When Nature got around to handing out genetics for great calf development, pro bodybuilder Troy Zuccolotto wasn't off taking a coffee break. He was right near the head of the line. So when young bodybuilders approach him at seminars and ask him what he does to build calves, he sometimes doesn't know what to tell them.
"For me," he explains, "because my calves are relatively responsive to training, just doing five sets of standing calf raises and five sets of seated calf raises two or three times a week is enough to do the job. When I do calf training, I train hard. I don't just go through the motions. But I don't have to do anything special or employ any additional intensity training principles in order to get good calf development.
"But most of the young bodybuilders who ask Troy for advice are not in the same category when it comes to calf genetics."
So Troy is reluctant to recommend his own training calf program to these individuals. Because what he does is probably not the kind of program they should be doing to develop their calves to their maximum genetic potential.
Of course, many of these bodybuilding hopefuls have responsive enough calf muscles that they'll eventually be able to get the kind of calf development they're looking for doing only the basic exercises as long as they keep training hard enough over a long enough period of time. Training calves with additional intensity will speed up their development, but it isn't absolutely necessary.
But then there are bodybuilders who are truly hard gainers. Especially when it comes to calves. For these unfortunate individuals, nothing seems to work. Hence the growing (although illegal in the sport of bodybuilding) popularity of calf implants. For the really desperate, even surgery seems a more desirable alternative to a lifetime of underdeveloped calves.
But Troy Zuccolotto doesn't think it has to be that way.
"The world is full of people who can't build huge amounts of muscle," he points out, "but if you've been able to build your other body parts---your back, shoulders, chest, arms and thighs---and you've got what people in the sport would recognize as a real bodybuilding physique, I think you can build calves as well. Maybe not super-huge calves, not prize-winners, but good enough so that your calf development is not bad enough to lose you a contest you would have otherwise won. But you can't just do the basic exercises. You have to force your calves to grow, make them an offer they can't refuse."
Of course, it's important to distinguish between small calves and high calves. The longer the length of a muscle, the potentially larger it's volume. So a bodybuilder with a very long calf muscle, one that extends right down to the ankle, has much more potential for calf mass than somebody with a shorter muscle, with a much longer tendinis attachment.
"But even if you have high calves," Troy believes, "you can still make them bigger. There have been a lot of champions in the sport with naturally high calves. They achieved success by working hard to develop enough size to offset the lack of genetic calf length. These competitors didn't win contests because of their calves, but they didn't lose because of them either."
Bodybuilders often have trouble increasing the intensity of their calf development, Troy points out, "because training calves calls for a different kind of intensity than with other major muscles in the body. You can't just train them heavier, or do more sets or cut down on the rest between sets.
Techniques & Exercieses
Instead, super-intense calf training is based on the following techniques:
- Use donkey raises as your major mass building exercise for calves.
- Train in your bare feet, or wearing something soft on your feet (like slippers) that don't give the arch much support.
- As you perform the lift, roll forward onto your big toes, not sideways toward your other toes.
- Between sets, do toe raises, stand right on the end of your toes like a ballet dancer, in order to achieve peak contraction of the calf muscles.
"Look at photos of top bodybuilders like Arnold back in the 1960s and 1970s," Troy Zuccolotto points out, "and you'll see that almost all of them did donkey raises for calves. This is the best exercise you can do for calves, because of the way the muscles at the back of the leg are stretched out when you're working the calves in a bent-over position."
The proper way to do donkey raises, therefore, is with knees locked and the hamstring totally stretched out at the bottom. This is effective because the main calf muscle, the gastrocnemius, attaches above rather than below the knee, and when the hamstring is stretched the gastrocnemius also stretches to its full length, making the calf raise movement that more intense.
"Keep the hamstrings stretched as much as possible throughout the movement," is Troy's advice, "in order to keep as much tension as possible on the gastrocnemius."
In the old days, donkeys were always done with another bodybuilder, sometimes two, sitting astride the hips of the one doing the movement. Or one bodybuilder holding a heavy plate. Today there are various donkey raise machines that can be used to do this exercise. You can also use the Nautilus multi-exercise machine with the belt that attaches to the hips at one end and the weight stack at the other.
