Any time you’re looking to build a muscle group that’s predominantly red muscle fibers, you’re entering a world of pain. Calves are no exception; however, you can do a lot to alleviate the pain if you use some common sense.
For years I read that in order to build the inner calf, you should do calf raises with the toes turned out and that the outer calves respond best when the toes are turned in. I used to go along with that advice until I grew frustrated by poor response. Frankly, I never felt any difference between one toe position and another. After much trial and error, I found that knee and hip positions were the important elements of the exercise, not how the feet were placed. If the knee was bent while doing the movement, the force was applied more to the outside of the calf, and if the knee was locked, the force was applied to both the inside and the outside. Furthermore, if I bent over at the waist’as in donkey calf raises’the intensity increased tremendously, along with the gains.
I was never sure why that was so until I looked through a book from the University of Utah Medical Library showing photographs of actual cadavers and the calf muscles with the skin removed. The secret was in full view.
The hamstring muscles come down from the upper leg and hook under the heads of the gastrocnemius. Thus, when the body’s bent over at the waist, the tightened hamstrings pull up on the heads of the gastrocnemius, giving much better prestretch than when you’re standing erect.
A recent workshop enabled me to share those concepts on donkey calf raises. Robert May and his wife, Pam, from Rochester, Washington, were among the attendees as we began to demonstrate the proper form on donkey calf raises. Picking Robert out of the audience, I asked him to give me a hand.
‘Okay, I’m willing,’ he said, ‘but I don’t know if I can keep anyone balanced on my back. I’m used to riding horses; being ridden is a different experience.’
‘Don’t worry about it. We aren’t going to use anyone on your back, for several reasons. First, it’s going to be hard to find someone in Washington who’ll be willing to sit on your back, unless you have a training partner. Even if you do, it won’t be long before he won’t be heavy enough. Then you run into the problem of trying to increase the weight by balancing plates on your back while your partner climbs up into position. It’s better to use a weight belt and a low-pulley lat machine. Put on the weight belt, Robert. I’m going to show you something that Scott Simms, one of our Bio-Phase clients from Salt Lake City, shared with me.
‘You need a lat machine like this one with a pulley that comes right from the ground and a calf block padded with gum rubber that you can move close to the pulley. Face away from the machine and connect the chain on the weight belt to the cable coming out from the low pulley. Now step up on the calf block. Take off your shoes and socks first.’
‘I think I have holes in my socks,’ he said with a little embarrassment. The crowd chuckled.
‘Well, we won’t look. Place your feet just far enough off the block so you can hit the ground with your heels. Now bend over at the waist with your hands resting on this bench I’ve placed in front of you so your upper body is just parallel with the floor.’
‘My heels won’t go down that far.’
‘Yes, they will. Get your feet farther off the block so you’re just hanging on with your toes. That’s it.’ ALL ‘Yeah, but I’m barely hanging on.’
‘At least you’re all the way down to the bottom. You need that full prestretch. Now rise up on your toes’all the way up until your instep ‘flips’ through. You have to get all the way up and through until you switch over to bone support.
‘Normally, that high position in your bare feet would cause the bottoms of your feet to hurt. That’s why you have the gum rubber on the calf block’so you won’t get any needless pain. Also, as long as you still have tension on the calves, they can’t get a fresh shot of blood. If your ankles don’t make it through to bone support at the top of the movement, you’ll have to do all 20 reps without fresh oxygen. You need fresh blood to carry away the lactic acid. Accumulated lactic acid increases your pain level tremendously. Remember, red muscle fiber requires high reps to grow, so you want a fresh shot of blood on each rep to give you endurance. Try it again.
‘Good, you’re getting it, Robert,’ I said, after watching him do complete reps all the way up and all the way down. ‘Now try leaning forward a little more to increase the stretch on your lower calves. Remember, when you walk around, you’re doing one-leg half-rep calf raises. You need a movement that the calves aren’t accustomed to in order to stimulate growth.’
After doing a number of reps, Robert couldn’t believe the difference in the pump in his calves. He was used to doing standing calf raises on a calf machine. But, he said, ‘This was much better.’
Donkeys, done correctly, can bring some life back to your calf program. Why not give them a try? You’ll love the new growth. ‘Larry Scott
Editor’s note: To learn more of Scott’s unique techniques and become Larry Scott certified, call (800) 225-9752 or visit www.larryscott.com.