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December 04, 2022 9 min read

Calves are one of the most neglected muscles, but that doesn’t mean you should forget about them. Strangely, when we see a person with match-stick lower legs and a ripped upper body, our eyes seem to be drawn to those chicken legs and not the rest of the picture-perfect physique. If that person is you, it's time to add calf raises to the leg workout part of your strength training routine.

Calf raises are an excellent way of adding resistance training for improved muscle growth, giving you stronger calves.

There are several variations of calf raises, but one alternative you should add to your workout routine is the donkey calf raises.

Back in the day, Arnold Schwarzenegger popularized donkey calf raises as his go-to exercise to activate his lower body muscles. To add resistance, he had one or more of his training partners sit on his back while he performed donkey calf raises. Unlike standing and seated calf raise exercises, donkey calf raises work your calves from several different angles.

Donkey Calf Raises - Arnold Schwarzenegger

These lower leg muscles might be stubborn, but they can be improved and are as important as the quads and hamstrings, especially if you’re an athlete. The most significant advantage of the donkey calf raise is the pronounced stretch it provides on the muscles, which is the primary component of muscle development.

Because your calf muscles are so stubborn, compound movements alone won’t be enough to build bigger calf muscles, so be prepared to put in a bit more than you would for other muscles. Your lower leg muscles are the hardest working muscles in your body because they have to support all your body weight whenever you are on your feet.

What Are Donkey Calf Raises?

Aesthetics are not the only benefits of adding lower leg definition because calf exercises will also benefit jumping, running, and cardio sports like tennis, football, basketball, swimming, and more.

As a bodyweight exercise, donkey calf raises are great for building the size and strength of your calves.

Stronger calves improve things like speed, power, explosive movements, and ankle mobility. Strong calves will also reduce the risks of sports injuries. The donkey calf raise movement is relatively simple but requires the proper form to avoid putting yourself in a vulnerable position and getting hurt.

Muscles Worked by Donkey Calf Raises

Although it is not quite an isolation exercise, this exercise comes close, which will be underscored by the burn you’ll feel in your calf muscles when you perform donkey calf raises.

Calf Muscles - Image from Shutterstock

Primary Muscle Groups

Donkey calf raises primarily engage the two muscles that make up your calves: the gastrocnemius muscle and the soleus muscle. Comprising two heads, the gastrocnemius is the larger of the two muscles and sits above the soleus.

Together, the main muscles, called the gastroc-soleus complex’s primary function is to pull the heel upwards when you walk, run, jump, etc.

Secondary Muscle Groups

Calf raises also train the most significant and strongest tendon in the body, the Achilles tendon. This is because, during flexion of the calf muscles, they pull the attached tendon along for movement. It is a vital tendon that makes it possible to stand on tiptoes, walk, run, and jump.

Other muscles secondarily activated when you do donkey calf raises include the abs and hamstrings, and glutes When you bend over to initiate the calf raise, the hamstrings and glutes stretch and your rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis are activated to stabilize your midsection.

What are the Benefits of doing donkey calf raises?

Along with turning more heads, Donkey calf raises can improve performance and even overall physical health.

Benefits of donkey calf raises include:

Increased strength and size: Donkey calf raises work your calves from several different angles to develop size and strength.

Enhanced explosiveness and speed: Donkey calf raises will improve any movements that require explosive speed.

Better jumping ability: Strong calves can increase your jumping ability.

Better ankle movement and stability: Stronger calves can reduce ankle injury risks and increase ankle stability and mobility.

HOW TO EXECUTE DONKEY CALF RAISES

On a Calf Raise Machine

Since it is a simple exercise, you can perform this with the most minimal equipment. Here’s how to do the exercise on a calf raise machine at your local gym, but you can also do it without any equipment in your home workouts.

Let's take a look at the step-by-step execution of the donkey calf raise exercise on a calf raise machine:

  1. Ensure the pads of the calf raise machine are set to the correct height before you position yourself under them.

  2. Bend forward at your waist, with your hips and lower back positioned directly underneath the pads.

  3. Step onto the edge of the platform, positioning only the balls of your feet and your toes on the edge with your heels off the edge.

  4. Once you are positioned perfectly, lower your heels slowly, making sure you feel your calf muscles stretching.

  5. Push through your toes and contract your calves to lift your hips as high as possible to reach peak contraction.

  6. Hold the stretched position at peak flexion at the top of the movement for a second or two.

  7. Slowly return to the starting position and lower your heels as before.

Repeat the range of movement for multiple reps and sets.

Donkey Calf Raises Without Equipment

All you need to perform donkey calf raises without a machine are a sturdy table, chair, or a bench at about waist height, and an aerobic step, some weight plates or anything secure to allow you to lower your heels without them touching the floor.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Stand in front of your chosen waist-high sturdy object, and hold on to it.

  2. Take a couple of steps backward to place your feet on your chosen aerobic or other step, and engage your lats by rotating your shoulders outward.

  3. While holding on to the bench, bend your upper body forward by hinging at your hips, bringing your back to a position parallel with the floor.

  4. Engage your shoulders and your core, and tuck your chin as if clasping an egg. Keep your chin tucked throughout the movement.

  5. With the balls of your feet and your toes on the step, lower your heels toward the ground, stretching your calf muscles. This is the starting position.

  6. While maintaining your alignment, squeeze your calf muscles and push down onto the balls of your feet on the step, to initiate the upward movement.

