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Zulak Unchained: Carving Calves

The more blood you can force into a muscle to cause a skin-bursting pump, the better.

Q: I have a hard time getting my calves to grow. They’re small and out of proportion with my quads and hams. I’ve use various rep schemes, such as high reps with light weights and very low repetitions with heavy weights, but neither yielded gains. I notice that when I try to use really heavy weights for low reps, I have to cheat to get the weight up, which reduces my range of motion. Even high reps barely generate much of a pump or burn unless I use ridiculously light weights. It’s as if my calves are numb and nonresponsive to exercise. Is there a way for me to use heavier weights on my calf exercises without resorting to cheating? How can I make my calves pump better?

A: Keep in mind that you may be dealing with a genetic component that limits growth. If you have short, high calves’the so-called sprinter’s calf’and the insertions are short, and the muscle cells of the calves are just not in great abundance, no amount of training will give you long, low meaty calves like Dorian Yates’ or Mike Matarazzo’s. Of all the muscle groups of the body I’d say the calves are most influenced by genetics’and the most obstinate and recalcitrant even when subjected to high-intensity training. Former IRONMAN writer Don Ross said only half in jest, ‘Calves really should have been called mules.’ You either have responsive calves or you don’t’it’s like having a pretty face or a large penis.

That’s not to say that you can’t greatly improve your calves or that you shouldn’t even try. Even if your calf muscles are short and high, you can greatly increase their size and development. Just don’t expect to have the calf development of a top Mr. Olympia competitor’you know, where the soleus muscle seems to start right above the ankle while both the inner and outer heads of the gastrocnemius sweep outward to form that diamond shape we all admire. If you’ve got high calves, you can build mass, but most of it will be high on your lower leg. Them’s the breaks, bud.

One of the most frustrating things about calf training is that the people who have the best calves often don’t have to train hard to get them’and in some cases they don’t have to train them at all. Mike Matarazzo, who has perhaps the best calf development in the sport, says it was a genetic gift and that his father, who never trained, has even bigger calves.

Back in the late ’80s I covered the Ms. Olympia contest in New York. Although Juliette Bergmann didn’t win the show (the magnificent Cory Everson did), she stunned everyone with her remarkable shape and proportions. Onstage, in her trademark heels-together-arms-in- the-front lat position, her thighs had tremendous sweep. Her calves were fantastic, diamond-shaped bundles of muscle with insertions so low they seemed to start beneath her ankles. They really looked as big as footballs. I estimated her calves to be at least 17 inches. Imagine my surprise to find that her thighs measured only 21 inches the day after the contest’the same measurement as her waist. And those footballs on the backs of her lower legs were in fact only 14 inches’that’s right, just 14 inches. The thing that really shocked me was when photographer Steve Douglas asked Juliette if he could photograph her while she did some standing calf raises on the calf machine. She walked over to the machine, stared at it for a few seconds and then turned and asked us, ‘How do you use this machine?’ Steve and I actually had to show her how to put the pads on her shoulders and use the machine. She admitted then that she had never done any calf work. Here she was with the best calves of the entire contest, and she had never done a single repetition of calf exercise in her life.

But let’s put genetic limitations aside for the moment. Your inability to make your calves pump and burn suggests an innervation problem’that is, the development of the neuromuscular pathway to the calves from your brain that allows you to feel your calves as you train them. That also inhibits the pump.

Anyone who has read my articles over the years knows that I’m a big believer in the blood principle’that there’s a direct relationship between how well your muscles pump and how well they grow. Muscle groups that pump up easily grow the fastest, while muscle groups that fail to pump or are impossible to pump grow very slowly, if at all.

The other side of the coin means that if you can teach a muscle to pump better by increasing the blood flow to it, it will, in time, start to grow faster. In other words, the more blood you can force into a muscle to cause a skin-bursting pump, the better.

You can accomplish that with high-rep sets, performing 50 to 100 reps, after several heavy sets of low repetitions’say, 10 reps a set. You can also use drop sets, supersets, tri-sets and preexhaust supersets. Even beginning bodybuilders can benefit from drop sets for calves. Use a weight that allows you to get 10 reps, and at failure reduce the weight by half and then pump out more reps until you reach failure again. Just one drop is enough if you work hard.

You must emphasize stretching and a full range of motion’a very exaggerated range of motion. Get the small details right, as well, such as the type of calf block you use and the types of exercises you do. Sets and reps are of secondary importance, believe it or not. The important thing is to perform your calf exercises properly, using a full range of motion and a complete stretch, so you need a high calf block. The blocks on some calf machines are poorly designed and aren’t high enough to permit the full range of motion that will stretch the calves to their limit and give you a strong peak contraction at the top of each rep. Some blocks seem better suited to foot torture than training the calves properly.

Another tip that will make your calf training more effective comes from former Mr. Olympia Larry Scott. He says to always do your calf exercises barefoot. Why? Because you can get up on your toes at the completion of each rep better and get a fuller range of motion. Of course, if the block on your calf machine is made of steel and seems more suitable for torture than calf training, that may not be possible. IM

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