Here’s a question that’s been baffling bodybuilders ever since the sport became popular in the late 1930s: If other muscles of the body develop relatively easily with consistent training, why are the calves so difficult to build up’even when you subject them to high-intensity training? The various muscles all belong to the same body, so why do some muscle groups grow more slowly than others?
Of course, your genetic makeup is a limiting factor in how big and well-shaped you may eventually get your calves. If you have short, high calves’the so-called sprinter’s calf’seen especially in many black bodybuilders, such as Robby Robinson or Tony Pearson, and/or calves in which the insertions are short and the muscle cells just aren’t in great abundance, then no amount of training will give you long, low, meaty diamond-shaped calves like those of Dorian Yates, Mike Matarazzo and Roger Stewart have. Of all the muscle groups of the body the calves are the one most influenced by genetics and are the one most resistant to hard training.
The late Don Ross had it right when he said (in only half jest) that ‘calves really should have been called mules’ due to their stubborn resistance to growth. They really are the one muscle group that’like a pretty face or a large penis’you’ve either got it, baby, or you don’t! In any case, the task of developing good calves can be a daunting one for some people.
Another genetic factor you cannot control is joint size. If your knees and ankles are too thick, your calves won’t look as impressive as those of someone who has small ankles and knees.
What’s so frustrating about calf training is that the people who have the best calves often don’t have to train very hard to get them’and in some cases don’t have to train them at all. We’ve all seen people who had that gift. Mike Matarazzo, whose calves are about the best developed in the sport, says that they’re a genetic gift’he inherited them from his father, who never trained and who had even bigger calves than Mike’s. Back in the late ’80s, when I was editor of MuscleMag International, I went to New York to cover the Ms. Olympia contest. Although Juliette Bergmann did not win the show’the magnificent Cory Everson did’Bergmann stunned everyone with her remarkable shape and proportion. Onstage in her trademark position of heels together and arms in a front lat spread, she displayed tremendous thigh sweep in proportion to her tiny waist. I estimated her thighs to be 24 or 25 inches. Her calves were really fantastic, diamond-shaped bundles of muscle with insertions so low they seemed to start beneath her ankles. They really looked as big as footballs, and I estimated them at 17 inches.
Imagine my surprise when I measured Juliette’s thighs the day after the contest and found that they were only 21 inches’the same measurement as her waist. (How many male bodybuilders do you know who have thighs as large as their waistlines?) And those footballs on her legs that passed for calves were in fact only 14 inches. That’s right, just 14 inches. It just goes to show what an illusion bodybuilders create onstage when they’re in great condition and all oiled up under the posing lights, especially if they’re blessed with small joints and long, swollen muscle bellies, as Juliette is.
The thing that really shocked me the most, however, was what happened when I asked Juliette to do some standing calf raises so Steve Douglas could photograph her muscles working. Juliette walked slowly and hesitatingly over to the calf machine, stared at it for a few seconds and then turned and asked us, ‘How do you use this?’
Steve and I did a double take. We actually had to show her how to put the pads on her shoulders and use the calf machine. She then admitted that she had never done any calf work in her entire bodybuilding career. There she was with the best calves in the entire Ms. Olympia contest, and she’d never done a single repetition of calf work in her life.
For anyone to argue that genetic factors do not make a big difference or that poor genetics can be overcome with sheer determination is ridiculous. Tell that to the bodybuilder who’s done 20 high-intensity sets of calf raises two or three times a week for years and still has puny calves compared to Bergmann’s.
When it comes to poorly developed calves, I find there are three types of bodybuilders: 1) Those who have poor calf development due to neglect, 2) those who have the ability to develop good calves but don’t because they train them incorrectly and 3) those who truly lack the genetic ability to develop good calves no matter how well they train them.
Type-3 bodybuilders typically don’t have enough muscle cells there to build large, meaty calves, and the insertions are too high and short. Most often they are ectomorphs’skinny dudes with long, slender limbs. All they can do is train hard, regularly and properly and do the best they can. They might not be able to develop the huge diamond-shaped calves of a Mr. Olympia competitor any more than they can build an Olympia competitor’s 21-inch arms, but they can improve their calves no matter how lousy their genetics. Who’s to say how large and shapely you can get your calves until you try, right?
