July 19, 2021 10 min read

When 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 of a meme: the broad-shouldered, giant man with chicken legs. And a big body part that plays into this are 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. Properly implemented in your routine, soon enough your legs will be the envy of the gym.

Why Strong Calves?

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:

  • Sprained ankles
  • Calf strains
  • Patellofemoral pain
  • Tendinopathies of the foot, ankle, and knee
  • Shin splints

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.

calf muscle anatomy chart

The Physiology of Calf Muscles

Collectively known as the “calf complex,” the calves are 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.

Best Calf Exercises

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. Without further ado, here are 15 of some of the best calf exercises you can do.

1. Jump Squat

Plyometrics (jumping movements) are very useful when training your calves. They help to develop the fast-twitch muscle fibers and translate well into sports and athletics. Your heart rate will 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.

standing calf raise

2. Standing Calf Raise

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’s most effective when using some sort of weight. The heavier the weights, the greater of a benefit you’ll get, obviously.

But if you’re just starting out, even a lot of reps of bodyweight calf raises can help. Otherwise, the barbell calves raise or the dumbbell barbell calf raise can be performed. The former will allow you to use a heavier weight and take your arm muscles out of the equation, allowing for more focus on the legs.

If performing a barbell standing calf raise, begin with your feet shoulder-width apart. The barbell should be resting on your upper back, 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.

3. Agility Ladder

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.

4. Seated Dumbbell Calf Raise

The seated calve raise (with a dumbbell) 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. You’ll want to place the weight plate on the floor in front of a bench. Sit on the bench and place your toes on the weight plate, placing a relatively heavy dumbbell on the knee. Hold onto it with your hand and raise your toes without lifting them off of the weight plate.

5. Jump Rope

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’ll develop your coordination between your upper and lower body. This is extremely useful if you play any sports, which builds on the benefits bestowed by greater calf development.

You’ll want to 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.

6. Farmer’s Walk

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 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 dumbbells 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.

7. Leg Press Machine

The big benefit with machines is that they take away a lot of stabilizing 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.

Setting up the machine so it’s comfortable, you’ll want to push your legs out with a reasonable weight. Your knees should be almost locked out, but not quite. Instead of lowering your legs down all the way, simply do some calf raises instead in this position.

8. Box Jumps

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.

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. Swinging your arms forward, drive through your feet and jump on the box.

9. Downward Dog

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.

10. Hill Runs

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.

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.

11. Straight Calf Stretch

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.

12. Lateral Lunge to Curtsy

The lateral lunge will both destroy your calves and also work your upper leg and lower back muscles. If you want to up the ante, it’s a good idea to add some dumbbells or kettlebells into the mix. 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.

13. Single-Leg Calf Raise

Another calve 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.

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.

fit guy doing jumping jacks on a beach

14. Jumping Jacks

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.

15. Explosive Calf Step-Up

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’ll also be developing your fast-twitch muscles, throwing some plyometrics into the mix.

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.

Supporting Calf Development

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.