Photo credit: Justin Greiman
By Michael Wittig
Genetics does play a big role when it comes to natural calf development. My mom had a huge set of bodybuilding-worthy calves, big and defined, but didn’t work out. Growing up you would never catch me in a pair of shorts. It was always pants to hide my skinny calves and legs. My lower legs were the same size as my ankle before I found my way to the gym. While some of us may not have a ‘leg up’ on calf development that doesn’t mean we have to settle with the current situation. It’s not going to be quick or easy, but with consistent assaults over time, we can build some admirable calves. One moment I will never forget was being complimented on my calves while I was out shopping. I was accustomed to kind words regarding my arms or physique in general, but that focused attention on my calves had me smiling. Let me share with you my best methods to build calves that will have you wearing shorts every day.
Prioritize: This means putting a stronger focus on your calf work. Don’t always leave calves for the end of a quad and hamstring workout. By then you will be spent. I like to have a ‘leg day’ working in reverse starting with calves so I can give them 100% energy and focus. Working legs this way has changed the game for me and contributed to my best calf progress.
Volume: Your calves can handle a lot. Each of them can handle your body weight for thousands of steps each day. So why do we think three or four sets of calf raises at the end of a leg workout will be enough? I will routinely hit calves with 15 or more sets per workout. Up your volume, if you are looking to up the gains.
Stretching: Between sets of calf work take 30 secs per side to stretch the muscle. Not only can it help prevent cramps, but also increase blood flow (nutrients in and wastes out) and stretch the deep fascia surrounding the calf muscle to encourage expansion.
Tempo: Manipulating the tempo of my reps has been another game changers for me. Not only does it increase ‘time under tension, but makes one fully concentrate on each rep and strict form. There are four phases of a lift including eccentric (lowing), midpoint (contraction), concentric (lifting), and starting point. While there are many combinations of tempo manipulation here is a basic one that works extremely well (aka wrecks the calves): Start at the deep bottom stretch for 4 seconds, lift the weight in one quick second, hold the top contraction for 4 seconds, then take a 4 second lowering of the weight back to start. Notation wise it would be written as 4-4-1-4. I count under my breath while performing reach rep making me fully concentrate on every aspect of the lift. Don’t cheat yourself out of results by counting too fast. Pausing longer at the bottom stretch reduces the rebound of the Achilles tendon making the calf muscle work more. There is the great benefit of getting that deep calf stretch on every rep. Lower the weight and slow things down for new calf development.
Plyometrics: The biggest part of the calf is the gastrocnemius muscle which is made mostly of fast-twitch (Type 2) muscles that are great for sprinting and jumping. Because of this I often like to include basic plyometric movements into my calf training such as various forms of calf jumps. I will either superset calf jumps after weighted exercises, or do the calf jumps themselves weighted. This is
very much like jump roping without the rope. My favorite calf jump variations include basic jump, split leg skip, and double-tap (alternating sides every two single-leg jumps).
Developing All Aspects: The Calves are made up of the bigger Gastrocnemius and the underlying Soleus. Often forgotten about is the thin muscle that runs on top of the shin (lateral side of the Tibia) called the Tibialis Anterior. While not officially a calf muscle the Tibialis Anterior does increase the size of the lower leg when developed. When working calves we want to focus on the biggest contributor to size which is the Gastrocnemius while also giving the Soleus and Tibialis Anterior some attention. The Gastrocnemius can be targeted with standing calf raise variations, donkey raises, and the calf press. This muscle has two heads, medial and lateral, so I’ll often vary my foot placements rotating between feet forward, toes out, and toes inward. The Soleus lies beneath the Gastrocnemius and can be developed with seated calf raises. If you don’t have access to a seated calf machine alternatives would be to place dumbbells or a barbell across your lower thigh in a seated position and perform calf raises. This can also be done using a smith machine. Placing a pad between the weight and your thigh would be a good idea when using this gym hack. The Tibialis Anterior is activated when dorsiflexion occurs and your foot is lifted towards your body. The Tibialis Anterior can be directly targeted using a resistance band attached to a fixed object. Place the band over the top of your feet and perform dorsiflexion while pausing at each muscle contraction.
Here is a sample calf workout using some of the principles above. Do this at the beginning of your leg workout while you have 100% strength and focus. Rest only 60 secs between sets.
- Donkey Calf Raises 5 sets of 15-20 reps.
(Note: If your gym doesn’t have a donkey calf machine this can be done using a Smith Machine by standing on 25lb plates, placing a pad between the bar and your lower back, and bracing your upper body on an incline bench.)
- Calf Press Complex (using the leg press): 4 sets of 45 reps (15 reps toes in + 15 reps toes out + 15 reps feet straight).
- Seated Calf Raise: 4 sets of 10-12 reps (Tempo: 4 sec top hold, 4-sec negative, 4-sec bottom stretch pause)
- Plyo Calf Jumps: 2 sets of 100 reps.
(Note: Concentrate on using as much calf as possible instead of thighs. Work for both height and quickness.)
Annihilate to Motivate,
Michael Wittig, ISSA CPT
Natural Pro 7x Champ