Arnold Schwarzenegger was a type-1 bodybuilder. He did some calf work but not too much, certainly not the volume of sets and training intensity he used on his upper body. To Arnold calves were a minor muscle group. When he first came to America, he was already a NABBA Mr. Universe winner, but his calves lagged behind his other muscle groups, especially his biceps and pecs. An invitation from Reg Park, a three-time NABBA Mr. Universe champion and Arnold’s idol, to come to South Africa to train changed Arnold’s attitude about calf training forever.
When Arnold and Reg first trained together, Arnold would put only 300 pounds on the calf machine and do his sets and reps. Reg would put 800 pounds on the calf machine and do his sets and reps. At the time Park’s calves were far larger and better shaped than Arnold’s, so Arnold quickly got the message. He had to use heavier weights on his calf raises and train with more intensity. He also had to increase his volume and treat the calves as he would any major muscle group. ALL When he got back from South Africa and started training again at Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, Arnold decided to specialize on his calves. He was determined to increase their mass and shape to bring them more in line with the rest of his physique. He even went so far as to cut his sweat pants off at the knees so his calves were visible at all times. They were a constant reminder that if he wanted to be Mr. Olympia, he’d have to improve his calves. In a matter of months Arnold was doing standing calf raises with 1,000 pounds on the machine and donkey calf raises with three men on his back. His calves quickly grew two inches and became among the best in the sport.
Despite the influence of genetics, it’s not all bad news. If your calves are weak, the last thing you want to do is give up without trying. Any calves, no matter how short and high or how limited in muscle cells, can be greatly improved with consistent hard, proper training over time. Maybe you’ll discover that you’re one of those genetically gifted bodybuilders who can build calves so large, they’d make Dorian Yates do a double take. Genetics aside, an inability to make your calves grow suggests an innervation problem’the inability to really feel your calves as you train them, to feel them burning with fatigue and pumping up like balloons. In other words, you could be lacking the neuromuscular pathways from your brain to your calves that enable you to really f-e-e-l your calves work as you train them. It’s also the inability to make your calves contract under a heavy load. To improve your calves, you must improve your ability to feel the sensations of muscular exertion, such as muscular fatigue, the white-hot burning buildup of lactic acid and fatigue products in the muscles and the muscles’ becoming swollen and pumped to the maximum by all the blood you’re forcing into them.
Anyone who’s read my articles over the years knows I’m a big believer in the blood principle, which states that there’s a direct relationship between how your muscles pump and how well they grow. Muscles that are the easiest to pump up grow the fastest, while those that pump very little or not at all grow very slowly, if at all.
The other side of the coin is that if you can teach a muscle to pump better by increasing blood flow and circulation to it by developing larger veins and arteries and a greater abundance of capillaries and red blood cells (what John Parrillo calls ‘cardiovascular density’), then it will, in time, start to grow faster too. The more blood you can force into a muscle to cause a skin-bursting pump, the better.
So one of the primary goals of your calf training should be to increase blood flow to the calves. You can accomplish that by using high-rep sets’50 to 100 per set’after you’ve done several heavy sets of lower repetitions; say, 10 to 15 per set. So it’s a heavy/light format. You can also use drop sets, supersets and tri-sets.
Even a relative beginner can benefit from performing drop sets on calf raises. For example, do a set of 15 reps till failure, reduce the weight by half, and then pump out as many reps as possible until you hit failure again. Just one drop is enough if you work hard. Of course, more advanced bodybuilders can do three or four drops per set, with a goal of doing a rep total of 60 to 100.
