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 this department.
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 lower legs.
Calf Development And Calf Potential
Are affected by and dependent on various factors:
- 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 genetically determined.
- Attachments/leverages and muscle length:
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 Reeves won.
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 skeletal advantages.
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 Park respectively.
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 ankle.
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 calf looks.
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 at all.
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.