Q: I have a problem developing my calves. I watch some of the better bodybuilders in my gym training calves, and it seems to me that they don't train half as intensely as I do or do as many sets. Yet my calves fail to respond. I've tried higher repetitions, heavy weights for low reps, drop sets (that gives me the best pump) and supersets, but my calves lag behind the rest of my body. Any suggestions?
A: As you've discovered, life is not fair. Don Ross used to say that having great calves is like having a beautiful face'either you got it or you don't. The Ripper also once said that calves should have been called mules because of their recalcitrance'they resist training.
It can be infuriating: The muscles can burn like a son of a bitch, you can take sets to failure and beyond, and still they don't grow very much. What really drives everyone mad is the fact that the guys who have the best calves often don't train them hard, or even at all. Mike Matarazzo, who is recognized as having a pair of the best calves in the business, says he never had to train them very hard; he got them naturally. Not only that, Mike says, his father, who's never trained, has even bigger calves than he has. Ms. Olympia winner Juliette Bergmann'she's never trained her calves and doesn't even know how to work the calf machine'has calves like footballs. Due to her tiny joints, they look monstrous on her, yet we measured them at only 14 inches.
Needless to say, just because someone has the biggest calves in the gym doesn't mean you should go over and ask what he or she did to build them, because the answer may be, 'Nothing.'
I wish I could watch you do calf raises because there could be something wrong with your form. You may have watched someone at your gym who has big calves bounce up and down while doing repetitions. You copy that form because you think, 'Well, those are big calves, so I'll bounce up and down too.' Big mistake. You need to work your calves over the greatest range of motion you can manage. As you begin the set, lock your knees so your legs are straight and try to keep your upper body and legs in a straight line. As you descend, force your heels slowly and deliberately down as far as you can, really feeling the stretch all the way. Don't start up until your calves are stretched as far as they can go. When you get to maximum stretch'still maintaining straight legs'explode upward and go as far as you can onto your big toes. Hold for a second, and really feel the contraction. By rolling in so the pressure goes to the big toes, you work the inner calves. If you roll onto the outer edges of your feet, you work the outer calves. You can also turn your heels in or out at the top of your repetitions. John Parrillo likes his athletes to think in those terms, so use the method that works best for you.
I suggest that you do the eccentric, or negative, portion of the repetitions in slow motion, taking six to 10 seconds. The concentric, or lifting, phase should be two to three seconds, with a pause at the top for one second.
For the most part calves are a high-repetition muscle group. Mother Nature made the calves hard to fatigue because we use them as we walk around every day. For that reason Parrillo has his athletes do up to 100 repetitions on a light day, alternated with very heavy weights for low repetitions'eight to 10'on heavy day. A heavy/light format is very effective and keeps the workouts different and challenging. You may have to work up to 100 repetitions, going for 50 reps per set for a few workouts, then 75 and then a few weeks later the full 100. Naturally, on high-rep days you don't have to do as many sets per exercise or total sets per workout. For example, you might do three sets of three exercises on a heavy day, while on a light day you might do just one or two sets of three exercises.
Don't worry about the amount of weight you use on the light, high-rep day. Even an advanced bodybuilder will cry like a baby while using very light weights on 100-rep sets'but it works. The next day their calves are so sore they can barely walk. Most bodybuilders with poor calves have poor neuromuscular pathways leading to the calf muscles, so it may take months of intense training to condition the nervous system. The blood pathway to the calves may also not be great. That takes time to develop too. You need to increase the size of the veins and arteries in the calves, along with the red blood cells and capillaries, before you can pack a few inches on your lower legs.
If you train with a partner, use forced reps and drop sets. Unfortunately, most calf machines aren't designed to let you do forced reps without a partner. Parrillo makes a standing calf machine that has forced rep handles so you can use your arms and hands to assist yourself. That great machine is part of Parrillo's Genetic Equalizer line of equipment. For more information you can call (513) 531-1311 or toll-free 1-800-344-3404.
Don't just do standing calf raises and seated calf raises. Work the muscle from as many different angles as possible. Do toe raises on the leg press, calf raises facing into the hack squat machine, standing calf raises using the Smith machine, squatting calf raises (for the soleus and lower calves'those are killer!) and especially donkey calf raises.
Donkeys may just be the best calf exercise of them all because when you bend over at the waist and stand on the calf block, two important things happen: 1) the hamstrings tighten, which pulls on the calves, and 2) the calves are already somewhat stretched before you even lower your heels. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a big believer in donkeys. In fact, he used to do them with three men on his back, having one man jump off when he reached failure so he could continue. Arnold was the only bodybuilder I know of who started with pathetic calves and achieved phenomenal lower-leg development'the best in the sport when he was at the top.
One last thing: The key to developing great calves is not the machine but the block. Larry Scott insists that the calf block should be at least six inches high so your heels can go extremely low. He also says the block should be padded with thick gum rubber, because, he says, all calf exercises should be done in bare feet for maximum range of motion. If the calf block isn't padded, it's impossible to do calf raises barefoot because they hurt your feet too much.
Speaking of calf blocks, my good friend Roger Stewart'who has about the freakiest calves imaginable'has just come out with a revolutionary, patented calf block called the Roger Stewart Signature Calf Master. It has a pivoting, nonskid pedal to increase calf stretch at the bottom of each repetition and improve maximum peak contraction at the top. He swears it's improved his own calves, and that's saying something. The great thing about Roger's calf block is that it's light, portable, strong and durable (you can have one at home and one at the office and take one with you to the gym), and it costs only $49.95 plus shipping. You can use it on any kind of calf exercise, and it helps maximize blood, oxygen and innervation and neuromuscular conditioning in the lower legs. I believe it's the most revolutionary calf-exercise piece since the development of the calf machine itself. It forces you to train the calves over the fullest range of motion possible'no half-bouncing up-and-down reps; just full, deep reps that work the calves without mercy. You can order one by phoning 1-866-INVENT-8, or send e-mail to B1Fit@bellsouth.net for more information. IM