Looking for advice on how to build calf muscles?
Those beautiful 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, we’re 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. We know how to make your calves grow. We can help you with some targeted exercises to strengthen and grow these pesky muscles. We can suggest some training routines, some of the best calf exercises to focus on that area of your growth. And we can make sure you learn enough about getting bigger calves that you’ll become the resident expert in your local gym.
But we have to start somewhere. Let’s first take a look at what these calf muscles are all about.
Anatomy of Calves
What are calf muscles? What do they do? And how did we end up with on weird name?
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, we 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.
Calf Muscle Exercises
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.
We’ve collated some of the best and most effective lower leg exercises for calves. We’ve got your calf exercise for mass, the best exercise for calves lengthening, and some solid starting points to build your lower body muscles.
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 we promise, with time and effort, you WILL see results.
Calf Raises at Home
Let’s start off with something simple and small. 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.
Calf Raises During the Day
This is just a pattern of using your calf muscles more than just in a routine training session. This is about making your calf strengthening a pattern that trains your lower leg muscles to build mass.
As you go through your day, incorporate calf muscle movements. Every time you walk to your car, do so on your tiptoes. When you’re taking the stairs, be conscious to squeeze your calf muscles as you do so. When going down the stairs, land on the balls of your feet each time. This is quite similar to doing plyometric exercises, holding a certain position to activate the muscle group.
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.
Seated Calf Raises
Remember how we said that your calf muscle was made of separate muscle groups? Well, we need to perform a different type of calves exercise with weight to isolate the other, smaller muscle in the calves. The best exercises for calf muscles should incorporate something for each individual muscle.
Sitting down, place some weights on your knees and lift your heel off the ground. This seated calf raise activates the plantaris muscle and operates in conjunction with the larger gastrocnemius muscle that standing raises train.
Do a set of 10-12 lifts, holding at the top of the lift and squeezing until you feel that burn.
Alternative Exercises for Calves
You should switch up your routine every couple weeks to see the big calves. We suggest some of these variations thrown into your home calf workouts.
- One-leg calf raises.
- Bent-knee calf raises (single and double leg)
- Single-leg calf raises off a step
The slow twitch muscles need a lot of reps and repeated efforts to see results. They won’t react quickly to any change but persist and you will see your calves grow.
Another point to remember:
Calf exercises are much more effective if you’re barefoot. You achieve much more range of motion and mobility when you do calf exercise with no shoes. Do NOT bounce when doing these exercises. That can put you at extreme risk of overextending and tearing the muscle clean away.
With some effort, some determination, and a little genetic help, you can be proud to wear shorts and cut-offs again. Your calves will never look better after a few weeks of dedicated, concentrated efforts. Hard work in the gym can overcome any genetic disposition.
Yes, that even applies to your calves.