Thoughts On Calf Training

Calves are known as being the one muscle group that is most greatly influenced by genetics. They can be a stubborn muscle group to develop, especially for those who aren't genetically gifted. The deal with calves and genetics is a lot of people just don't have much natural working muscle cells to build on in the calf region. Their lower leg consists mostly of bone and tendon rather than muscle. They have a very short calf muscle and long achilles tendon. Quite a few African Americans (and good athletes in general) fit this "high calves" curse. The long tendons give them an advantage as far as spring and reactionary strength, but a disadvantage as far as developing nice full calf development. You can increase the size of an area where you have muscle but unfortunately you can't turn tendon and bone into muscle!

However, anyone can increase the size of the muscles they have and a lot of people have the potential for decent calves they just don't train them properly. Many people do calf raises in a fashion that allows the Achilles tendon to do all the work rather than the calf muscles. The Achilles tendon stores elastic energy like a rubber band. It allows you to walk and run efficiently without much muscular contribution. A kangaroo can jump over a 10-foot high fence with hardly any muscular contribution at all due to the length of their Achilles tendon. The human variant of such a feat can be found in any gym when you see lightweights repping out with the entire stack on the standing calf machine. If you perform calf raises bouncing up and down like a jackhammer you’re working your Achilles rather than your calf muscles. To actually train the calves, it's important to slow down and go through the full range of motion. Lower the weight under control. It also helps to use a pause at the bottom. Do this and you’ll likely be humbled by your poundages.

Foot and Knee Position and Calf Recruitment

Can shifting foot and knee position enable you to target different areas of the calf? Well, sort of. The calves consist of 2 muscles, the soleus and gastrocnemius. The soleus is a thin muscle that lies under the gastroc. It is much thinner, more endurance oriented, and has less growth potential than the gastroc, which consists of 2 heads and makes up the great majority of your total calf mass. Anytime you plantar flex your foot you'll recruit BOTH the soleus and both heads of the gastroc, but when performing movements with your legs straight you shift focus towards the gastroc. When performing movements with your legs bent, like you would in a seated calf raise, you shift more focus towards the soleus. Since the gastroc makes up the great majority of your total calf mass and has much more growth potential, I usually don't even recommend fooling around with targeted soleus exercises like seated calf raises unless you're an advanced bodybuilder who already has as much total calf mass as you desire and are simply looking to define what you have. Simply do all your movements with straight legs so that you get the most bang for your buck.

Toes In vs Toes Out?

There is some thought that pointing the toes in hits the outer calves and pointing the toes out hits the inner calves. Some research does suggest "toes out" activates the medial (inner head) of the gastroc to a slightly greater degree, but this is really only true when performing standing and donkey calf raise variations. Even then, you can't TOTALLY shift emphasis to inner vs outer calves. However, since the gastroc makes up the large majority of your inner calf mass performing straight legged exercises which involve a pre-stretch will help you target the inner calves more. My favorite is donkey calf raises.

To compare the difference in inner calf recruitment with straight-legged and bent-legged variations try this: From the seated position flex your calf while placing one hand on the inner calf area and see if you can get a good contraction. Next, stand up with your leg straight and do the same thing. You should find the contraction kicks up a notch when you stand up and straighten your leg. One benefit to angling your toes slightly out is you automatically tend to place more of a pre-stretch on your calves.

Having said that, I recommend you use a stance that you're comfortable with and allows you to feel good contractions in your calves. You'll probably find that concentrating on getting your center of gravity over your big toe will allow you to do this. I personally find pointing the feet slightly in and really focusing on the pre-stretch and rising up on the big toe allows me to get the best overall contractions but just experiment with it and find what works best for you.

Do Calves Really Require Super High Reps?

Calves are thought to be very endurance oriented due to the stress they endure during daily life and there is a school of thought that says they only respond to super high reps and volumes. This is only partially true. The reality is the range of motion on calf raises is so short that it takes more reps to get the same time under tension when compared to most other muscle groups. If you go by the clock instead of rep count, you'll find that a 45 second set of squats might take 12 reps, but a 45 second set of calves might take 50 or more - especially the way most people do calf raises, bouncing up and down like a kangaroo on steroids. Having said that, the main portion of the calves, the gastrocnemius, is fast twitch oriented and responds best to sets 20-60 seconds in duration.

Training Parameters

Calves are similar to forearms in that they can be trained with more frequency then other muscles. Many other bodyparts can grow while being trained once per week but, like forearms, calves do recover relatively quickly and it is possible to hit them every other day with pretty good results. However, you probably won’t see much difference training them twice a week vs 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 days a week, so I usually recommend hitting them twice a week. Calves also respond well to high intensity training techniques such as the following:

Rest-pause: Start with a weight that causes you to hit failure somewhere between 15 and 20 10-20 seconds and rep another 10-20 seconds and rep out...repeat for a total of 3-5 rest pauses per set. Do 1-3 total sets.

Drop sets: Similar to rest pause but strip weight off during some or all of your short rest periods.

Partial reps: Do as many full range repetitions as possible. When you can no longer continue bend your knees slightly and continue with as many reps as possible. When you can no longer continue perform as many top range partials as you can

Stretching: Many people with good calves have superior mobility and ROM during calf exercises. They get a better stretch and are able to get up on their toes easier that people with smaller calves. Calves also respond well to stretching. Doing a standing, donkey, or leg press calf raise take your set to failure and then lower your heels until a full stretch is achieved. Hold for 5-60 seconds.

Sample Routine

My own personal favorite it so to put all those together into one. I recommend you do this on either a standing calf machine or leg press. Start with a weight you can get somewhere between 15-30 reps with. Get your 15-30 reps, do partials at the end and rack the weight. Rest 20 seconds than take that same weight again, do as many reps as possible followed by as many partials as possible, and rack the weight. Then reduce the weight a bit to allow at least 15 reps on the next set. Hit it a 3rd time and if you're really masochistic a 4th and 5th time. At the end of the last set hold a stretch for as long as you can stand. After that there's not much else that needs to be done for calves.

I've found that varying the tempo and alternating between higher rep and lower rep workouts works very effectively. The first workout might involve sets of 15-30 fairly slow and controlled reps. The next workout would involve sets of 30-100 faster reps. You can apply the above principles to both workouts. You can also use both high and low reps in one workout. Do 1 extended set with lower reps and another extended set with higher reps. On the first one use a weight that causes you to reach failure at 15-20 reps and do an extended set with 3-5 rest pauses like I described above. Take a break and come back and do another extended set but this time start with a weight that causes you to fail at around 30-50 reps.

Haphazard Training Can Be a Benefit

Here is something I recommend for calf training you might find fairly unique. Regardless of what specifics you use, provided you train them intensely, it’s not really difficult to get the calves to grow over short periods of time. However, one of the big problems with calves is they tend to adapt VERY QUICKLY to any stress you throw at them and once they adapt they seemingly no longer respond to ANYTHING. Therefore, I suggest you intentionally hit them in haphazard fashion. Go for a few weeks where you hit them twice a week and really pound them into submission. They should respond nicely. As soon as you notice them stagnating, basically leave them alone for 2-3 weeks. Either leave them completely alone or train them at really low maintenance volumes, just one or 2 straight sets once or twice a week. Basically, you want them to slightly detrain from the thrashing you were giving them. Then go back to hitting them hard. When you do, they should once again respond well to your thrashing. You shouldn’t lose much if any size during your maintenance phases but you should notice increased size each time you go back to hammering them. Over time you should see some nice gains alternating focused and maintenance phases.