Welcome to "This or That?", a weekly series in which I will try to help demystify the different exercises you can do in the gym. There are many familiar exercises that seem very similar. But which should you do to accomplish what result? In this series, I'll try to give some answers. For the last two weeks, I compared chest exercises, from the standard bench press to the highly adaptable push-up. This week, I'd like to move to a totally different region of the body, one that is tricky to bulk up and often neglected in lifting programs. I speak, of course, of your calves.
The most direct way to target the back of the lower leg is through calf raises. Today, I will compare two similar but surprisingly different calf exercises: the standing calf raise vs. the seated calf raise. Last week I compared the bench press with the dumbbell fly press. This week I'd like to compare two body-weight chest exercises (as opposed to purely weight-lifting exercises): the classic push-up versus parallel bar dips. Ready for the break-down? Here we go.
Standing Calf Raise vs. Seated Calf Raise
In a calf raise, you isolate the calf by pushing off with the toe to raise and lower your heel. In a standing calf raise, you will stand on some form of platform—whether a step or box or flat bench—with your heels off the edge, so that the back of your foot is in the air. You then use your calf muscle to, without moving your feet, lower your heels below the level of your platform, and then to raise up onto your toes above the level of the platform. You have the option to add difficulty by doing these on one leg (as in the photo), or standing on a BOSU, or of adding weight in the form of a barbell across your shoulders or dumbbells in your hands.
A seated calf raise is a slightly more complicated matter. Some gyms may have a seated calf raise machine, where you sit with your thighs under a plate, and place your feet on a platform under you. You then use your calves to raise your heels, and thus your thighs, and thus the (weighted) plate across your thighs. If your gym does not have this machine, however, you can create the same effect by sitting on a flat bench with your feet on the floor. Place a towel over your thighs for padding, and a barbell on the towel and across your thighs for resistance. Then, raise your heels in the same fashion, using your calves to lift your thighs and thus the bar.
Gastrocnemius vs. Soleus
These two exercises both train the two major muscles of the calves, but to different degrees. It is important to know that the calf has two major muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. To get developed calves, you need to work both of these muscles. The gastrocnemius (fondly known as the gastroc) is the larger muscle in the lower leg. It is the heart-shaped muscle that we primarily see when we look at our calves, and it branches into two heads that, with work, will acquire definition. The other muscle is the soleus. It is smaller and runs underneath the gastroc. It is typically what we think of as the lower calf muscle; it is the muscle you feel if you bend your knee slightly during a standard straight-leg calf stretch.
Put simply, both of these muscles are worked by both the seated and standing calf raise. But—the standing calf raise, because done with a straight leg, will target the gastrocs more than the soleus and also more than will a seated calf raise. Likewise, the standing calf raise will put tension on the lateral and medial heads of the gastroc muscle—so, you will get both thickness overall and definition in the heads of the muscle.
The seated calf raise, by contrast, by bending the knee will relax the gastroc (which crosses the knee) and reduce its contribution to the exercise. So, the majority of the work will be done by your soleus. To guys looking for bulk, this may seem like a negative. But in fact, since the soleus lies under the gastroc, by thickening the soleus, you will cause your gastroc to "pop out" more. You add volume to your calves by training your soleus in addition to your gastroc.
Light Weights vs. Heavy Loads
You calves are designed to work. Because they are often neglected in lifting programs, and can be tricky to bulk up, we often forget just how strong our calves are. But remember that your calves spend most of their time lifting the majority of your body weight thousands of times per day as you walk. Don’t hesitate to work them with heavy weights to achieve results.
The upshot: You need both of these exercises to have a balanced calf routine. But don't neglect the seated calf raise because you think only the standing raises produce bulk. Working your soleus adds the impression of bulk to your gastroc. It's a two-fer.
About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he acts as specialty strength coach for some of the university's premier sports teams, and is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.