People say it all the time, “If you aren’t born with great calves, you’ll never have them.” That’s simply not true. There are many factors that are important to building up your calves, but genetics play only a small role.
They require a lot of time, effort, and pain to get results. When focusing on your calves you need to prioritize, work past the pain barrier, work them through a full range of motion, and increase their flexibility. In addition, you need to shock them with different training programs, concentrate on the exercises that work for you, keep a journal, take pictures, and eat the proper nutrition.
8 tips to help bring up your lagging calves
Tip #1 - Prioritize calf training
The most important thing when training any weak body part is to prioritize and to work it past your pain barrier. The calves need their own training time just like any other body part. Either train them alone or schedule them before an upper body part.
Tip #2 - Train calves several times a week for mass
When training them for mass, it is best to train them several times a week with at least one day of rest between workouts. When adding mass to my calves, I train them 2-3 days a week because working them everyday does not give them enough recovery time. You will know when you are building muscle because you will feel an intense burning sensation. If you can complete 10 reps, then you have to try for 15.
Tip #3 - Use a full range of motion
One of the reasons that the calves may not respond like most other body parts is that in the real world they are used all the time, but not in their full range of motion, and as a result, they lack the flexibility they need to reach their full potential and are strong in only a small part of the muscle.
Just think about how your biceps would look if you only curled the weight up part of the way. Most of your arm would remain skinny even after you were able to increase the weight load. The calves aren’t any different than any other body part in that respect. To really build the muscle up, it is important to work the muscle through a full range of motion by stretching all the way up on your big toes when doing the actual exercises and to continuing to stretch the muscle on a regular basis to increase flexibility so that you are able to work the entire muscle.
I have found that I have been able to increase my range of motion on the donkey and seated calf by doing these exercises without shoes. I wear thick socks, the kind that you have to buy at a specialty store like Eastern Mountain Sports for extremely cold weather. This way, my feet are protected from the rough platform of the machines, but without shoes, I have a more complete range of motion while working the muscle.
Tip #4 - Calf training and rep ranges
The science behind the calves is that the gastrocnemius (The gastroc is the back of the calf muscle used in exercises where the legs are kept straight. For example, it is used in the donkey calf, standing calf, and leg press toe raises) responds well to lower rep ranges such as 8-20 reps and the soleus (The soleus is the back of the calf muscle that gives it thickness and is utilized in movements where the knees are bent. For example, the soleus is used in the seated calf exercise.) responds well to higher rep ranges over 20 reps.
Through my experience, I have found that shocking the muscles with different rep ranges and different exercises seem to produce better results than sticking to any one particular rep range. I have had the most success with drop sets and heavy weight on the donkey calf (Drop sets are starting with a heavy weight and doing as many as many reps as you can, then lowering the weight and continuing to do as many reps as you can until you reach failure.) and the rest pause method on the seated calf. (The rest pause method is doing as many reps as you can at a particular weight, then resting for a few seconds, then continuing that exercise with that same weight until you hit failure on this second go around.)
Tip #5 - Shock your calves by changing your foot angle
Some other ways to shock the calves are to turn the feet slightly in or out while exercising. You can also do reverse calf raises with cables or with a dard which work the tibialis or front muscle of the calf. With cable exercises, you would attach your foot to the cable with the weight around your foot, and then flex your toes toward and away from your body to complete the exercise.
A dard is a small piece of equipment that you can add plates to. You would sit in a chair and attach this small piece around your legs and ankles and flex your toes toward and then away from your body. You can also implement high reps, low reps, super-sets, tri-sets, etc. Try walking on your tippy toes or jumping rope after a calf workout for as long as you can stand it. At the end of a workout, you can implement a few sets with a lighter weight to make sure that you are getting a complete contraction or do some partial reps at the end of a workout to burn the muscle out.
Tip #6 - Find the exercises that work for you
It is also critical that you find exercises that work well for you. The best way to decipher the best exercises for your body type is to ask yourself, “Do you feel like you are getting a good workout with a particular machine or exercise?” For example, my calves were hard to grow.
I had worked out on the standing calf for a few years and I never really felt like I was doing much of anything. I finally discovered the donkey calf and I knew right away that it was going to work. I felt like I was at “one” with the machine, that I could feel the exercise working and felt it challenging my muscles in a way that I knew it was working my muscles to there fullest potential.
Tip # 7 - Monitor your workouts and calf progress
It is also a good idea to keep a notebook of your workouts. Write down the date, how long it took to do the workout, and what you did for your workout that day. This will help you chart your progress later and when you look back a few months later or so, you will be able to see if the work load is actually increasing. Other ways to chart your progress is to measure your calves every couple of weeks.
Through all my years of training, I never measured any of my body parts, but the calves. Pick a mole on your calves and use that as a bench march every time you measure so that you are measuring from the same spot. If you do not have any moles or scars to use as a bench march then measure so many inches below your knee or so many inches above your ankle. In your notebook, write in the date you took your measurements and make sure to measure both the right and left sides, preferably in the same spots.
Tip #8 - Assess changes by taking pictures
Finally, take pictures of yourself in a full body shot to see if your calves actually look any different than they did a few months before. Looking in a mirror is not the best way to assess your progress. The noticeable results will take weeks or months to really show, these are changes that you will not see, but will be an obvious difference in pictures that where taken a few months apart.
Final thoughts on calf training
Training your calves can be challenging. Prioritizing and shocking the muscle by changing your workouts frequently along with working the muscle unusually hard by using advanced techniques such as drop sets, tri-sets, or super-sets will get you the best tangible results. If one strategy doesn’t seem to work, try a new exercise or some new techniques. Results will come, but it is important to be patient and chart your progress.
Lastly, you need to over eat healthy protein and calories to feed your calves so that they will grow. If you don’t feed them, it won’t matter how hard you train them, they will never grow.