CalvesFrequently Asked Questions
Why should I train my calves?
Bigger calves aren’t just for looking good. They play an important role in those explosive movements that result in muscle growth, whether you’re working with dumbbells, barbells or machines. Your legs—which your calves are a part of—stabilise your trunk. Stronger legs = better results at the gym.
When it comes to your calf muscles, I won’t just share with you the benefits of training them but also the risks of not training them enough. Tight calf muscles limit mobility and can even lead to injury. I’m talking shin splints, and we all know how painful they can be.
What's the anatomical structure of my calves?
So before we talk about calf exercises, let’s look at the anatomical structure of our calves first. Your calves are made up of two muscles: the soleus and the gastrocnemius. The gastrocnemius might sound like a villain in an Avengers movie, but it’s actually the protruding muscle you see when you’re looking at someone’s calves. The stronger your calf muscles, the stronger and more defined this baby is going to look.
The gastrocnemius helps you do a bunch of different movements, including accelerating and jumping. The soleus, which is a smaller muscle located below the gastrocnemius, helps you perform other daily activities such as walking, running and dancing. If the gastrocnemius helps you flex your foot and leg at the ankle and knee joints, the soleus helps you keep your balance.
It’s important not to prioritise one over another as they’re equally important.
How often should I train my calves?
You need to train your calves at least 2 times a week if you’re serious about strengthening them. This will, of course, depend on what sort of activities you’re into. If you’re a distance runner, you may want to exercise your calves a little less, otherwise you could end up overworking them.
You can stretch your calves every day to improve your flexibility, which is helpful if you’re doing squats during your workout.
It’s probably a good idea for me to mention that genetics play a role in how quickly and how easily your calf muscles will develop. I’m not going to go into all the details here, but if you don’t fall into the lucky pool, just keep going—you’ll eventually get there.
What are the common mistakes of calf training?
Before you even think about starting any calf workout, it’s important to know first what you shouldn’t do.
1. Don’t leave them at the last part of your leg day
One of the biggest mistakes most gym rats make when working their calves is leaving them last on leg day. At this point, you’re already tired. The last thing you want to do is set the backs of your legs on fire. Calves need hardcore training to get bigger, so give them the priority that they deserve by training them first.
2. Don’t do a few reps
Keep those reps up! Don’t even think about doing less than 20 reps when you’re working your calves. Aim for upwards of 25 reps if you really want to see results. Doing more reps means you’ll be using lighter weights, which helps promote muscle growth.
3. Don’t focus on just one muscle
As I mentioned above, you need to train both the soleus and gastrocnemius equally. To hit both muscles, you need to do your calf workouts in both the sitting and standing position. Don’t get too comfortable with one and forget the other.
4. Don’t use too much weight
Don’t train with too much weight or you’ll just be limiting yourself. Using too much weight usually leads trainers to bounce and cheat just to finish their reps.
What exercises should I include in my calf training program?
The best thing about calves is that you can train them with or without equipment. If you don’t have equipment, don’t worry! You can start with your body weight. Of course, having some equipment can be helpful when you’re up for a bigger challenge.
1. Standing calf raises
Standing calf raises can really get things heated up, especially if you’re standing on an elevated surface. This exercise works really well for strengthening and stretching those calves and gives you a great range of motion.
To do this exercise, hold a dumbbell in your right hand and stand on an elevated surface (our calf block is perfect for this) using the ball of your right foot. Your right heel should be hanging off the surface, your left knee bent and your left toes should be resting above the ankle of your right foot. Keep your core engaged then raise your right heel as high as you can. Lower it and keep going below the surface of the raised platform. You’ll really feel your calf stretching here.
Keep going and switch legs when you’re done.
2. The seated calf raise
This exercise will help you work on your soleus. Sit on a bench with your feet flat. Place two dumbbells on your thighs. Engage your core and lift those heels as high off the ground as you possibly can. Lower them and then repeat. If you want to go for an even deeper stretch, elevate your feet by using a calf block.
