Is this the cure for stubborn calves?

/ Posted 06.10.2010

In 1990, I had the occasion to meet Dorian Yates. Yates was making his American debut at the Night of the Champions professional bodybuilding contest, which I was covering for a bodybuilding magazine. Yates was a sensation in his native Great Britain, but he was unknown in the United States. While in the lobby of the hotel I was staying at one night, an associate asked me if I wanted to take a look at Dorian Yates, who was staying at the same Manhattan hotel. We then proceeded up to Yate’s room. The first thing I noticed about Yates was his massive and well-defined calf development. Since the calves are considered the most difficult of all muscles in the body to develop, the natural question for Yates was,”Are those natural calves?”  “Natural” in this sense had nothing to do with anabolic drug usage, but rather referred to whether his calf development was more genetically-based in origin. Yates responded that they were not only not natural, but that his calves were quite small when he began training. “They were only 17-inches,”he told me. Dorian seemed to be unaware that a 17-inch calf is impressive for anyone, much less a guy who had never previously touched a weight, nor done any direct calf exercises.

In bodybuilding, the adage is that when it comes to calves, you either have them or you don’t. Indeed, the most impressive sets of calves have belonged to bodybuilders who were blessed with a head start in this area. Names that come to mind for having the genetic gift of huge calves include Dorian, Steve Reeves, Mike Matarrazo, and Eric Fankhouser, whose calves are so huge that they should be called cows. From what I understand, he rarely trains them. Since the majority of bodybuilders don’t have great calves, when a competitor does show up with great calves, he or she tends to stand out from the rest. Many black bodybuilders are hampered with poor calf development. This is often attributed to having fewer muscle fibers in the calves, which is seen as having “high calves.” Shorter muscle bellies usually indicate fewer muscle fibers, and therefore less potential to achieve massive muscle size. But the statement that black bodybuilders tend to have under par calf development is a general statement not always applicable. Evidence for exceptions to the rule comes in the persons of men such as 1982 Mr.Olympia, Chris Dickerson, and pro competitor, Vince Taylor, as well as three-time Mr.Olympia, Sergio Oliva, all of whom had tremendous calf development.

This is not to say that you can’t improve on initially poor calf development. Several bodybuilders over the years have started out with poor calf development, yet managed to build an impressive set of calves. One name that comes to mind here is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold lost the 1966 NABBA Mr.Universe to American bodybuilder Chet Yorton, because Yorton had superior calf development compared to Arnold. Arnold then focused on improving his calves, getting advice from his bodybuilding mentor, Reg Park. Arnold went on to develop a pair of calves that were so huge that rumors circulated that he had calf implants inserted. I don’t know about the implants, but I can verify that Arnold trained his calves hard year-round. Even when he slacked off on the rest of his training, Arnold always ensured that he trained his calves a couple of times a week during the contest off-season. I also witnessed my good friend, the late Dennis Tinerino, build a nice set of calves from intensive workouts. When he began training, his calves looked like toothpicks.

Still, for most bodybuilders, the calves remain the most recalcitrant of muscles. The question is why. Several studies have examined the reason behind the stubbornness of calf development. Most of them have concluded that the calves show a relatively poor blood circulation when compared to muscles that are closer to the heart. In many cases, the amount of blood circulation in the calves remains poor, even under exercising conditions. This explains the common advice that you should do higher reps  when training calves in the belief that this will increase blood circulation and promote greater growth. Indeed, a routine published in Ironman magazine in the mid 1960s involved doing one very long set of standing calf raises. This special calf routine was said to add up to an inch to even stubborn calves. I tried it at a crowded gym in Manhattan when I was about 15. Since the routine involved using the calf machine for about 12 continuous minutes, I wound up being threatened to get off the machine or else by an impatient bodybuilder. But I did make some gains on the program. I also recall interviewing a bodybuilder years ago named James Demelo. He also possessed incredible calf development, comparable to that seen on those with genetically-large calves. Yet, he told me that his calves weren’t always so impressive. When I asked him his secret for building such humongous calves, he replied.”My sets begin when others end.” What he meant by this was that he had built up a high tolerance to training pain, and often did sets of calves that featured high reps, but he had conditioned himself to train past the intense burning sensation in his calves that accompanied such intensive training.

A new study offers some hope for those with poor calf development. The study involved nine healthy men, who trained their calves three times a week for a month, doing standing calf raises for 4 sets of 50 reps. That’s a lot of reps, but that’s not the unusual aspect of this study. They did the calf raises either unrestrained or with a thigh cuff attached to their thighs. This cuff training is also known as “Occlusion training,” and various studies have shown that training this way appears to promote muscular growth, even when lighter weights are used. The theory is that occlusion training boosts levels of intramuscular anabolic hormones, including IGF-1 and testosterone. When training their calves with the cuff attached, the men showed a 26% increased calf blood filtration capacity, and a strength increase of 18%. There were no changes in the unrestricted leg. There was also no increase in muscle fatigue when using the cuff while training calves. The conclusion was that training in this manner increased the development of blood capillaries in the calves.  In practical terms, this means increased blood flow when training the calves, along with increased delivery of nutrients to the muscle. This combination of increased blood flow and muscle strength in the calves induced by the occlusion training may be just the ticket to wake up those stubborn calves. Only time will tell.

Short-term resistance training with blood flow restriction enhances microvascular filtration capacity of human calf muscles.Journal of Sports Sciences 2010: in press.

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