Have Trouble Building Calf Muscles? Try These 5 Moves
Want bigger calves? Be prepared to work for ’em. If you’re even moderately active, each of your calf muscles is already accustomed to lifting your entire body weight every time you take a step — the equivalent of literally hundreds of tons of work each day — so a few halfhearted toe raises aren’t going to offer them much additional challenge. To build calf muscles, you’re going to have to attack your lower legs from multiple angles with multiple moves to see serious results.
1. Standing Single-Leg Calf Raise
- Holding a heavy dumbbell in your right hand by your side, stand with the ball of your right foot on a raised surface: stair, aerobic step, base of incline bench, weight plate, etc. Place your left hand on a railing or other stable object with your left hand.
- Cross your left foot behind your right ankle, and slowly lower your right heel, stretching your calf as much as possible. This is the starting position.
- Lift your right heel as high as possible, squeezing your right calf at the top of the move.
- Hold for a one-count, and return to the starting position.
- Repeat for the prescribed number of reps, then switch sides. Perform equal reps on both, alternating the hand holding the dumbbell with each side.
Variation: To modify the move, perform it using both feet simultaneously, alternating hands with the dumbbell for each set.
2. Seated Calf Raise
- Sit upright on a bench or chair with your feet flat on the ground, holding two heavy dumbbells on top of your knees.
- Keeping your core engaged, lift your heels off the ground as high as possible.
- Slowly lower your heels to the floor, and repeat the move.
Variation: Place the balls of your feet on an aerobic step or a pair of weight plates, and start the move with your heels in the lowered position.
3. Donkey Calf Raise
- Place an aerobic step or weight plate on the floor a couple of feet behind a railing or other sturdy, waist-high object.
- Holding the railing with both hands, fold forward at your hip joints, arching your back slightly, and place the balls of your feet on the step.
- Slowly lower your heels as far as possible toward the floor, pausing for a one-count in the stretched position.
- Lift your heels as high as possible, squeezing your calves at the top of the move, and hold for a one-count.
- Take a full three-count to lower your heels to the floor, and repeat.
Variation: Increase load on each calf by performing single-leg donkey raises. Simply cross the ankle of your free leg behind the ankle of your standing leg while performing the move.
4. Farmer’s Walk
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart holding a pair of heavy dumbbells at your sides, palms facing in.
- Draw your shoulders back, and pull your head back as if making a double chin. Hold this position throughout the movement.
- Keeping your core engaged and your gaze ahead of you, walk for 20-30 seconds to complete a set. Avoid the tendency to sway from side to side.
Variation: Walk on the balls of your feet, never letting your heels touch the ground.
5. Hill Sprint
- Stand at the bottom of a hill at least 1/16 of a mile in length — the steeper, the better.
- After a thorough warm-up, perform repeated, full-out sprints up the hill, starting with five-second efforts and working up to 45-second efforts over time.
- Rest 1 to 2 minutes between reps.
Variation: No hill? Perform jump rope skip-sprints, alternating legs with each revolution of the rope. Over time, work up to a full-out 45 second effort.
Your lower legs consist of two major muscles:
Gastrocnemius: In well-defined athletes, this muscle forms an upside-down heart shape originating at the back of the knee joint.
Soleus: This muscle is visible near the sides of your Achilles tendon, and extends the length of your lower leg beneath the larger gastroc muscle.
To build size in your calves, you have to work both muscles, which requires movements like the ones above.
Another key component: lengthening and loosening the calf muscles. The greater a range of motion you can achieve with your ankle joints, the more effectively you’ll be able to work the muscles that control them. So be sure to include plenty of calf stretches — against-the-wall heel drops, downward dogs — in your cool-down following each calf workout.
Genetics and calf-building
There’s no denying that genetics influences muscle building — just ask your super-muscular buddy who never seems to make it to the gym. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the muscles of the calves.
In the gym, it seems, you’re as likely to see muscular calves on a beginner and narrow calves on an advanced lifter as the other way around. Big calves, as often as not, seem to be the product of good genes.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t train them. Like any other muscle, calves respond to hard, direct, frequent work, using a variety of strength-training exercises.