Legs

6 Best Calf Exercises For Strength & Mass

best calf exercises

Strong calf muscles play an important role in maintaining lower limb function and overall mobility.

The importance of strong calves stems from their direct influence on the stability and flexibility of your ankle joint, which helps with many everyday activities. 

Stronger calves will not only provide essential support to your ankle joints but also helps with injury prevention and enhances athletic performance.  

But, aside from performing endless calf raises, what other exercises can you do to target this small muscle group?

In this article, we’ll recommend some of the best calf exercises that efficiently target these key muscles, promoting strength and resilience in the calf muscles to optimize overall lower body health.  

Best Calf Exercises For Strength And Size

Let’s jump straight into the best exercises to help you grow your calf muscles and increase their strength.  

An important tip to remember with all these exercises is to complete them with a full range of motion and do each rep slowly with pauses at the top and bottom of the movements.  

One of the most common mistakes we see when people do calf exercises is to use brief and short pumping actions.  

All this will do is remove any tension from your calf muscles and place it on your Achilles.  

For proper muscle contraction, it’s important to complete each rep fully and with control.  

There are several ways to perform a standing calf raise, either by using a machine where you can increase the resistance via a weight stack or by standing on the edge of a step and holding a pair of dumbbells.  

You can do them standing on the ground but there is a much smaller range of motion, and you won’t get the benefit of the stretch when lowering your heels.  

This exercise will work more of your gastrocnemius muscle.  

This is the two-headed muscle that sits under the skin and which gives the calves your shape.  

It also targets your soleus but to a lesser degree and is a great way of strengthening the Achilles tendon.  

How To Do The Standing Calf Raise:

  1. Set the desired weight and position your shoulders under the pads.  
  2. Stand with the balls of your feet on the edge of the step. 
  3. Keeping your torso stable, lower your heels to the starting position. 
  4. Brace your core, contracting your calf muscles to raise your heels up until your standing on tiptoes.  
  5. Make sure your ankles remain in line with your knees throughout, so you don’t stress your achilles tendon. 
  6. Squeeze your calves at the top, before slowly lowering all the way back down. 
  7. You should feel a deep stretch to the back of your lower leg. 
  8. Repeat for reps using smooth and controlled movements.  

It’s often assumed that this is the same exercise as the standing calf raise.  

However, for a complete calf training workout, it’s important to do both.  

That’s because this variation will recruit more of the soleus muscle.  

This is a large flat muscle that sits underneath the gastrocnemius.  

Seated-Calf-Raise-Bodyweight

The soleus is more active when the knee is in a bent position, hence why it places increased tension here.  

The muscle fibers of the soleus are mainly slow twitch making them less resistant to fatigue so you’ll probably find you can do more reps with the seated calf raise than the standing variation.  

How To Do The Seated Calf Raise

  1. Sit on the edge of a bench or chair while resting the balls of your feet on a step-up block or similar.  Keep your feet hip-width apart. 
  2. Holding a couple of dumbbells, rest them both on your knees. 
  3. From here, squeeze your calf muscles and raise your heels to drive your feet up and ankles forward.  
  4. With your ankles in line with your feet, lower your heels all the way down until you feel a good stretch down your calves.  
  5. Perform each rep slowly with control and try to prevent any jerky movements.  

The single-leg calf raise is a unilateral variation where you don’t need any additional weight as supporting your own body weight is sufficient load.  

Working each leg independently will help to correct any muscle imbalances and prevent the dominant side from taking over.  

While working the calves, they also help to improve your stability and balance.  

This is because you’ll activate more of your stabilization muscles as you perform each rep.  

For an added challenge you can hold a dumbbell in each hand.  

How To Do The Single Leg Calf Raise

  1. Start by placing the ball of your foot on the edge of a step.
  2. Wrap your non-working leg around the back of the other leg.  
  3. Slowly lower your heel going as far as you can.  
  4. Contract your calf and raise your heel going as high as possible.  
  5. Use a support if you struggle to balance properly. 
  6. Lower the heel back down for a full stretch.  

If you want to reduce the stress placed on your lower back, then performing a calf raise on a leg press machine is one of the best ways of doing this.  

It allows you to keep your body stable with no weight load on your spine.  

You can adjust the resistance by adding weight plates making them exercise more challenging.  

The main muscles recruited doing this variation are the gastrocnemius and soleus helping with balanced muscle growth.  

How To Do The Leg Press Calf Raise

  1. Begin by choosing the desired weight load, the carriage itself may be enough when starting out.  
  2. Sit on the seat and place the balls of both feet on the foot plate keeping them at a hip width distance.  
  3. Rest your upper body against the back rest.  
  4. Exhale and push the balls of your feet against the pad so that your heels raise up. 
  5. Pause at the top for 2 to 3 seconds and lower your heels back to the start.  

Donkey calf raises are one of the best exercises to help you build bigger calves.  

It’s a traditional bodybuilding exercise that involved having a training partner sit on your lower while you lean over and perform a standing calf raise.  

In some gyms there are now dedicated machines that allow you to perform this exercise a little more safely.  

However, if you don’t have access to this machine, it can be done just as effectively with a lifting belt and a kettlebell or dumbbell. 