Blood principle aside, why such high reps? Well, Mother Nature designed the calf muscles so they would be difficult to fatigue. After all, they’re used so much in everyday activities. We walk around on them all day long. We run and jump and dance and climb stairs and do a lot of movements that require the calves to work. Imagine if your calves started burning and fatiguing every time you walked 15 steps. You’d have to constantly stop and rest. It would be ridiculous. Humans would have died out eons ago because they couldn’t run from animals trying to eat them. Because they’re difficult to fatigue, the calves only respond to high-intensity training. To overload them requires a greater number of repetitions, increased resistance and greater intensity. Combine the two, and you’re on your way to bigger calves.
You should emphasize two other things in your calf training: a very full range of motion and stretching. You might even say that a very exaggerated range of motion is imperative. From what I see in the gym, far too many bodybuilders do short, bouncing partial repetitions that don’t stretch and work the calves enough. The range of motion is just too short. You can get away with short, constant-tension repetitions on some muscle groups, like the pecs and delts, but the calves don’t grow that way. Maybe it’s because of all the partial-range work they get while walking and running. As you do your calf raises, donkey calf raises, seated calf raises and so on, you must deliberately drive your heels down hard, as low as they’ll go, forcing your calves to stretch to the maximum. Then, using only the power of your calves, drive up until you’re on the tips of your toes, holding for a count of two so you get a hard contraction. At the end of a set you can do some short, bouncing reps (or burns) to prolong the set and increase intensity, but you must use a full range of motion on the vast majority of your repetitions. There’s no other way.
A lot of bodybuilders get fooled when they do short, bouncing repetitions. Because the calf muscles may burn and ache, they think their calves are working hard’and then they cannot understand why they fail to grow. When a muscle aches and burns, it usually means that the muscle is being trained properly and is being overloaded. Not necessarily so with the calves. Short reps on calf raises can fool a guy into believing he’s a type-3 bodybuilder (bad genetics) when he’s really type 2 (trains his calves incorrectly).
Bob Kennedy once told me a story about meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger for lunch in New York to discuss some business. Bob had kindly brought along a young employee and budding bodybuilder who idolized Arnold and was thrilled to meet him in person. Over lunch the young man enthusiastically described how he was training his calves and what an amazing burn he got from doing his calf raises a certain way. ‘You should try it,’ the kid said to Arnold, ‘it burns like crazy.’ Arnold reacted as Arnold can sometimes when people try to impress him with their bodybuilding knowledge’with Terminator coldness. He looked the kid straight in the eye and said, ‘I could light a match under your ass and it would burn, but that doesn’t mean you would grow.’
Arnold’s remark might seem a little cold, but he was only speaking the truth. You can hop on a calf machine and bounce up and down for a few minutes and get a great burn in your calves, but that doesn’t mean they’ll grow from it. Calf training invites a confusing paradox. You need to use a full range of motion in order to train your calves properly, but if you reduce the weight in order to get a full range of motion, you can’t use enough weight to overload the muscles sufficiently to cause growth adaptation. Because the calves are made up primarily of difficult-to-fatigue slow-twitch muscle fibers and require high reps to bring about muscular failure, you’re faced with another problem: trying to use enough weight to stimulate the deep fibers of the gastrocnemius to force them to grow. And if you go really heavy, you can’t get the necessary full range of motion the calves require. So how do you train heavy enough to stimulate growth while at the same time getting a full range of motion and enough repetitions to fatigue the calves? By combining low and high reps in your calf workouts, by constantly striving to increase the amount of weight you use on calf exercises and by using high-intensity techniques such as forced reps, drop sets, supersets and tri-sets.
It’s important to go heavy on basic calf exercises like standing calf raises. Six-time Mr. Olympia champ Dorian Yates used up to 1,500 pounds on those for sets of 10 repetitions, and, boy, does he have the calf development to show for it. Few bodybuilders can develop great calves just from heavy, low-rep training, however’only the genetic elite. Most need high-rep sets to fatigue their calves to the limit. That’s where those 50-to-100-rep sets or drop sets and tri-sets really shine. But talk about pain. Oy!
