December 21, 2021 15 min read
One of the easiest pitfalls to fall into when you’re first starting out in the gym is paying too much attention to your upper body and not enough to your lower body.
It’s an issue to the point where it’s become almost a meme: the broad-shouldered, giant man with chicken legs. And a big body part that plays into this is the calf muscles. While relatively small compared to others in your body, they play both an important aesthetic and physiological role in your body. If you want to look and feel good, it’s time to start paying more attention to these muscles.
Down below we’ve compiled some of the best exercises if you’re starting to realize that you need more calf workouts in your life. The first four can be done in the gym with proper equipment, and the last 13 can be done anywhere, including in your own home. Properly implemented in your routine, soon enough your legs will be the envy of the gym.
Let's dive in!
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One of the most important reasons for training your calves is for injury prevention. With strong calf muscles, the chances of all of these injuries occurring is reduced:
Healthy calves mean healthy legs. This will improve your comfort in doing day-to-day movements, and also help your other lifts and workouts. And if you’ve already got an injury, calf training can also rehabilitate injuries. But there are other benefits as well to developing your calves.
For one, there are the aesthetic benefits. Chicken legs on a massive upper body don’t look good on anyone. However, increasing calf strength will also help you become faster, help you keep a more consistent pace during running, and increase your vertical. This makes calf training especially useful for a variety of sports, especially those that make use of plyometric movements.
Collectively known as the “calf complex,” what we call the calves is actually made up of several different muscles. There are two main components, however. These are the two superficial muscles that can be seen: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. There are muscles that run underneath these two, but they can’t be seen and play a less important role.
The soleus is the smaller of these muscles. It begins from your fibula and tibia, lying underneath the gastrocnemius. It joins the larger gastrocnemius to become your Achilles tendon. The shape differs along with the type of muscle as well. The soleus is made up primarily of slow-twitch muscle fibers, meaning that it has better endurance.
On the other hand, there’s the larger gastrocnemius muscle. It begins from the back of your femur and ends in the formation of your Achilles tendon. Unlike the soleus, this muscle is mostly made up of fast-twitch muscle fibers. When it comes to explosive movements like jumping and sprinting, these are the muscle fibers for the job.
As with all workout routines, it’s important to properly warm up before a calf workout. And it’s especially important if you haven’t been giving them enough attention up till now.
Measure progression by increasing the number of reps and sets, decreasing resting times, or increasing the weight when using barbells or dumbbells. It’ll also depend on whether you’re training for aesthetic or strength purposes. The calves tend to be a more cosmetic muscle group (even though they do have several important roles), so reps tend to range anywhere from 10 to 20. For starters, do what’s comfortable and aim for at least 10 reps each set. So, without further ado, here are 15 of the best calf exercises you can do.
Note: Before starting, consider trying a Pre-Workout like PUMPED-AF to feel essential nutrients shuttle in and out of your muscle bellies resulting in skin-bursting pumps and increased training capacity.
The seated calf raise is another terrific way to isolate the calves. In many ways, it can be even more useful than the standing calf raise. For one, you won’t have to use any of your stabilizers to keep yourself balanced, which will place an even greater focus on the calves. Also, elevating the calve in question on a plate will challenge it in a different range of motion, developing it further.
With your knee bent at 90 degrees, it helps to activate the soleus muscle, which is responsible for plantar flexion and aids in walking, running, and balance. Studies suggest strong soleus can help enhance running economy, which measures how much energy a runner needs to hold a certain pace.
On a seated calf press, place the ball of your feet onto the ledge with half your foot hanging off. Your knee will be placed under the pad, but the most important part of this setup is the angle in which your lower leg attaches to your ankle.
It's safest to have your ankle joint at 90 degrees in the starting position once the latch is unhooked. Begin to allow the weight to bring your ankle as deep as possible, ensuring that the weight is not overloaded, which can damage your Achilles tendon.
Lower your heels by dorsiflexing your ankles until your calves are fully stretched. Extend your ankles and exhale as you flex your calves upward. Focus on the highest and tightest contraction possible, holding for a good 2-3 seconds. Slowly lower back down to a stretched position.