3. Famer’s walk on tiptoes
This one is great for developing balance and calf strength. This is the same as the old farmer’s walk, but the only difference is you’ll be walking on your toes. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand with both feet about hip-width apart. Push those shoulders back, engage your core and then lift yourself onto your toes. Don’t let those heels touch the ground as you begin to walk forward. Make sure you feel the burn before you stop.
4. Jump rope
The jump rope is definitely not just for little girls on the playground! It is absolute torture for those calves, but in a good way. Not only is a good jump rope session going to help you build your calves, but it’s also going to be great for your coordination. As always, keep your core engaged throughout the exercise.
5. Dumbbell jump squats
Here’s where things get really serious. You’ll not only be working your calves during the jump, but their stabilisation powers are going to be in full swing during the squat.
To do this exercise, hold a dumbbell in each of your hands and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Do a squat by pushing your hips back, bending down until your thighs are parallel to the ground. You’ll really start to feel the burn here.
Next, straighten those legs in an explosive movement, jumping off the ground. Land on both feet with bent knees, lower yourself back down into the starting squat position and repeat.
6. Downward dog
This is a yoga move and pose that’s designed for a really good calf stretch. Start off by facing down your mat, with your hands and knees on the mat and your legs about shoulder-width apart. Press down into your palms, tuck your toes under your body and lift your knees off the ground. Your body should be forming an inverted “V”. Push those hips back as you straighten your legs, and try to get your feet flat onto the ground. If you can’t, don’t push yourself too hard. It will come with time. If you can get your feet flat on the ground, deepen this stretch by bending one knee and then the other, like you’re pedaling a bike. Keep your neck, spine and legs straight throughout the pose.
7. The wall straight-leg stretch
This exercise works your gastrocnemius muscle and even improves ankle flexibility.
Start off by standing about one arm’s distance from a wall. Place one leg behind the other and bend the knee of the leg placed in front. Place your hands on the wall and lean forward, pushing your hands against the wall while pressing the rear heel down into the ground. Keep your leg straight. Switch your legs and start again. If you want to work on the soleus, bend your back leg just a bit.
8. The standing wall stretch
This exercise also works on your gastrocnemius muscle and it’s especially good for anyone who is struggling with heel pain. Stand in front of a wall and take a step forward, placing the ball of your foot against the wall. Resting against the wall with your hands, straighten that leg and lean forward to feel a good stretch in those calves. Switch legs.
What's the best fitness equipment for my calves?
So let me break this down for you: when you’re looking at calf muscle workout equipment, you can choose from standalone equipment like dumbbells, or pick machines. Machines work in different ways, but many machines add weight to amplify how much you’re pushing against. Now, you don’t need to opt for machines to get better calves, but they do have their perks. It pays to get to know them before you make a decision one way or another.
1. Standing and seated calf machines
I wanted to tackle standing and seated calf machines in one go because they basically do the same thing, but in different ways. Seated calf machines are more popular because they’re easier to use than standing calf machines which require you to use other parts of your body to get them working. Seated calf machines are also more popular among home gym owners due to their compact size; the standing variation takes up more space and is usually found in commercial gyms. They also come with extra functionality for their users.
Seated calf machines isolate your calf muscles, especially the gastrocnemius muscle. Standing machines, on the other hand, distribute weight throughout your body, including your back. If you struggle with back pain, you may want to get a seated machine instead.
Before you buy a calf machine, I recommend you go to a gym and try both the seated and standing kind. See which one feels more comfortable for you before you actually make that purchase.
2. Free and stack weights
Calf machines tend to come with weight stacks or space for individual weight plates—it’s up to you to decide which floats your boat. If you’re using a machine with space for free weights, you can choose how much weight you put onto the machine. If you’re working with a machine that has stacked weights, you’ll pay less for the machine, but there’s always the chance you’ll outgrow it sooner.
No matter which one you’re buying, look at the supported load so you don’t end up getting something that you’ll stop using in a few months’ time. Some of the machines can take up to 250 kgs while others can take up to 363 kgs. Believe me, this will matter further down the line.