Getting back to heavy-only calf training for a minute, one way to work up to really heavy weights and higher reps at the same time is to use the rest/pause principle. Put a heavy weight on the calf machine that would limit you to no more than three or four reps, and do as many deep, full repetitions as you can. Do the down, or negative, portion of the rep very slowly and deliberately, and the up, or concentric, portion of the rep explosively. When you hit failure, bend your knees and pause for approximately 10 seconds and then continue with more repetitions. Do the rest/pause thing three times, aiming for a total of at least 10 repetitions, if not more. That’s three or four reps per pause; say, four, three and three or, if necessary, four, three, two and two. However it works out is fine, as long as the total rep count is at least 10.
Your goal over a number of weeks is to get more repetitions with the heavy weights so that you work up to 15 total repetitions with a weight that previously you couldn’t use for 10. Instead of four, three, three, you might get, say, five, five, five. When you can do 15 reps, add some weight and go back to triples again, shooting for 10 repetitions total.
I cannot emphasize enough the need for using a full range of motion and getting maximum stretch in the bottom position. Boyer Coe used to spend 15 minutes before he trained his calves just stretching them by going into the deep stretch position on the one-leg calf raise and holding it for several minutes. (Try that and see if your calves don’t burn.) Also, remember one of the fundamental tenets of training: The greater the stretch at the bottom of an exercise, the greater the potential contraction in the top, or finishing, position. If you really stretch the hell out of your calves by driving your heels low throughout a set, you’ll definitely get harder contractions at the top.
As for training routines, I like the system recommended by John Parrillo. You work the soleus alone on day 1 and the gastrocnemius on day 2. Then you rest your calves on day 3 and repeat the cycle.
The small details of calf training are very important; for example, the type of block you do your calf raises on, the exercises you use and the number of sets and reps you perform. The important thing, however, is to perform your calf raises properly over a full range of motion and to get a complete stretch at the bottom and a hard contraction at the top. When you do your repetitions, you might say to yourself, ‘Down, down, down,’ as you drive the heels down, and then ‘Up, up, up,’ as you get up on your toes.
You also want to keep your knees almost locked as you begin the set. When you begin a repetition, your toes should be about 12 to 15 inches apart, but your heels should be only four to six inches apart. What’s more, you should try to put most of the pressure on the big toes as you near full contraction. At the top your body and calves will be supported primarily by the first three toes on each foot. Explode up from the bottom, hold for a count of two at the top, and then lower slowly down, down, down, making a point of driving your heels downward as far as you can. As the heels drive down, you should really feel the calves stretching.
The type of block you use makes a big difference. The blocks on some calf machines are poorly designed and not high enough to permit the kind of full range of motion necessary for stretching the calves to their limit. Some blocks seem better suited to foot torture than training the calves properly. Two-time Mr. Olympia Larry Scott says the best blocks are about six inches high and covered with gum rubber to protect the feet. According to Larry, you should do your calf exercises in bare feet because you can get a fuller range of motion. Try it; it really works. Remember, the fuller the range of motion on calf exercises, the better. Of course, if the block on your calf machine is made of corrugated steel and causes more pain than muscular exertion, then bare-foot calf raises may not be possible. [Editor’s note: Scott sells calf blocks that are the correct height and have gum rubber on the block so you can do bare-footed calf raises. Call 1-800-225-9752, or visit www.larryscott .com.] Calf-Training Tips
Warmup. Spend a few minutes the way Boyer Coe did, and stretch your calves by doing one-leg calf raises and holding in the bottom position for 30 seconds. Over time build up to one-leg stretches of one minute or more. That will greatly aid your calf growth. You can also stretch after you finish each set, which will help release some of the fatigue products from the muscle, reducing the burning sensation.
Standing calf raises. This is one of the best mass builders for the gastrocnemius, the two-headed muscle of the upper calf. Start with your ankles only four to six inches apart but with the toes 12 to 15 inches apart. Lock your knees and mentally rehearse what you’re about to do: the fullest range of motion you can, stretching deep as you drive your heels down and exploding up until you’re on the tips of your toes, with most of the pressure on the big toe of each foot. Hold for a count of two as you feel the contraction, and then lower slowly and repeat.