How To Do The Donkey Raise Without A Machine

  1. Start by placing a weight plate on the ground just in front of a wall. 
  2. Put the lifting belt around your waist and link it through your kettlebell or dumbbell.  
  3. Place the balls of your feet on the edge of the plate and allow the free weight to suspend between your legs. 
  4. Lean forwards and place both hands flat against the wall.  You should already feel a stretch to your calf muscles. 
  5. Your torso should be leaning forwards slightly with no stress on your lower back.  
  6. From here, push through the balls of your feet to raise your heels and shorten your calves. 
  7. Pause briefly before lowering all the way back down. 
  8. If you want to increase the range of motion when lengthening the calf muscle, you could use two plates (one on top the other).  

The primary action during jumping rope is plantar flexion, this is where you push off the balls of your feet and point your toes downward.

As you jump and land when jumping rope, you place repetitive action on your calves, helping to increase their strength and improve endurance.    

Jumping rope requires a lot of coordination and balance, this means you’ll be engaging the stabilizing muscles around your ankles, including the calves. This can contribute to improved ankle mobility and stability.  

There are also cardiovascular benefits to be had by regularly jumping rope

Before starting make sure you have the right length rope.  

Improved heart rate with Jump Rope

To check this, place one foot in the middle of the jump rope and take hold of both handles.  

Pull the handles straight up towards your arm pit.  

The right size jump rope should have the handles just beneath your arm pit.  

As a guide, the recommended jump rope length for someone over 5 feet 10 inches should be 3 feet longer than your height.  

Anyway, below this height should choose a rope length 2 feet longer than their height.  

How To Jump Rope For Beginners

  1. Hold the rope handles with a supinated grip so that your palms face away from you. 
  2. The rope length should be behind you. 
  3. Start with your hands at hip height and in line with them. 
  4. Keep your knees bent to keep stress off the joints. 
  5. You should also be up on your toes the entire time you jump rope. 
  6. Rotate only your wrists to swing the rope overhead and back down to the floor. 
  7. To clear the rope, take small jumps of around 2 inches away from the floor. 
  8. The faster you skip the smaller jumps you’ll need to take (around 1 inch off the floor). 

Are Calves The Hardest Muscles To Build

The calf muscles are not the hardest muscles to build.  

The most common reason why people report finding it hard to increase size to their calves is usually down to not training them enough.  

And, when they are trained the repetitions are often poor with a small range of motion.  

When training the calf muscles, it’s important to stick to a moderate to heavy weight and a peak contraction at the top with a deep stretch at the bottom.  

While genetics do play a part as to whether or not you’ll find it hard to build your calf muscles, with regular training and good quality reps you can improve their shape, add size and increase calf strength.  

Here are some tips you can apply during your next calf workout:

  • At the top and bottom of the movement make sure you pause for a couple of seconds. This increases time under tension which contributes to muscle growth and strength development.  
  • Stretch sufficiently at the bottom.  It’s common to bounce out of the rep, but you want to be able to feel a good stretch when your heel it lower than your toes.  
  • Alter the position of your feet.  By changing whether your toes point inwards, outwards or straight will determine how much emphasis is placed on your muscles.  
  • Don’t forget to train your tibialis.  This is a muscle located to the front of your lower leg and by developing this muscle as well will help to develop the overall size and shape of your lower leg muscles.  Positioning your feet outwards will work more of the medial head of the gastrocnemius, that’s the inner part.  Conversely, feet pointing inwards resulted in more activation of the lateral head of the gastrocnemius, which is the outer part. 
  • When starting out, don’t go too heavy.  This will impact your form and potentially prevent you from working the target muscles.  Begin with body weight exercises then gradually incorporate weight as you get stronger.  
  • Perform each rep slowly and with control.  You should feel an intense burn to your lower leg muscles as the lactic acid builds up.  It’s important to persevere to maximize muscle growth.  

Do Calves Respond Better To Reps Or Weight

For muscle growth your calves will respond better to reps.  

However, if calf strength is your aim, then you’ll need to perform less reps but with a heavier weight.

In respect of the number of reps, when starting out, begin with 4 to 6 sets of 15 to 20 reps.  

As your strength improves, whether you go heavy or light, you want to train your calves to failure for 3 or 4 sets.    

In either case, do 2 sets to warm up.  

If you go too heavy when working the calf muscles, you’ll likely transfer some of the weight load to your quads and other muscles making for a less effective calf workout. 

How Often Should You Train Calves

If your goal is to increase the size of your calf muscles than you’ll need to train them between 4 and 5 times per week.  

Your calves can take more training when compared to other muscle groups.  

This is because most people use them a lot simply by walking around so they will need more attention in the gym.

When focusing on 4 sets and 5 times per week, that makes for a total of 20 sets per week which is optimum for maximum recoverable volume (MRV).  

This refers to the highest amount of training you can effectively recover from within a specific time period.  

Anything beyond this could lead to overtraining and, potentially, injury.  

Final Thoughts

Remember that when training your calves, it’s important to incorporate a range of exercises to work all the muscles.  

When working the calf muscles with a bent knee, for example the seated calf raise, you’ll transfer more of the load to your soleus.  

On the other hand, performing calf exercises from a standing position will recruit more of the gastrocnemius muscle.  

This highlights the importance of doing both seated and standing exercises to work the muscle groups sufficiently.  

Also, be sure to keep your foot position varied between sets as this will help develop your calves evenly contributing to a well-balanced shape and good symmetry.  

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