The Smith Machine may get a bad rap sometimes, but it's beneficial for keeping position and control of the barbell. The standing calf raise has the potential to build strength and size for your calves since it recruits the gastrocnemius muscle. This is the larger muscle of the calf and is responsible for the visible bulk lifters may strive for. But it's not just there for looks. The gastrocnemius helps produce strength in explosive movements. Studies suggest that standing calf raises could contribute to improved force production and balance.
Place a lifted box/step or weighted plates at least 3-4 inches in height. Make sure to have the edge of the platform where your feet will be placed, directly below the front side of the bar (which you will be facing). Having the platform too far behind the bar can cause weight pressure to travel to the spine. Having it too far forward will increase the angle in which your ankle flexes, causing less stretch in your calf.
Place your feet a fist-width apart, with the ball of your foot on the platform and your heel hanging off. Unrack the weight and slowly begin to sink your heel, feeling a stretch in your calf. The heel of your foot should not be able to bottom out, if it does, then the platform is not high enough.
Once a fully stretched position is achieved, you will begin contracting and lifting your heel to the highest possible point of contraction, while keeping your body in a straight line with your chest up.
Continue in a slow, lowering, negative motion of your heel, back to starting stretched position.
The big benefit with machines is that they take away a lot of stabilization from your lifts. Instead of your lifts being limited by weaker muscles, you’re able to hone in on the one you’re looking to develop the most. While the leg press doesn’t necessarily engage the calves if done the “proper” way, a little form variation will give you the calf emphasis you’re looking for. A benefit of the leg press is it can allow you to target different leg muscles, including the calves.
The leg press calf raise can be beneficial for lifters who may need more back or spine support since you're not performing from a standing position, but you can still activate the larger gastrocnemius muscle to achieve bigger calves.
Place the ball and toes of your feet at the bottom of the platform with your heels hanging off. The back support should be distanced to have your knees resting at roughly a 130-150 degree arch.
Once the appropriate weight is locked, push off with the balls of your feet and slowly bring your knees to a straighter 180-degree angle. It is not recommended to fully lock out so you don't risk hyperextension of your knee.
Just like a stretching position, you will want to really arch your back and butt back into the seat, allowing a further stretch along the entire backside of your legs, all the way through your hamstrings and calves.
Begin contracting your calves all the way to peak contraction followed by a slow and controlled negative portion of the rep to arrive at the starting stretched state of your calves.
For an extra stretch and more intense position, reach forward as if aiming to stretch your calves/ hamstrings and perform the exercise in this position with a nice firm arch in your lower back for maximum stretch. This is only recommended for more experienced and/or flexible individuals.
Having tight calves is common, especially in runners, but there can be easy ways to loosen them. One of the ways is calf rolling, and it requires either a foam roller or a barbell and weight plates if needed. Calf rolls can help loosen tight calf muscles and help ankle mobility, which can help improve stability and translate to other lifts like the back squat. Studies suggest that people with ankle instability can be more prone to injuries during exercise or even just walking.
Keeping flexible, loose calves may help reduce your risk of injury, improve physical performance, and help improve posture.
Seated on the ground with a foam roller, place the bell of your calves onto the roller and slowly roll the roller up and down over the muscle tissue by pushing yourself off the ground with your hands. Allow the point of contact to just be the roller on calves.
Weighted plates can be applied on your shin area to further increase the pressure being applied to the back of your calf and deeper penetration of the roller (allowing better break up of muscle tissue).
For a more advanced stretch, follow the same guidelines you would for the standard roller above. Place a straight bar on the ground, such as a bench bar or a preset curling bar. The bar must be elevated at least 3-4 inches off the ground to allow for heel clearance. There will be much less surface area with all the same pressure making contact with your calf muscle, meaning the tension will feel much greater, allowing for deeper penetration into the muscle and an advanced breakup of tight muscle. This can be potentially painful and harmful to individuals not performing it safely and correctly, so it is advised to do what best suits you.
Plyometrics AKA jumping movements are very useful when training your calves. They can help to develop the fast-twitch muscle fibers and translate well into sports and athletics. Strength training can be used to help increase sports performance, but jump squats, in particular, can be especially helpful. Studies suggest that jump squats can improve sprint time and jump height.
