5 Most Effective Exercises For Building Your Calves

5 Most Effective Exercises For Building Your Calves
Are your lower legs lacking impressive size and shape? These 5 tested exercises with unique twists will add mass to your calves, so add them to your next leg day!

Calves.

If you are fortunate enough to possess a nice pair, consider yourself in unique company. For most of us, calf development seems like a losing battle.

I always say there are two types of people out there – the calf and the calf-nots. If you think you may have been in the wrong line when they were handing out lower leg genetics, read on.

Nicely built lower legs are a sight to behold. Muscular, well-developed calves are the hallmark of full-body proportion. If you sport a good pair, then you can stop reading here. If not, you may find a trick or two to use to get those calves growing again.

Below are 5 tried and true calf builders. But let’s put a twist on each one to get a little more brutal and a lot more results.

1. Standing Calf Raise

The traditional standing calf raise is the cornerstone to any comprehensive lower leg training program. Done on a specific standing machine, Smith machine, or in a power rack on a step, the standing raise will work the entire calf muscle with special emphasis on the gastrocnemius – the heart shaped muscle that is most associated with calf.

Consider if you should lock your knees or not while performing the movement. The gastrocnemius is activated more effectively the straighter the knee is, but if you do lock your knees, be cautious and don’t go too heavy. If you decide to slightly bend your knees, be sure to keep them rigid in that position. You don’t want your calf raise to turn into shallow squats.

5 Most Effective Exercises for Building Calves - Standing Calf Raises

The Twist: Of course you always want to use proper form – a deep stretch and a peak contraction for a count all while using a controlled motion. But experiment with super slow negatives and explosive contractions as well. Also, start out each set by doing several reps with your toes pointed out, then in, and then finish with them pointing straight ahead.

If your gym isn’t equipped with a standing calf machine, hold one or two dumbbells and perform double or single leg calf raises from the floor. Be sure to hold the contraction for an extended period of time such as 10 seconds each. Try the single leg version as well. Shoot for 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 reps.

2. Seated Calf Raise

The soleus muscle, located beneath the gastrocnemius, is equally important for calf development. This large relatively flat muscle, when well-developed, will give the calf a thicker look and add to its width. This particular muscle is best activated by bending the knee. When in this position, the soleus will take the brunt of the weight lifted – so it’s important to add a bent-knee exercise to your program.

Don’t have access to a seated calf raise machine? You can either place your knees under a Smith machine bar while seated with your feet on a step or place weight plates on your legs for resistance.

The Twist: One glaring problem most gym-goers experience is the inability to perform seated calf raises correctly. Too much weight is used so the lifter will bounce the weight up and down with little-to-no results to show for it. Additionally, the risk of injury is greatly increased. It’s a no-win situation.

A simple, yet effective way to immediately remedy this is to apply 21s to the mix. Just as you would for biceps curls, choose a lighter than normal weight and start with the lower half of the movement – from a full stretch to half way up for 7 reps. Next, go from half way to full contraction for a count of 7. Lastly, perform the last 7 reps in a full, controlled range of motion.  That is one set. Go for 3 to 4 sets of 21s.

3. Leg Press Calf Raise

It’s tough to find a good ole fashioned standing calf raise in gyms these days. If your gym has this void, fear not. The leg press can give you some much-needed relief. Whether you use the angled, plate loaded type, a seated selectorized machine, or anything in between, you can still get an effective calf workout.

5 Most Effective Exercises for Building Calves - Leg Press Calf Raises

Just a quick word of caution: If the machine allows, when performing a calf raise movement on any leg press, keep the safety catches engaged. The last thing you need is for your feet to slip off the platform and the sled come crashing down on your legs!

The Twist: This twist can be applied to pretty much any straight leg calf raise move, but the leg press provides a unique advantage. First, perform a number of reps to muscular failure with your legs completely straight – knees locked or near locked. Next, without racking the weight, slightly bend the knees (but keep them rigid) and perform more reps. Lastly, start cheating the weight up by having your legs help – but just a little. You should have a massive pump at this point. That will be one set.

What’s so unique about the leg press? You can perform these in between sets for your upper legs during their workout. Less time, more work. Try 3 sets of 20 to 25 total reps per set.

4. Sprint Work

Don’t relegate yourself to the gym when it comes to building muscle. Get outside and build your calves the natural way – with sprints. Sprinting provides a very unique stimulus to not only your metabolism and calorie-burning capabilities, but also adding muscle to your lower limbs – specifically calves.

The quick stretch reflex action and intense increased load placed on the calves during sprinting is something that traditional calf training just can’t mimic. Just look at sprinters’ legs, they rival those of some bodybuilders but with speed and functionality as a welcome side-effect.

The Twist: Of course you can perform sprints the normal way of X number of sprints with X minutes of rest. For example, 8 twenty-yard sprints with 2 minutes of rest in between each. Some things to consider would be to focus on toe strikes to better activate your calves and try performing uphill or stair sprints.

Another unique technique is to try performing a fast farmer’s walk with weight in each hand while stepping only with your toes. This will create an intense calf burn to help finish off any program. Go for 3 rounds of walks or 5 to 10 rounds of sprints.

5. Plyometric Work/Jump Rope

5 Most Effective Exercises for building Calves - Plyometric Work

Piggybacking off of the above, other plyometric work can build some impressive calves if done correctly and with intensity. Plyometrics takes advantage of the aforementioned stretch reflex effect. When a muscle is abruptly stretched under a load, it will compress its power after the stretch and release that power on the positive motion. Jumping rope has this application. The constant “bouncing” on your toes lengthens and shortens the calf muscles, quickly adding a unique stress they must adapt to.

The Twist: Jumping rope, depth jumps from a box, and other exercises such as bounds and hops all qualify to meet your stretch reflex needs. However, you can always improve on these moves to better target your calves for growth.

Actively using your calves for certain plyometrics (pushing off with your calves instead of focusing on your upper legs), performing single leg work to up the intensity, and increasing speed and height of jumps during jump rope can greatly affect your development. Try 5 to 10 rounds of plyometrics or work up to 2 to 3 minute bouts of jump rope.

2 Effective Workouts for Building Your Calves

Try each calf workout once per week. For example, Workout A on Monday and Workout B on Thursday.

Workout A

Exercise Sets Reps
Standing Calf Raise (toes out, in, and straight) 3 10-15
Seated Calf Raise 3 21s
Jump Rope (focus on calf contraction) 3 2 minutes

Workout B

Exercise Sets Reps
Leg Press Calf Raise (straight, bent, and push with knees) 3 20-25
Single-Leg Calf Raise 3 10-15
Uphill Sprints (focus on toe strike) 5-10 rounds of predetermined distance