Growing the calf muscles is one challenge that many people face. It’s often deemed as the most ‘stubborn’ muscle. But usually with some small changes to the approach taken, their growth becomes easier and you will definitely see some calf gains. Here I will share my top tips for growing an impressive set of calf muscles.
Tip 1 – Train them from different angles
The calf is made up of two muscles; the soleus and gastrocnemius. The gastrocnemius is the largest of the two muscles and creates the bulge that can be seen in people who have well-developed calf muscles. Due to the anatomy of the gastrocnemius and where it originates and inserts, any calf exercise that is performed standing (e.g. smith machine calf raise and standing dumbbell calf raise), will activate predominantly the Gastrocnemius.
The Soleus, the smaller of the two muscles, originates and inserts in slightly different places on the lower leg and is most activated when performing a seated calf exercise (e.g. seated calf press, seated calf raise).
So don’t always focus on one variation of the exercise, rather rotate between them in order to work the full spectrum of muscle fibres and therefore cause the whole muscle to grow.
Tip 2 – Train them in a higher rep range
The calves are made up of predominantly type 1 (slow twitch) muscle fibres. This means due to their endurance-like contractile characteristics, they respond well to high reps. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aiming to get them strong, you should just aim to get them strong in a range of 12-20 reps.
Tip 3 – Train them frequently at the beginning of your upper body workouts
As the calves are a very small muscle group, it’s unlikely you’ll be placing them under enough stress each session for them to need the typical 72 hours minimum rest period. This means you can train them a little more frequently than the bigger muscle groups such as the quadriceps. Training them frequently will mean protein synthesis rates are elevated for a greater amount of time each week, meaning there is a higher potential for them to grow. For people who struggle to develop them, I usually recommend training them 3 times per week and placing them at the start of upper body sessions to ensure they are being trained with energy, which leads me on to my next tip.
Tip 4 – Train them properly
One of the biggest problems people have when training calves are typically just spending a couple of minutes training them at the end of a leg session and not really tracking their progress. But they are the same as all other muscles and will only grow if the key principle of progressive overload is being applied. You have to ensure you are logging the amount of work they do, just like when training chest and arms and progressing regularly.
Tip 5 – Work on your mobility
One thing that is often overlooked in the development of any muscle, is the ability to actually work it through its full range of motion. The ankle is one of the joints that becomes very un-mobile if mobility isn’t worked on. As ankle plantar and dorsiflexion is the joint action performed when doing any type of calf exercise, the joint needs to have a good range of motion in order to activate the full calf muscle and promote growth.
The bottom line
It’s not genetics or stubbornness that results in a lack of progress with calf muscle development. It’s just a lack of attention and effort in most cases. Some people are slightly genetically blessed with a higher proportion of the bigger type 2 fibres within their calf muscle, but it doesn’t mean they are the only people who can grow them.