  7. Pause at the top of the movement with squeezed calf muscles.

  8. Slowly lower your heels to the starting position and let them continue toward the floor feeling the stretch in your calf muscles.

  9. Come to a complete stop and hold at the bottom of the movement before going into the next repetition.

Choose your sets and reps based on your ability to maintain good form and technique throughout all sets and reps. For donkey calf raises, aim for 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions.

Tips for Proper Form

As with any exercise, technique and form are crucial. Not only to avoid injuries but also to ensure the correct muscles are targeted.

  • Hold the Stretch: Focus on lengthening your calf muscles as much as possible on the heels-down motion by pulling your toes up toward your shins. Increase the intensity by holding the bottom position for 2 to 3 seconds or more.

  • Hold the Squeeze: Increase the intensity of the squeeze by fully flexing the ankle in the top position and squeezing the calf muscles, holding that intensity for 3 to 5 seconds or even 5 to 10 seconds if you can, before lowering your heels.

    Increasing the time under tension will intensify the burn in the gastrocnemius and soleus, which will adjust for progressive overload and enhanced muscle growth. However, prepare yourself for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) after intense calf workouts.

  • Feel the Burn:As mentioned, the calf muscles are stubborn. The recommended reps for induced muscle hypertrophy are 8 to 12 reps. However, you might want to follow the lead of other athletes who believe they get significantly better results with rep ranges as high as 15 to 20 reps per set when training their calf muscles.

    For gains in muscle size, the primary factor is time under tension and stress on the targeted muscles, which is precisely what you’ll be increasing if you do higher rep ranges of donkey calf raises.

  • Avoid Momentum: Momentum is what makes you believe you’re the master of a specific exercise while you are actually reaping no benefits. Remain focused on every movement as you go through the full range of motion of the donkey calf raise workout. Forget about beating your previous rep records and maintain squeezed abs and glutes. Keep your shoulders rolled back to engage your lats, and don’t allow your shoulders to move toward your ears.

Focusing on all that while doing donkey calf raises will help prevent momentum from taking over to limit the stimulus of the calf muscles and increasing the risks of injury.

Increase the Challenge

Once you’ve mastered the technique and form of donkey calf raises you might want to turn up the challenge, and there are several suggestions for doing just that.

Add weight: Wearing a weight belt or other form of weight will increase the challenge of doing donkey calf raises. If you could manage 2-4 sets of 15-20 reps for the donkey calf raise using heavier poundages, you’ll like get those stubborn calf muscles growing.

Single-leg calf raises: Perform the donkey calf raises on one leg at a time.

Common Donkey Calf Raise Mistakes

Again, proper technique and form is crucial for optimal results when you do donkey calf raises. This is an uncomplicated routine, and although there is not much that can go wrong, keep focusing on what to avoid. Below are the most common mistakes made when doing this exercise.

1. Partial reps

As already mentioned, you’d be surprised how many fitness enthusiasts and even strength builders fall into the momentum trap. “Pulsing” up and down on your toes are partial reps. The only way to get the desired results is to maximize both the up and down motions while bracing, squeezing, pulling and stretching as explained in the exercise instructions.

Never rush your reps! Instead, ensuring you hold the top and bottom movements is the best way to avoid momentum or “pulsing.” Keep in mind that 10 properly performed reps will bring you everything that 20 rushed reps won’t.

2. Not hinging enough at the hips:

If you stand too upright when you perform donkey calf raises you will minimize the stretch in your calves, defeating the entire object of the routine. The height of the step and the bench should allow you to position yourself so that your back is parallel to the floor. Furthermore, you should ensure you feel your calf muscles stretch with every rep. That will be your only indication that your body position is on point.

Calf Muscles in Action - Image from Shutterstock

Be safe, avoid injuries, and maintain optimal health

If you have pre-existing health issues you should discuss your exercise routine with your physician and your personal trainer before you proceed. It might not mean you should stop working out, but some of the movements might have to be modified to meet your unique needs and avoid more injuries.

Never use a weight or do a movement that you don’t feel in control of. Pay close attention and never work through pain. Stop as soon as you feel discomfort or pain – a case of rather safe than sorry.

For continued progress in building body strength and reaching your goals, incorporate proper warm-ups, cool-downs, rest, and nutrition into your fitness and strength building routines. Your results will ultimately depend on your recovery ability and accepting that it takes time. Never train the same muscle group within 24 to 48 hours to allow sufficient recovery.

You can benefit even more if you have a supplementation routine that goes along with donkey calf raises and any other exercise routines.

While many supplements exist to boost your quest to the ultimate physique, knowing which to take when could be challenging.

Whether your workouts involve deadlifts, dumbbells, barbells, leg press, or a donkey calf raise machine like a Smith machine, pre-workout supplements are great for energy boosts. Furthermore, intra-workout BCAAs for pumping those muscles can help your body deal with fatigue by providing continued energy.

While fat burners, mass gainers, and creatine can be beneficial supplements, there is one that should always be a part of your health and fitness routine for recovery and growth, and that is protein powder.

Whether you take Whey protein or a plant-based protein, it will help you pack on lean muscle while it supports strength levels, without unnecessary carbs.

In a nutshell

Donkey calf raises can benefit your calf building goals, they can also enhance your physique and greatly affect your performance—be it bodybuilding or field and track events. They increase size and strength, while also benefiting other aspects like power, explosiveness, ankle mobility, and speed. With so many benefits, you have no valid excuse to exclude calf training from your exercise routine.