Your heart rate can also be ramped up because of the explosive nature of the jump squat. Just give it your all and see the benefits roll in.
Begin with your feet just slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with toes turned outward. Go down into a squat with your chest up and back straight. Once you reach the bottom of the squat, engage your glutes, legs, and calves, and explosively drive down through your feet. Push off the ground and land as softly as possible, immediately going into the next squat.
This is by far one of the best ways to isolate your calves when you’re trying to place a special emphasis on them. It’s a simple yet effective movement that can be performed anywhere. It can be beneficial with weights, and the heavier the weights, the greater of a benefit you’ll get. However, if you’re just starting out or you don't have access to weights, even a lot of reps of bodyweight calf raises can help.
Bodyweight exercises are not only convenient, but they can be beneficial in aiding in other lifts, mobility, and daily function.
If performing a standing calf raise, begin with your feet shoulder-width apart with both feet facing forward. Engage both your calves and slowly raise your heels, transferring the weight to the balls of your feet. Return to the starting position and repeat.
If you're looking for more range of motion, you can find a small ledge or a curb to place your toes on. Perform the calf raise the same way.
Jump ropes are one of the best ways to build both endurance and strength, especially in your soleus muscle. The fact that you’ll be using your arms and legs in sync also means that you can develop your coordination between your upper and lower body. This can be extremely useful if you play any sports, which builds on the benefits bestowed by greater calf development.
A study examining jump rope activities suggests that jumping rope can help improve muscular strength, physical performance, and flexibility. Aside from strength, the jump rope is likely to get your heart rate up, which has the potential to reduce the risk of heart disease related illnesses. As long as you have a jump rope, you can jump almost anywhere.
Get a good grip on the handles of the skipping rope, ensuring that it’s long enough to go all the way around. The rope should begin behind you. With a hip-width stance, jump up and swing the rope over your head and under your feet. Try to land on the balls of your feet each time so more strain is put on your calf muscles.
Another plyometric exercise, jumping jacks are a great total body and bodyweight workout. A good combination of aerobic activity and resistance movement, jumping jacks can tone you down while also building muscle in the process. More specifically, jumping jacks will work your glutes, quads, hip flexors, and calves. Outside of the lower body, you can also expect engagement in your core and your shoulders. Jumping jacks are a good thing to add even if you’re doing cardio regularly because they challenge your body in a different, more explosive way.
You’ll want to begin by standing firmly with your legs straight and both arms to your sides. Drive through your feet to jump upward, spreading your feet hip-width apart as you do. While this is happening, bring your arms above your head until your hands nearly touch. Land softly, bringing your arms and legs closer to your body as you land. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.
This is both a great way to develop your calves and to stretch them. This will help with increasing your range of motion for other movements. It’s also a bodyweight exercise, meaning you can do it anywhere there’s some space.
All you need to do is get in the push-up position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Lift your butt straight up towards the ceiling, hinging at the hips while you keep your back straight. If you can, lock out your knees. In this position, you should feel a deep stretch in your calves.
Although it’s mostly seen in football training, the agility ladder is also useful as a way for developing your calves and other lower body muscles. The key is to go as fast as you can, turning it into an explosive cardio exercise as well. And if you don’t have a ladder, using tape or chalk will work just as well.
Start by laying the ladder out on the floor. If using something else, ensure that you’re leaving yourself enough space between the “rungs.” Begin on one end of the ladder, and hop between the rungs, alternating feet as you do. Continue until you get to the opposite end, going fast but also keeping within the lines. Repeat on the way back.
Another plyometric movement, box jumps are fantastic for developing explosive movement and fast-twitch muscle fibers. They’re also extremely customizable, as you can change the difficulty by simply picking a different-sized box to jump on. Box jumps also develop every muscle in your legs along with your calves. The accessibility of this exercise is one of the advantages. You can use a box or any kind of flat, stable surface.
Once you’ve got your box, stand a short distance in front of it with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hinge at the hips and enter into a squat. Swing your arms forward, drive through your feet and jump on the box.
