The 5 Best Calf Exercises to Grow Bigger, Stronger Calves

The 5 Best Calf Exercises to Grow Bigger, Stronger Calves

clock-circular-outlinePosted 31 Jan 2023
An Evidence-Based Approach to Calf Training

If you’ve struggled to grow your calf muscles, you’re not alone. Even the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger reportedly struggled with his calves.

The rumor was that he was so ashamed of the size of his calf muscles that he forced himself to wear shorts all the time – it meant he had to put extra effort into growing them to rid himself of the embarrassment!

Benefits Of Calf Strengthening Exercises

(Related: Grow Bigger Legs: The Ultimate Guide To The Best Leg Exercises)

What Muscles Are In The Calves?

The calf muscles consist of two main muscles – the gastrocnemius and the soleus. It’s why when you see someone with big, defined calf muscles they’re ‘w’ shaped – they’re two separate muscles.

We contract these muscles by pointing the toes. This movement is known as plantar flexion.

What Do The Calf Muscles Do?

The calf muscles work to flex the foot. As simple as that sounds, it’s actually slightly more complicated. This is because leg position and knee angle will change how the muscles contract.

A 2014 study by Suzuki et al titled ‘Gastrocnemius and soleus are selectively activated when adding knee extensor activity to plantar flexion’ found that…

‘Plantar flexion with concurrent knee extensor activity leads to selective activation of the soleus and depression of the synergistic activity of the gastrocnemius.’

In English, this means that the knee angle impacts the work done by each of the calf muscles. This is something to bear in mind when selecting the best calf exercises. We’ve got to do calf exercises where the knee is bent as well, otherwise we focus too much on the gastrocnemius and miss the soleus.

Now we understand how the muscles move, we’ll look at the effective loading of the muscles.

Building calf muscles – should we go heavy?

There’s a misconception that says to build muscle we have to lift heavy, or at least lift in the 8-12 rep range. Research has shown that this always true. It’s certainly effective, but the point is it doesn’t mean you can’t build muscle with lighter weight, high-rep sets.

Calf muscles are a perfect case in point, because of their muscle fibre type.

The calves predominantly consist of slow twitch muscle fibres. These fibres have better endurance qualities. This makes a lot of sense - they wouldn’t be useful for walking if they fatigued quickly. Slow twitch muscle fibres are never going to be particularly strong, so we don’t need to hit them with heavy weights.

Instead, slow twitch muscle fibres respond best to high volume, low load training.

This isn’t an opinion point either. In 2020 Brad Schoenfeld and his colleagues asked the question… Do the anatomical and physiological properties of a muscle determine its adaptive response to different loading protocols?

They concluded…

‘…results showed that changes in muscle thickness were similar for the soleus and the gastrocnemius regardless of the magnitude of load used in training.

They did provide a caveat though…

‘…the associated adaptations are independent of load used in the training program provided that sets are performed with a high level of effort.’

What this means is that the weight lifted was less important than the work you put into the exercise. They showed that the muscles will grow whether you lift heavy or light weights, but only if you work very hard.

In short, effort trumps weight.

How Many Calf Exercises Should I do?

You don’t want to be exercising merely for the sake of it, but at the same time you don’t want to miss out on some valuable gains!

Old school bodybuilders were the early pioneers of hitting muscles from different angles by tweaking exercises. Adding an incline or decline to a bench press for example. This effect has also been studied in relation to calf exercises.

In a 2020 study, Nunes et al looked at Different Foot Positioning During Calf Training to Induce Portion-Specific Gastrocnemius Muscle Hypertrophy.

They found that foot angle made a difference to the head of the gastrocnemius being trained. Pointing your feet outwards hit the medial head more, pointing your feet inwards targeted the lateral head, and feet pointing forwards hit both heads.

It means we should factor this in – for each exercise perform 4 sets...

  • 2 sets feet pointing forward

  • 1 set feet pointing inwards

  • 1 set feet pointing outwards

This should effectively hit all of the muscle.

The 5 Best Calf Exercises

Now I’ve given you the background, it’s time to give you the best calf exercises. In these, I’ve factored in everything we’ve learned from the research above.

  1. Standing Calf Raises

  2. Seated Calf Raises

  3. Eccentric Calf Raises

  4. Tip Toe Farmers Carry

  5. Squats Into Calf Raises

Scroll down to find out more about each of the best calf exercises...

Exercise #1 – Standing Calf Raises

The standing calf raise is the go-to calf exercise for many. It’s easy to set up, to progress and to learn.

Start with a high-rep bodyweight approach. You should be looking at 4 sets of 25-30 reps. As mentioned in the point above, perform the sets with the toes pointing inwards, outwards and bang in front.

If needed add in dumbbells or kettlebells to increase the resistance.

The rep should be performed through a full range of movement. This means a full stretched position of the calf at the bottom of the rep, to a full contraction at the top.

Exercise #2 – Seated Calf Raises

As I showed earlier, the research says we need to perform calf raises with the knee in a bent position as well. This activates the soleus, so we cover both bases with a seated calf raise.

Use the same high rep approach that we took for the standing calf raises – 4 sets of 25-30 reps each. I’d suggest loading this exercise from the start, rather than using bodyweight. My preferred approach is with weight plates placed on the lap as you lift.

Focus on a full stretch at the bottom and a full contraction at the top of the movement.

Exercise #3 - Eccentric Calf Raises

This is an exercise that is often used in the physio and sports rehab world. It works by exaggerating the eccentric contraction (where the muscle lengthens). This helps to improve the tissue health and elasticity.

Full range of movement is imperative here and adding a little extra weight can be helpful for increasing the stretch of the muscle.

Exercise #4 – Tip Toe Farmers Carry

This isn’t a calf exercise that would normally spring to mind, but my job here is to open your eyes to new ideas! I’m a big fan of loaded carries in my personal training work, and there’s a real value in adding this variation to your calf training.

Take a couple of kettlebells or dumbbells, then get busy! Stay on your tiptoes for a good 15-20m, rest and return.

Exercise #5 – Squats Into Calf Raises

These are a fantastic exercise and are really functional. You can lift very heavy weights here too because you’ve got the momentum from the squat. This movement replicates the kind of thing you’d be doing whilst playing sport, so there’s genuine athletic carryover.

Hit a deep squat, then explode up into a calf raise. No need to do this on a riser – the extra weight from the squat gives you the training effect you need.

4 sets of 8-12 works well.

Implementation, Conclusion & Final Thoughts

Your calves are used to a lot of work, so to force them to grow you’ll need to hit them with high volume. We've given you the 5 best calf exercises, and these should be done 2-3 times per week at a high intensity.

What we’ve learned here is that volume and intensity trumps weight. We’ve also learned we should be using different foot angles to maximize calf growth. Remember these points when doing your workouts.

This article has taught you the 5 best calf exercises to grow bigger, stronger calves. The advice is evidence-based and if implemented properly, it’ll transform your calf development.

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WRITTEN BY: Steve Hoyles

Steve Hoyles received his degree in Sports Science from Swansea University. Since then he has spent his entire career working in the fitness industry - personal training and coaching thousands of clients. He now owns MyGym, a strength and conditioning gym in Stockport and works as a fitness copywriter.

Steve HoylesBy Steve Hoyles

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