There's also a toe raise exercise in which
the heels are placed on a block and the
toes are raised off the floor. This works a
small strip of muscle on the outer side of
the shin. In a lifetime of gym experience
I can't remember seeing anybody doing
this movement. So, it's back to the good
old calf raise.
The best way to do it is on a standing
calf machine, though some squatting
machines are excellent too. In days of
yore it used to be done with a barbell
across the shoulders which, unless you're
masochistically inclined, is no pleasure
Furthermore, the use of a calf or
squat machine makes for much greater
comfort because they have padded
shoulder yokes. With these machines
there's no need to concern yourself with
balance and you're better able to
concentrate on the exercise itself.
Reps And Sets
Reps should be pumped out steadily.
Make a slight pause at the top of the
movement when the muscles are fully contracted. Do four or five working sets
of between five and eight reps.
Work the calves twice a week maximum. This calf
routine should be part of an all-round
workout which will, of course, include
squats or something comparable. This
routine is short and sharp so adjust your
mindset for maximum effort.
Note that the reps are low. The
important factor in calf work is the
amount of iron you move in good form.
For this reason you must set yourself a
poundage target and when you reach it,
set yourself another. Strive to constantly
increase the weight.
This will be
relatively easy in the beginning, but
later it may only be a pound (or less) at
a time. As stated earlier, the calves are
used to a lot of work, from a very early
age. What they are not used to is shifting
huge amounts of iron-hence the low
reps/heavy weight routine. Shock the
calves into growth.
Training Good Sense
When I was in my youth, I had no time for injury-prevention or injury-awareness type
advice. I only wanted articles on training, or inspirational type pieces that would help
crank me up for my next bout with the weights. It was, however, my neglect of
injury prevention, my taking of liberties with exercise technique, and use of high-risk
exercises, that, eventually, was my downfall.
There was nothing unusual about my attitude. It was the typical macho "it won't happen to me" type outlook, and the "no pain, no gain" madness that have been the undoing of millions of trainees over the
years. I'm training injury-free today, but I'm unable to safely perform some of the
most productive exercises-most notably, I can't barbell squat, or do any type of
bent-legged deadlifting-which is a major loss.
Part of the training strategy needed to minimize the chance of injury, is
avoiding high-risk exercises. While a few people like to boast of their heroics
with handling heavy awkwardly-shaped objects, for example, for each reported
success there are many people who got hurt trying to do something similar, and
rue the day they got caught up in such high-risk lifting. Play safe, be sensible,
and don't take unnecessary risks.
A body free of limitations that you can push hard for the rest of your life is a lot
more satisfying than a body limited by injuries but accompanied by a few anecdotes
of what you used to be able to do in former "it won't happen to me" days.
Psyche yourself into it. Refuse to believe
that good calves are only for the naturally
blessed. Tell everybody in your training
circle that you're "going for it." You're
going to get those calves. People in the
gym will be watching you, perhaps even
pushing you. Some may even take the
Mickey. It'll be up to you to show them.
I remember a young Swede I had
training in my gym in London. He not
only told everybody that he was going
after big calves, he also cut the lower
legs off his training pants. As a result
his calves were on display to all and
sundry in the gym. His psychological
ploy paid off and his calves grew half
an inch in a short time.
Don't be a "calfless wonder," get your
glutes in gear and go to it!
Lou Ravelle has 54 years experience
running gyms, training, and coaching.
- Stuart McRobert
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