Looking for advice on how to build calf muscles?
Calves are those beautiful lower leg muscles that round out your physique.
They’re controversial muscles because although they look fantastic when they’re bulging, they aren’t the easiest muscle to work.
That’s because, by and large, the look of a great calf is largely due to genetics. If you win that genetic lottery, I’m happy for you. But if not, you’ll forever wonder how to make your calves bigger.
The good news is this:
It can be done.
I can help you with some targeted exercises to strengthen and grow these pesky muscles. I’ve suggested some of the best calf exercises to focus on for significant and efficient progress.
Let’s first take a look at what these calf muscles are all about, and then I’ll give you 14 ways to make yours massive.
What Are Calf Muscles & What Do They Do?
Let’s give you a brief overview of what you need to know.
The better you understand the function and mobility of this muscle group — yes, I said group, because it’s more than just one singular muscle — the better you can understand how to work and strengthen, your stepping stones to building calf muscles.
The calf is made up of three separate muscles, the gastrocnemius, the soleus, and the plantaris.
They are called the triceps surae, the Latin phrase for the “three-headed calves”. Now, we just shorten that down to the calf muscle for brevity’s sake.
The calf muscle works like this:
While sitting down, extend your leg straight out, and then bring it back down again. The act of bringing your leg down is activated by the calf muscle. It’s the counteraction to the quad muscle bending your knee and leg. It works with your hamstrings to operate the knee joint.
But the big claim to fame for your calf is the action which allows you to have forward movement. The other end of your calf muscle joins up with your Achilles tendon to lift your heel. If you couldn’t do that, you wouldn’t have the ability to have any forward movement at all.
The two muscles join up and merge at the tendon, and the tendon is connected to the heel bone. When the calf muscle pulls, it lifts the heel bone up, which occurs naturally as you walk.
When you think about it, it’s a pretty amazing muscle to serve two joints. And it’s the look of those two muscles side by side that give it that envious appeal. If you’ve got it, you’ve got it. If not…
…we can work on that.
Calf Muscle Strains and Injuries
Your calf can be exposed to strain and painful tears if you aren’t cautious.
Because it serves two different joints, it can pull away from either of them, leaving you with a nasty, sharp pain and an inability to walk properly.
Athletes are usually quite prone to tears and strains. The large muscle contains a high amount of fast-twitch fibres used for quick movements. If the muscle gets overworked, it can snap away and contract quickly. Some refer to this as a “snap of the whip” strain. Ouch.
But you’re probably more familiar with the agony of a calf muscle cramp. Excessive stretching, excessive usage, or an imbalance in your nutrition can be felt when the muscle seizes up, painfully retracting.
No one is really sure why cramps occur, or why the calf muscle is so prone to its effects. Dehydration, nerve damage, or inadequate blood supply are all thought to be conditions which prompt a cramp to occur. Calf muscle cramps, as annoying as they are, will go away on their own and don’t indicate the sign of anything underlying or malign.
You can also “pull” the muscle when the calf has been extended beyond its limits. It can be sight or extremely painful from a complete tear of the muscle away from its anchoring points.
14 Ways to Grow Your Calves
As painful as those injuries are to read about, let’s move on to some safe and effective exercises to work these big, beautiful muscles — even if you have bad genetics!
I’ve collated some of the best and most effective lower leg exercises for calves.
First off, you can’t throw a couple half-hearted sets in during your normal workout. If you’re reading this article, we’re going to assume that you haven’t been blessed with great calves, but your hard work can overcome that deficiency.
You need to put in some effort to see results, and we want to help you target what needs to be worked on. They can be stubborn and resistant to growth, but I promise, with time and effort, you WILL see results.
One bonus tip I’ll give you before we start: measure your calves.
Progress might appear to be slow as you work on them, but with measurements you can accurately identify how much size you’ve put on — usually you won’t spot an extra centimetre or two in additional mass with just your eyes.
Each day, take some time to do 75-100 slow, purposeful leg raises, squeezing your calf muscles at the peak of your raise. It should look like you’re standing on tiptoes, holding for a few seconds while you squeeze and then gently lowering yourself back down to flat feet.
We want you to start to activate your calves, getting them ready for the intensive focus you’re going to put on them. Remember those painful injuries? Yeah, let’s avoid those with slow, simple movements to begin with.
You’re aiming to feel a good burn in your muscles by the end. If you can’t do 100 right now, that’s fine. But let’s make that your target number.
Weighted Calf Raises
Now we get into the meat of the workouts. Only attempt these calves strengthening exercises after a couple weeks of daily calf raises and calf isolating movements at home. We want to refrain from straining or over-extending your calf muscles to pulling point.
Stand on a free weight (or a large book) on the ground with your calves hanging over the edge. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, perform a set of 10-12 reps of calves exercises with dumbbells, holding and squeezing at the apex just like the bodyweight raises you were doing at home.
Be sure to do it slowly so that you can take the time to work the larger slow muscles and not the fast-twitch muscles. It’s the slow-acting muscles that will build up the bulk on your calves.
