For most people (myself included), calf growth does not come easy. The calves are worked all day long - which makes training them so much harder.
With every step you take you are working your calves. Unlike the quads, which are also used for walking movements, the calf is a much smaller muscle group. Before we get into the actual tips and workouts, let's first learn a little bit about the calf and the muscles themselves so we have a better understanding of what we are working with.
Here is a picture of a really cool tattoo that someone got showing off their calf muscles:
Here is a diagram showing the gastrocnemius and soleus:
The gastrocnemius is also called the calf muscle. The muscle itself is one that is visible on the body (meaning it doesn't lie underneath any other muscles and therefore is not visible by the eye). The gastrocnemius attaches to the heel (at the Achilles Tendon) and originates on the femur (behind the knee). The calf muscle has two heads (the medial and lateral heads).
The function of this muscle is plantar flexion (elevating the heel). Without this muscle, it would be very hard to walk normally since you would not be able to push off the ball of your foot.
I would say a good part of the people in the gym, when you ask them where their soleus is, would give you one of those blank stares like you're speaking another language. This is one of those muscles that I mentioned above that is not visible because it lies underneath another muscle. It is for this reason that the muscle isn't very well known among those just starting out.
The soleus lies underneath the gastrocnemius. The function of this muscle is basically the same as the gastrocnemius in that its job is to raise the heel. The only real difference between the two is that the soleus comes into play when the knee is bent (for example during seated calf raises).
Standing Calf Raises
Smith Machine Reverse Calf Raises
Standing Barbell Calf Raise
Standing Dumbbell Calf Raise
Cable Calf Raises
Donkey Calf Raises
Calf Press On The Leg Press Machine
Single Leg Calf Raises
Seated Dumbbell Calf Raises
Barbell Seated Calf Raise
Seated Smith Machine Calf Raises
Here are some calf-building tips and workouts from some of the members of the Bodybuilding.com forum, in their own words.
The best calf exercise is the standing calf raise machine, which you don't have. Without it, you can put a barbell on your back like for squats, but then it's hard to balance and get a full range of motion. So your main exercise should probably be one-leg calf raises holding a dumbbell in one hand and something for support with the other.
I usually do these without weight, last in my workout (thus on prefatigued calves) and do one leg, then the other, then finish with both. Like with biceps, it's pretty easy to feel the calves working, so make sure they are - form and then persistence are the most important things.
The most important aspect of calf training (and any training) is persistence. (Many marathoners do have impressive calves, by the way). But frequency is less important as consistency. I am a Captain Peg Leg hardgainer, but through consistent hard work and prioritization, I am finally starting to see some results.
What this means is when I flex my calves from the back you can see a little ridge and a split starting to form. I've put more than an inch on them in the last two years. It may not sound like much to the e-statters, but it's real, and it's mine.
I train my calves once a week, always first before my quads. This way they're fresh, I'm fresh, no excuses, no time limits, no fatigue, etc. I stretch a little, I get on the standing calf raise machine. Now, I do an HIT-style training program, but to each his own. I do a light warm-up of 12-20 reps, but I use a full ROM [range of motion].
I stop short of failure. For my working set, I go as heavy as I can and still get 10-12 good, full ROM reps. I then do one very heavy rep, a static hold, and a negative. Then three more exercises, all working sets, for a total of 4 working sets. That's it. But training styles and exercises will vary. That's fine.
The key, for me, is pushing to and beyond failure with good form. Everyone talks about how the calves walk around supporting your bodyweight all day - true. Arnold used to say you have to go heavy - 1,000 pound calf raises, etc. - well if you can, great!
Most can't go very heavy and still use good form. So, like DParm suggested, drop the weight and use good form. This is the key: when you feel like stopping, don't stop. Your calves will always have at least 5-10 more good reps in them, and this is where the growth hides.
Grit your teeth, cry and swear (that's what I do - J/K), whatever, to gut through those final reps. And if you do that once a week, twice a week, six times a week, whatever, but every week, then your calves will grow.
If you have a training partner, donkeys are good.
I prefer calf raises in a leg press machine. Just try them all and see which ones you like.
About 6+ months ago, I was having real trouble growing my calves - until I came up with this variation of the ski jump calf raise.
I do mine with a dip belt and in the very high rep range. It's been working soooo well that I thought I'd share...
Strap on your weighted dip belt and stand facing a wall. Stand about 2-3 feet away from wall. Now keep your feet where they are and lean into the wall (so you're in a vertical press up position).
Your calves should be in stretched position. Now perform calve raises, nice and slow. I've been doing these in the 30-50 reps range.
You must shock them!!!! I have posted what I do before, but I will go ahead again.
You are on your calves all day (they undergo a lot of tension all day), so just going to the gym and lifting a little weight, doing sets like you normally do with your chest or something just isn't going to cut it. For some people who have the genetics - that might work, but for the others who aren't so lucky - they have to shock them.
This is what I do:
First: Standing Calf Raise/Donkey Calf Raise
Use either one - I like to switch it up! Don't use a really heavy weight - maybe something moderate. I just use about 225 lbs. Use a step or something so you are elevated, not just standing on the floor. Extend your heels and let them touch the floor, then raise up to where your feet are parallel to the floor, then raise and fully contract them. Like double pumping them.
