Blow Up Stubborn Calves With These 3 High-Volume Routines
Building the most stubborn of muscle groups requires different strategies and a pain-is-pleasure mindset. Here's how three top Bodybuilding.com athletes bend heaven and earth to grow their calves!
Calf training can seem like one of the most pointless activities you do in the gym; For most people, it's all pain and no gain. One reason for that is because, unlike other major skeletal muscle groups, the calves contain a lot of slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are notoriously unresponsive to a muscle growth stimulus. As a result, calves just don't seem to get any bigger—no matter how hard you work them.
But some lifters have had success with this particular body part. Today, NPC bodybuilder Lawrence Ballenger, IFBB pro Kathleen Tesori, and WBFF pro Lee Constantinou share their calf workouts with you. They'll tell you which techniques work better than others, and what tips can help you finally see some real calf growth.
Stretch to Grow
At the end of a hard leg workout, simply standing can be challenging. It's no surprise that many lifters just stagger over to the seated calf raise machine, bust out a few sets, and call it a day. But here's why you need more.
The general motion you use when training calves involves going as high up on your toes as you can, then descending into a deep heel stretch. When your knees are bent, such as when you're doing seated calf raises, one of the two major calf muscles, the gastrocnemius or "gastroc," can't stretch. This severely limits how much it can contract and grow.
If you want to build that knotty, diamond-shaped gastroc muscle, you need to stretch it hard. And that means focusing on straight-legged movements, including standing raises, donkeys, and leg-press calf raises.
Yes, you can do plenty of seated work as well, since that will hammer the other major calf muscle, the soleus. But know that to grow, you need both.
Lawrence Ballenger: High Volume, High Intensity
Lawrence Ballenger's approach is both high volume and high intensity—hitting his calves with lots of reps and zero breaks.
"I used to train my calves extremely heavy, and nothing happened for years," he says. "Once I lightened the weight and focused on pushing blood into the muscle and creating cell swelling and a pump, my calves finally started growing."
As Ballenger does these high-rep exercises, he creates a more forceful contraction by keeping the weight over the insides of his feet rather than on the entire foot. Then he does bodyweight standing calf raises for 15-20 seconds.
"Since I'm standing on the floor, I lose some range of motion. But I just tap my heels to the floor and then come back up without bouncing, never allowing my calves to fully rest."
It's important to use a controlled tempo so momentum doesn't take over. He goes slowly, getting just enough rest to go right back into the triset rather than stopping. It's super intense.
"I train calves twice a week after legs. I've followed this protocol for four years now, and my calves have grown about 5 inches," he says. "But it's remarkably painful. When I can't handle the pain and want to quit, I remember that pain and discomfort are what drive change and growth."
Kathleen Tesori: Short, Between-Set Mini-Rests
"I feel like I've had an advantage because I started wearing heels almost every day at a really young age, which helped grow and define my calves," Tesori says. "I still wear pumps every day to work, so my calves are used to carrying my body weight."
However, Tesori adds that wearing heels is not the same as working your calves through a full range of motion. When she's doing calf exercises, she goes as high up on her toes as she can, and then extends her heels below the platform to get a deep stretch on every rep. Her goal is to lift her body weight through a full range of motion. She combines high volume and weighted exercises to make sure she hits her entire calves, targeting each head by changing up foot position: toes inward, outward, and straight ahead.
Doing your calf work on the leg press machine makes it easy to change foot positions with each set, which is one reason why Tesori has favored this particular tool in the past, usually at the end of a hard leg workout.
"Pain is inevitable when you push yourself with calves," Tesori says. "The best way to work through intense pain is to either push out the reps as fast as possible or take a quick break within the set, then quickly resume. Make sure you keep track of your load and reps because you'll want to keep trying to improve each week."
Lee Constantinou: German Volume Training with Tip-Toe Walks
"I'm still working to develop a more impressive set of calves," Constantinou says. "My calves just don't seem to want to grow much, even though my workout is intense and takes quite a bit of time. There's so much muscle pain involved in my calf workout, I try to distract myself by zoning out, listening to music—even grunting. They all help."
Constantinou usually adds calves onto the end of his leg workout. Larger, multijoint leg exercises warm up his calves prior to his isolation work with movements like lunges and Romanians.
He schedules calf training 2-3 times a week, hitting them first on one of the workouts to give them more focus and attention. When he goes heavy, he aims for 15-20 reps. When he has tried to go very heavy, he's felt more pressure on his tibialis anterior (shin) and less in the gastroc. He also finds peak isometric contractions more effective than just pumping through the reps.
"I've tried some rather unconventional approaches to calf training, but one that stands out is German Volume Training," Constantinou says.
"The 10x10 protocol left my calves incredibly pumped, but very sore for the next couple of days," Constantinou recalls. "I even did tip-toe walks between sets, which had them firing on all cylinders! But it's all about volume and pump. That's what calves respond to."