Another great cardio exercise that’s guaranteed to get the sweat dripping down your forehead, hill runs are one of the most basic yet effective ways to build powerful legs. Along with gassing out your calves, you’ll also be developing your glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
If becoming a better or faster runner is on your list of goals, hill runs can help develop the strength and power needed. Studies suggest that hill running can help improve speed endurance, race performance, V02 max, and resting heart rate.
All you need to do is find a decently steep hill around you. Going on a trail will add another element of difficulty because of the uneven and loose ground. Aim for a 20 second run up the hill before repeating.
Another stretch, the straight calf stretch is sure to loosen up your calves which will cut down on recovery time and lead to greater gains in the long run. You want to begin by standing in front of a wall in a staggered stance, with one foot in front of the other.
Simply reach your arms out towards the wall and lean into it. Your back leg should be kept completely straight which will cause a big stretch through your hamstrings and down into your calf muscles.
The lateral lunge will both destroy your calves and also work your upper leg and lower back muscles. This lunge variation is great for helping build balance and stability, as well as the lower body. The curtsy lunge helps develop glutes and calves and is another beneficial exercise for stability.
If you want to up the ante, you can add some weights into the mix if you have them. To begin, stand tall with some sort of weight in your arms.
Enter into a lateral lunge, with your left foot moving far to the side as you hinge your hips at the same time. Pause and then push off of the left foot and move into a standing position once again. Then, bring your left leg and enter into a curtsy lunge. Alternate to the right leg.
Another calf raise, this one has the benefit of being unilateral. That means only one calve will be supporting your body weight. If one leg is weaker than the other, it means that the stronger side will usually try to make up for it. Performing unilateral exercises can help improve imbalances in the body, which might just be what’s holding you back from that squat or deadlift PR.
Training both sides of your body equally not only helps grow the muscle groups equally, but it helps promote balance and stability.
When working one side at a time, the weaker side is forced to work just as hard. The single-leg calf raise is performed the same as the regular one, but this time you’ll be balancing on one leg throughout.
Along with your calves, the calf step-up will also work your legs and improve mobility in your ankles. This should go even further to protect you from injuries in the ankle joint. The fact that this movement is explosive means that you can also be developing your fast-twitch muscles, throwing some plyometrics into the mix.
Fast-twitch muscle fibers are important in explosive movements such as sprinting or the Olympic lift, the snatch. Developing these muscle fibers can help increase speed on the ground and with the barbell.
You’ll need a box or a bench in order to perform this exercise. Take one foot and step up on your chosen platform. Engaging your calves and legs, explosively drive down through the foot on the platform, jumping up from the bench.
The goal is to get enough air where you’re able to comfortably switch feet in the middle of the jump. This means that your grounded foot should end up on the box, and the elevated foot should land on the ground. A full rep is when you switch legs. Try to get between 15 and 25 reps over 3 to 5 sets.
The farmer’s walk is a great way to work out most of your lower body. It’ll also help to improve your balance and your stabilizing muscles. Although the lower body is getting a lot of work, you can also help increase your grip strength with the farmer’s walk. Typically done with dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells, the farmer’s walk can also be done by simply holding anything of equal weight in each hand, such as jugs of milk or bags of groceries.
Although the regular farmer’s walk doesn’t necessarily place too much focus on the calves, with a little variation it’s sure to burn through your calf muscles.
Begin by holding two weights in your hands, going a bit lighter than you might be used to with a farmer’s walk. Hold them with straight arms to the sides of your body. Bring your weight to the balls of your feet, taking your heels off the ground.
You want to continue for 10 to 15 yards this way, keeping all of your weight in this set-up. While it’ll be more difficult to keep your balance, your calves will be significantly more engaged than without this shift in weight.
Strong calves will help you live your daily life in more comfort and ease, while also helping improve your other athletic goals. A well-rounded calf workout that challenges you enough is one part of the puzzle to more impressive calves, but it’s not the whole picture.
Along with enough training, you’ll need to give your muscles a rest. The harder you work in the gym, the more recovery time you’ll need. And it’s this recovery time where your muscles actually grow, so skimping on it is a one-way street to plateauing with your gains. And, of course, you’ll be needing enough protein to feed your calves.
Put all these pieces together, and you’ll have the body of a chiseled, Roman statue—with the calves to prove it.
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