Then back down to the floor again and repeat. Do this until failure - then when you reach failure, keep going - only bring feet to parallel and then go to failure while doing that. Your calves should be really burning at this point! As soon as you can't go anymore, go to the next exercise, do not rest!
Second: Seated Calf Machine
This is the one where your legs are out in front of you, not where the weight is on your knees. Again, just use a moderate weight. Point your toes inward and rep it out! You are going until failure. Once you reach failure, go to half reps until failure again. Moving on, go to the next exercise, with again no rest! Your calves should feel like they are on fire!
Third: Calf Presses On The Leg Press Machine
Make sure the pressure is on the balls of your feet for this one. This is the last exercise! With this, I try and overload the muscle. They are burning like hell, so I go with a little heavier weight - usually like 4 or 5 plates on each side.
Again, you are going to failure with full reps. After reaching failure, go to half reps until failure! By this time, your calves will feel like they need a fire hose spraying them!
I do this routine 3 times in a row. With only 2 minutes rest in between each set. The whole routine should only take about 10 minutes. Make sure all your weight is ready to go before you start. I usually do these on chest days, never on leg days; you will see what I mean once you try the routine. Just make sure all of your full reps are fully contracting your calves!
Calves are stubborn little b@stards. They like a lot of work. I do both high and (somewhat) low reps, but I try and keep the weight up high when I'm doing the latter.
The key to good calves isn't necessarily ridiculously high poundages. You need to focus on the stretch and the contraction. Using a complete range of motion at a fairly quick pace will yield great calves. Basically, what I am saying is that switching machines to go up in weight is not the solution to your problem, your form and execution is.
The Big Unit
I always do them on the Smith Machine. I stack two 45's on top of each other and stand on them. My calves have really started to grow and get good shape ever since I switched to Smith and some real weight (5 plates both sides, 5x15). After that, I go to seated calf raise (2x50), and after that I go to either leg press or a rotary calf machine and do 4/5 x reps to failure.
What works for others might not work for you. Here are two exercises that are great for calves:
- Donkey Calf Raises
- Standing Calf Raises
Try this workout, I have done it myself. I hate to jinx myself, but I will guarantee results from this if you do it right! Do this routine once per week.
Do these exercises one after the other without rest, one set each (try using a little lighter weight than usual since this is a circuit workout):
- Lunge On Tip Toes, 10-12 reps. (Do regular forward lunges with dumbbells, but only let your toes touch the ground, not your entire foot.)
- Standing Calf Raises, 12-15 reps.
- Standing Jumps, 10-15 reps. (Crouch down and jump up explosively, landing on your toes - this hits your calves.)
Remember, do these three without stopping. Then rest for 90 seconds, and repeat these three exercises. Rest for 90 seconds after the 2nd time around, then do:
- Standing Calf Raise (Without Weights), for 2 minutes straight.
Then you're done. Trust me; your calves will be tired after this. And you'd only wanna do this workout for 3-4 weeks max, when you think that your calves are lagging behind. Mine grew visibly bigger in just 3 weeks.
When I trained my calves once a week, they didn't grow much. About 4-6 weeks ago, I started to train them twice a week, and they exploded! Calves, for many people, have stubborn growth (much like forearms).
I would switch to doing it twice a week and then see. Eventually, you could go to 3x a week, but I would wait awhile before you reach that point. For those who train them 2x a week, some people like to go heavy both days and do 15-20 reps. Others like to go heavy one day, and then go lighter the other day and do 30-50 reps.
Try both ways and see which works better for you. Granted, they'll take more of a beating if you go heavy both days, so if safety is an issue for you (as it should always be anyway), try a heavy and light day and see how it goes. But for me, I've found that training them once a week did nothing.
I've had some good gains with this workout:
Pick one calf exercise (I prefer the standing calf raise). Your goal will be to reach 75 reps. Use a weight that you would normally choose for a twenty-rep set.
Complete the 20 reps and continue until you can't do another rep. Rest just long enough for the burning to subside and continue with as many reps as possible, even if it's only 5 reps. Continue in this fashion until you reach the target goal of 75.
Calves have a lot to do with genetics, but you can build them up to a nice size. I don't know about anyone else, but my calves have always responded well to higher reps around 15-20 and working them at least 2 times a week. Just experiment with exercises and reps until you feel comfortable and start seeing some improvements.
Many people struggle with their calves in regard to hypertrophy. A tip I will give you all is to not wear shoes while you do your calf exercises.
Of course, if your gym is crowded and the machine is right in the middle of the floor, I would not recommend doing them barefoot or with socks.
If your gym is always crowded when you go, sneak some dumbbells over to a corner in your gym and do your calf raises on a stair or just on the floor. I bet you'll feel a much better burn from the added ROM [range of motion]. (Make sure you first ask the gym for permission to make sure this is not breaking any of their policies.)
Doing super-slow sets for calves rocks! The super-slow technique (15 seconds per rep: 10 seconds up, 5 seconds down - no cheating!) is sooo painful, but soooo good!