Increase Rep Count
Try 15-20 reps per set instead of the 6-8 that is typically advised for building muscle – also known as ‘hypertrophy’.
As we said earlier, you need to really hit your calves hard in order to engage them.
Higher reps will help your calf muscles develop more. Don’t be afraid to do as many reps as possible across 3 to 5 sets.
A Month of Focus
For the next month, ensure you’re hitting your calves on a more frequent basis than you normally would.
If you’re going to the gym 4-5 times a week, make sure you hit your calves hard twice at a minimum, maybe even three times depending on how much rest you’ve managed to give them.
Rest is important too. It’s the rest and the recovery in which your muscles actually grow.
If you don’t head down to the gym that often and need to grow your calves at home, ensure you’re overloading them at least twice a week with added weight on your frame.
How do you achieve this?
Increase Weight on Your Frame
This is especially important for those that can’t hit the gym as frequently as they’d like to.
If you’re wanting to learn how to grow your calves at home but you’ve so far failed in your quest for knowledge, then this can be one of the biggest tips to help you out.
Remember earlier in the post when we said that heavier people have an advantage when it comes to the size of their calves?
You can level the playing field with this tip:
If you get to do a lot of walking – maybe a walk to work, or a walk on your lunch break, or maybe you live in an area where it’s great to get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors – grab a backpack and fill it with heavy objects.
As time goes on, increase the number of objects inside it and with that, the weight too.
Bonus points are awarded if you don’t mind looking slightly foolish and putting a bag on the back and front of your body to balance the weight a little more evenly.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to look slightly idiotic, you can purchase a weight vest to go under your usual clothes to give yourself an added 5-30kg to carry around with you – and they’re insanely effective.
Mix Up Your Rep Scheme
Mix up your rep scheme while you’re working away enhancing your calves.
Like we said earlier on, your calves are accustomed to being strained – you need to shock them into life with continued and varied work.
Switch up your rep counts and the weight that you’re repping, use pyramid sets or other variants to continually increase the strain on your calves.
Stay On Your Toes
Dancers tend to find themselves with really defined calves, and this is because their form of exercise regularly hits those stubborn lower leg muscles.
However, the majority of gymaholics don’t tend to be into their ballet!
This means you need to find other ways of keeping on your toes on a regular basis – even if you may look slightly silly.
One of the best things you can do is to walk or run on an incline on the treadmill, teamed up with one of the aforementioned weight vests.
Get on Your Bike
Cyclists tend to have huge calves.
Riding around on a bicycle is an insane natural workout for the lower legs, and as a result will help to grow your calves with ease.
One of the best things about cycling is that it can save you money – you can reduce your car expenses whilst getting around via bike, whilst giving yourself a workout in the process.
A month or two of cycling around and your calves will be bulging.
You’d also be doing your bit for the environment!
Make Use of the Stairs
Use those staircases to your advantage!
If you have to walk up a series of stairs to get to your office or can choose to take steps instead of the elevator, you can take full use of them.
And unless you live in a bungalow, you should be able to perform these exercises at home too.
Keep on those toes again, or even do a calf raise on every other step if you don’t mind it taking a little longer than usual to get from one floor to the other.
Opt for Flat Shoes
Typical gym footwear may not be appropriate for enhancing leg muscles to their fullest whilst weightlifting.
Whilst great for cardio, the majority of athletic footwear is built for supporting the knees. In turn, this actually means a variety of leg exercises become less effective.
The greater range of motion you have, the harder your muscles are working. A better range of motion speeds along your calf goals.
Flat footwear such as Converse – or ‘Chucks’ – or Vans are actually exceptionally good footwear for when performing squats, deadlifts and more.
Hold the Knee Steady for Maximum Focus
When you’re doing exercises like calf extensions, you need to ensure your upper leg – from the knee upwards – is as steady as possible.
This is to ensure you’re putting all of the focus on working on growing your calf muscles.
Keep on Eating
It’s essential you’re eating more calories than you’re burning off – known as eating ‘above maintenance’.
This is crucial for building any form of muscle.
As you build muscle, your weight will increase and with these calf growing tips, the size of your legs will too.
As you weigh more, your calf muscles will also naturally grow slightly bigger too – meaning there is synergy produced.
It’s also important to smash your protein goals, and it’s probably a good idea to find yourself one of the best protein shakes to drink on a daily basis.
No Pain No Gain
This is a common saying in the world of fitness, but it couldn’t be more true for calves.
If you can’t seriously feel the burn in your calves whilst in the middle of your exercise then you are likely to see little-to-no muscle growth, no matter how many exercises you do a week.
Feel the burn, reap the rewards.
Vary Your Exercises
Ensure you’re hitting your calves at every angle and at every opportunity.
It’s easy to leave them out of your workouts altogether, or even just do half a job when you can be bothered to target them.
You need to hit them hard.
If you have any questions or thoughts, please leave them in the comments below.