Calf Clinic: Build Bigger, Stonger Calves

By L.K. Regan

Calves are one of the more difficult muscle groups to bulk up. Many men work their calves month in and month out, with no obvious growth in the size of the muscle. To help solve this calf conundrum, we asked Devin Wicks, ACSM, a fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, and specialty strength coach for some of the University’s premier sports teams, to come up with a plan for building bigger, stronger calves. He said he could help us, his plan involves some pain. “If you can walk the next day, congratulations,” says Wicks. Perfect!

Outlining the Problem—and the Solution
The problem with calves is that their biological purpose is longer runs, not heavy lifting. “Generally speaking, these muscles are geared more toward endurance," says Wicks. "So unless you are genetically predisposed to big calves, it takes a significant effort to make a change in calf size. The key to size is to get away from endurance toward increased weight.”

There is no magic exercise to build your calves, he emphasizes; what matters is how you do the exercises you have. So for the exercise program outlined below, Wicks wants you to add volume—you’ll move toward higher weight and fewer repetitions as you develop strength in this workout.

Learn the Muscles
To begin, you’ll need to identify the specific muscles you are trying to train. There are two primary muscles in your calves: your gastrocnemius and your soleus. It is important to learn to distinguish these muscles, as they operate differently. Your gastrocnemius (“gastroc” as it’s usually called) is the larger, higher muscle in your calf—the one you can easily see providing the bulge. Your soleus is lower in the leg, and runs underneath the gastroc.

To feel these muscles for yourself, stretch them—both need to be stretched before and after each workout. To stretch your calves, stand on a step with one heel extending slightly over the back edge. Flex that foot to lower your heel, but keep your knee straight (just short of locked). The tension you feel is in your gastroc, which you are now stretching. Next, bend that knee slightly while keeping your foot flexed and heel down. You will feel the tension move deeper and lower in your calf. This is your soleus. As a rule, any calf exercise will work both your gastrocs and your soleus. However, when your knees are straight, your gastroc will become primary; when your knees are bent, your soleus will be primary.

Work Your Way Up to Heavy Weight
To build bigger calves, you'll need to build up over a one- to two-month period to heavy weight. Each time you do this workout, you will do three sets of each of the four exercises. Follow this rep and weight plan:
  1. Weeks 1 to 3: To begin this program, you will do three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions using a moderate beginning base weight. To choose a starting base weight that matches your current strength level, find the weight at which you will reach fatigue in 10 to 12 repetitions. Fatigue is the point at which you can no longer maintain your form, not the point at which your muscles give out entirely. Do this program twice per week at your base weight for three weeks.
  2. Weeks 4 to 6: Increase the weight significantly to a point at which you reach fatigue in 8 to 10 repetitions. Do three sets of 8 to 10 repetitions at this weight.
  3. Weeks 7 and beyond: Increase the weight to a level at which you reach fatigue in five to eight repetitions. Do three sets of five to eight reps at this weight twice per week.
Calf Clinic Exercises
Ready to feel some serious burn in your calves? The exercises below work all the muscles in your calf, targeting specific muscles with each exercise. You should do these in the order presented, moving from the larger to smaller muscle groups. You will begin with your gastrocs and then your soleus, after which you'll do exercises for overall stability and the smaller stabilizing muscles near the ankle. For each exercise, move from more repetitions and less weight to fewer repetitions and higher reps over the course of seven weeks, as described above.

1. Seated Calf Presses (Toes Turned Out)
Use the leg press machine at your gym for this exercise. Sit at the machine with only the balls of your feet on the foot pad, and your legs straight and engaged. You'll be flexing your foot, so your heel should be off the foot pad and extended beyond it. Perform calf raises, pressing up onto the balls of your feet. To target your gastroc, your knee should be straight but not hyper-extended. Lock your quadriceps to keep your knee from bending in either direction, forward or back (hyperextended). The key to this exercise is to develop a full range of motion; push high up on the balls of your feet at the top, but also put weight into your heels on the down phase as you lower back down, flexing your foot below flat.

Calf raises are a standard calf exercise, but for this program you will do two variations to target the two sides of your gastrocs. Your gastrocs have a medial (inner) head, and a lateral (outer) head. If you flex your calf, you may be able to see the two heads diverge at the bottom of the large bump that is your gastroc. Targeting both heads will give you maximum definition.

For this first variation, turn your toes out approximately 30 degrees as you do your calf raises. This will target the inner or medial head of your gastroc.

2. Seated Calf Presses (Toes Turned In)
Next, turn your toes in approximately 30 degrees to target the outer or lateral head of the muscle. Repeat the exercise in this position for another three sets.

If you do not have access to a seated leg press machine, do not despair. You can do this exercise standing on a step. To do calf raises on a step, stand on the edge of a step on one foot, either bending the opposite knee or hooking the opposite ankle behind the standing leg. Stabilize yourself with one hand against a wall, and put a dumbbell in your free hand. Hang your standing heel off the back of the step, developing a flexion to let the heel drop below the level of the step. Keeping your knee straight, raise yourself onto the ball of your foot, trying to come up as high as you can and still balance. Hold for a brief moment, and lower back down to the fully flexed position (really trying to let that heel drop). Repeat for three sets, and then switch feet.

3. Seated Calf Raises on Flat Bench
Some gyms have a seated calf raise machine. This machine lets you sit with a bar over your lap, attached to weight plates. You lift the bar by raising your heels and coming up onto the balls of your feet, thus lifting your thighs. If you have access to the machine, you will do three sets of seated calf raises in the machine. As above, try to get very much up onto the balls of your feet at the top, and come all the way down at the bottom.

If your gym does not have a seated calf raise machine as many no longer do, do not worry. You can get the same effect using an incline bench and a barbell, as pictured. Sit on the short end of an incline bench with a plank or low step (such as a Reebok step) under the balls of your feet, but not under your heels. Place a barbell—preferably a fixed barbell, with the permanently attached plates—across your thighs, keeping it balanced and even on both sides. Use your hands to balance the bar, but not to push or lift it. You may want to pad the bar or put a folded towel across your thighs to protect you from the weight of the bar on your legs. In this position, point your toes and raise your heels to rise up onto the balls of your feet. This will raise your thighs and, consequently, the bar. Hold for a moment at the top, and then lower down. Develop a full flexion at the bottom of your motion, such that your heel comes below the level of the step.

4. Standing BOSU Raises
Standing BOSU raises are not only a fantastic soleus and gastroc exercise—they are also important for creating stability in the lower leg, and working the complex of stabilizing muscles above the ankle and in the foot. They won’t give you a lot of calf size, but they will provide you with the strength you need to support yourself through the other exercises.

Stand on a BOSU ball set near a wall with the flat side of the BOSU down. Stand on one foot on the ball, with your toe pointed toward the center of the ball and your heel slightly extending over the side. You can maintain the single-foot pose by holding the opposite knee bent, or by hooking the opposite ankle around the standing leg. Stabilize yourself with your hand against the wall on the bent leg side, using minimal pressure (ideally, just your fingertips for balance). Hold a dumbbell in the other hand, on the same side as the standing leg. From this position, develop a deep flexion, allowing your heel to drop as low as possible. Keeping your leg straight, and your quadriceps on the standing leg contracted, push up onto the ball of your foot, coming as high as you can balance. Repeat this lowering and raising motion, developing as large a range of motion as possible, from fully flexed foot to fully extended. You can add intensity to this exercise by increasing the weight of the dumbbell.


Photo Credit: Nicolas Smith