Can we talk about calf exercises without mentioning dumbbells? These free weights are great for anyone who doesn’t want to invest in a machine, or wants the flexibility that dumbbells offer. Dumbbells can either be purchased as solid pieces of metal (which are great for anyone on a budget, but keep in mind they’ll need to be replaced more quickly) or you can get adjustables, which are more expensive, but you can switch up the weights according to your need.
4. Jump rope
We spoke about the jump rope exercise before, but of course it isn’t possible to do that if you don’t have the actual jump rope. Just please don’t use your daughter’s jump rope. Get yourself a sturdy, manly jump rope.
Calves aren’t going to build themselves on their own. You need to get dirty to get the job done, but luckily for you, you have many options to blast your calves and prevent yourself from having an unproportional body. Now, let’s see those lunges.
Do Squats train Calves?
Yes…but not directly. The squat targets practically all the muscles in your legs, including the quads, hamstrings and glutes. In the squat, the calves would be used as a stabiliser muscle. Their job is protecting your knee as you bend down in the squat (knee flexion). But this doesn’t mean squats alone will build your calves to their full potential.
Calves are very stubborn muscles – to our knowledge, not one bodybuilder or powerlifter has credited the squat as the secret exercise to building massive calves. Along with genetics, a good set of calves will primarily come from doing a lot of calf raises, standing and seated. If you want big calves, you should do calf raises. As a general recommendation, 5 sets of 10-30 reps for calves is a good place to start – but you’ll have to experiment to see what works for you!
Can I train Calves everyday?
Calves are very stubborn muscles – even for bodybuilders. People like Arnold and Lee Priest Trained their calves, HARD. How hard? They would include calve work at the end of every workout, up to 7 days a week. Why? Because the calves are stubborn!
Calves are used to carrying around our whole bodyweight as we walk around every day, and therefore will not grow easily. If you are starting out, once a week will be fine. But as you get more advanced, you can look to train your calves up to 7 days a week too!
The calves are very stubborn but recover very fast (because they are accustomed to being used every day). You can train them every day if you want to. However, just remember your goals. If you want to be a bodybuilder, everyday calf training might be necessary. If you just want to improve athletic performance, or keep your knees and ankles healthy, 1 or 2 times a week will be plenty.
Does training Calves make you Faster?
Potentially. There are lots of anecdotes of sprinters and other athletes who did thousands of calf raises every day as a child and can now run at a blistering pace. Unfortunately, if it were that simple, everyone who did thousands of calf raises every day would be an Olympic Sprinter. I guarantee some athletes haven’t done a single calf raise in their life and can still run sub-11 seconds in the 100m.
There are many factors that improve sprint/running performance, including genetics and the strength of all your other leg muscles (especially the glutes and hamstrings). Calf training won’t hurt your sprint performance. It may actually help you to stay injury free while running by strengthening the supporting tendons and ligaments. So yes, calf training to get faster may be worthwhile. Ultimately if you want to be able to run faster, you need to practise running FASTER – specificity!
How to train Calves at Home?
You can train calves at home by doing the same exercises you would in the gym! You can do standing calve raises off a ledge or step. You can do seated calf raises by placing some books or weights on your legs. Another way to hit them is by squatting down and doing bent leg calve raises.
If you want to do weighted calf training, you can put a barbell on your back, or hold some dumbbells in your hand. Some people prefer free weight calf training over machine calf exercises anyway – this Is one reason to have a basic home gym! So, give calf training a go at home, and see if you like it. BONUS: Plyometric and explosive exercises, such as jumping and sprinting, are great for the calves too. Don’t over complicate things, just go out there and do some jumps and sprints.
Do Powerlifters train Calves?
Some powerlifters would train calves, and some wouldn’t. A powerlifter’s main goal is to improve on the Squat, Bench and Deadlift – not to have massive calves. So calf training isn’t necessary for a powerlifter. However, they may be included as a warm-up or pre-hab exercise. The aim here would be to strengthen the tendons and ligaments around the calf and ankle that support the bigger compound movements they’ll be performing in competition.