Do two or three 10-rep rest/pause sets, followed by several sets of 20 to 25 reps. You can achieve higher reps by incorporating one or two drops during a set, as necessary.
Donkey calf raises. This is a fantastic exercise for developing the calves. Larry Scott rates it as number one. Why? Because when you’re in the bent-over position, the hamstrings are tight, and the calves are already pulled tight and under tension, before you’ve even started the first repetition. When you drive your heels down, you force the gastrocnemius to stretch very hard, which enables you to get a harder contraction in the top position.
Here’s a quote from Larry on the reason that donkeys are so good.
‘Let’s look carefully at exactly what is happening when we are doing donkey calf raises. Notice how the origination of the gastrocnemius is on the condyle of the femur [the large bulb of bone at the bottom of the thigh bone].
‘This in itself does not explain why we feel the calves tighten up when we bend over at the waist, as in donkey calf raises. A closer look will show us what is happening. Notice how the hamstring muscles come down to almost hook under the gastrocnemius before they connect to the fibula and tibia [the lower-leg bones].
‘When the hamstrings are pulled tight, as they are when you bend over at the waist, they pull up on the heads of the gastrocnemius muscles to exert even more prestretch than would be possible when the hamstrings aren’t tight. Thus we see the need for the good old standby, donkeys, to get the maximum prestretch. Standing calf raises on the machine just won’t do the trick because the hamstrings never get a chance to really yank up on the heads of the gastrocnemius as they do when you do donkeys.’
If possible, do your donkey calf raises bare-foot for the maximum full range of motion. With your shoes off you can get up on your toes like a ballet dancer. When you lower your heels, they can travel farther because you can almost grip the calf block with your toes. Scott says, ‘In addition to tight hamstring muscles, you’ll be able to activate bundles of muscle fibers that have been hanging around doing nothing but coasting. But be forewarned: No matter how hard you’ve worked your calves in the past, start easy with this one, or your calves will be moaning for days. They’ll be so sore, you’ll have trouble just getting your heels to touch the ground when you’re walking.’
Make sure your rider is sitting back on your hips, not high over your back.
I recommend four sets of 20 to 25 repetitions.
Seated calf raises. This exercise is generally regarded as the best for developing the soleus, a supporting muscle located beneath the gastrocnemius. The soleus is very difficult to fatigue, which is the reason John Parrillo recommends 100-repetition sets’four sets of 100, in fact. As always shoot for a very full range of motion and make sure your heels go low during the negative phase of each repetition and as high on your toes as you can get during the concentric phase.
Parrillo may recommend four sets of 100 repetitions, but if you aren’t used to it, those high-rep sets can be killers, painwise, even with very light weights. I recommend you do two or three sets of 25 to 50 repetitions and over time work up to 100-rep sets, but I’m warning you: You’re going to hurt, and hurt bad.
Squatting toe raises. Parrillo calls these ‘shit squats,’ which to me is too vulgar. I prefer to call them squatting toe raises. This is the only exercise that permits total contraction of the soleus and gastrocnemius together. You do squatting calf raises as the name implies: You squat as deeply as you can, keeping your feet and knees together and under your glutes, and then you rise on your toes as high as you can. At the top press your heels to your glutes. Then lower slowly until your feet are on the floor again. To steady yourself, hold on to a power rack or some other piece of stationary gym equipment. You can do this exercise using a calf block or without one. Either way it’s a killer. Talk about a burn.
Parrillo recommends four sets of 50 repetitions. I’ve never seen anyone get 50 consecutive reps at first on this exercise, even though there’s no added weight or resistance. I suggest doing two or three sets of as many repetitions as you can do. Remember the number of reps you got on each set, and mark it down. Then at the next calf workout try to increase the number of repetitions you got by two or three reps. Keep building up the reps, and before you know it, you’ll be doing sets of 50 reps or more.
As a final note, keep in mind that no one training routine works well forever. It’s a basic truth that in order to avoid sticking points and growth plateaus, you must constantly change exercises or, at least, the order in which you do the exercises and the number of repetitions you perform. IM