Train In Your Bare Feet
"Modern athletic shoes are constructed," Troy says, "to give your feet, particularly your arch, the maximum of support. It's like having springs attached to your feet. But if you're trying to increase the intensity of your calf training, the last thing you want is this kind of artificial help.
So hard-gainers should do donkey raises in their bare feet, or wear some non-supportive type of footwear like soft moccasins or slippers. This way the muscles have to do all the work, without any help from modern technology."
Roll Forward Onto Your Big Toe
Although many bodybuilders have discovered this technique on their own, Troy recalls hearing this suggestion originally from the late, legendary Steve Reeves.
"Steve pointed out," he recalls, "that you only get a full contraction of the calf muscle if your roll forward, putting your weight right onto your big toe---which feels as if you're turning the movement inward rather than going straight forward. The natural tendency doing calf raises is to roll outward onto the other four toes, turning your ankle as you do the movement. But when you do calf raises like this you can't totally peak the calf muscle, which means you end up losing training intensity."
You can compare peaking the calf muscle to getting a full peak contraction of the biceps. You can crunch your arm as hard as you want, but unless you supinate (twist your wrist, bringing your little finger around toward the centerline of your body) you won't see a full peak on the biceps.
"Training biceps," says Troy, "you always need some dumbbell exercises with a supination movement in order to get a peak contraction of the biceps muscles. The way you do the same thing in calf training is to make sure you put your weight forward onto your big toe."
Follow Each Set With Toe Raises
Achieving total peak contraction is important to increasing calf exercise intensity. However, whenever you're training calves using weights, as you do with donkey calf raises, you're going to have difficulty getting all the way up onto your toes. The solution to this problem is to do toe raises without weight after and in between your sets of donkey calf raises.
"Most ballerinas are slender women," Troy Zuccolotto says, "and yet you'll never see a world-class ballerina without good calves. This is because of the toe-dancing they do. Standing on their toes, they are continually get a full peak contraction of the calf muscles, and that's how they get that kind of development."
Troy recommends holding onto a bench, machine or something else for support, pressing down with the arms as much as necessary to make the movement possible, and then simply coming up onto your toes---all the way up, like a ballet dancer. After a short period standing on point like this, and you'll hit your calves like they've never been hit before.
"I remember reading," says Troy, "that all Johnny Fuller ever did for calves was to stand against a wall and stand up on his toes. Hard-gainers need a lot more than this, of course, but the fact that Johnny achieved such outstanding calf development using toe raises only shows how deeply they can affect the muscle fibers of the calves."
Other Intensity Techniques
"Although donkey calf raises are the most intense calf exercise," Troy states, "that doesn't mean you have to give up doing regular standing raises or seated raises. These movements should also be included in a well-balanced calf training program."
"Also, although how much weight you lift doing calf raises is not the only factor involved, this is still progressive-resistance training, so you should increase your weights as you get stronger. But it's a mistake to use a weight that is just heavy enough for you to move, but too heavy to get any kind of decent range of motion. If you can't get up onto your big toe, the weight you're using is probably too heavy."
Incidentally, keep in mind that you won't be able to lift as much doing calf raises without athletic shoes as you can wearing modern, high-tech footwear. So when you go from wearing shoes to not wearing shoes, expect to drop the weight you're using for calf raises.
"As far as how much calf training to do," Troy goes on, "calves are a kind of muscle that's hard to overtrain. I haven't heard too many experts warn about doing too many sets for calves or training them too often. So I usually tell bodybuilders to do as many sets as you feel you need and train calves as often as you want to."
"Except I think it's a mistake to train calves on leg day," he goes on. "If you train the before your quads and hamstrings your legs are too weak to train with maximum intensity. If you wait until afterwards, you calves are too tired to work to the max. So you're better off leaving calves for another workout."
Troy recalls another calf-intensity technique recommended by Arnold in his ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MODERN BODYBUILDING. Back when Arnold was trying to shock his calves into the kind of growth he eventually achieved, he would do staggered sets---that is, if he were working back in a given workout, he would do a set for back, go over and do a set for calves, do another set for back, followed by another calf set, and so on.
By doing sets for calves in between the sets for another body part, he would end up doing an incredible amount of calf training during the course of the workout. Not something you'd want to attempt every day, but a good way to give the calves a shock they won't forget!