Why did Lisa dump me, is it because of my small calves? They’re the hardest place to add mass!
-Milhouse, The Simpsons
The calves are the literal Achilles Heel for many physiques. Let’s face it, calves are a problem area for many of us. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged his calves as his weak link for many years. Nobody wants chicken legs, so let’s discuss the anatomy, exercise, and optimal rep ranges needed to build a rocking set of calves.
Always perform a full range of motion on your calf movements. I see so many lifters in the gym loading up massive weight and only performing a half inch of motion. Attempt to achieve full ankle flexion and extension with each repetition: if you’ve been performing calf exercises with an incomplete range of motion, this will likely mean you’ll have to decrease your working weight. Nobody cares how much weight you can raise with your calves, the only thing people care about is if you have a decent looking pair of calves. When it comes to calf training, check your ego at the door.
Additionally, never “bounce” the weight quickly up and down. Doing so stores the tension in your Achille’s tendon (like a spring) without working the muscles in the calves. Slow and controlled throughout the entire movement.
Calf Anatomy & Exercise:
The major muscles your calves are the soleus, and the medial/lateral gastrocnemius. The two-headed muscle found on the upper calf is the gastrocnemius, and is the larger of the two. The soleus is smaller and runs underneath the gastrocnemius.
When looking to add mass to their calves, many lifters will assume that the standing calf raise is superior, since it will build the gastrocnemius — the outermost muscle. However, adding additional mass to the soleus will push the gastrocnemius outwards to visually “pop out”. This means that an optimal calf routine will incorporate both seated and standing calf raises.
A standing calf raise, performed with a straight leg, works both muscles, but primarily recruits the gastrocnemius. You can see a standing calf machine pictured to the right, but if your gym doesn’t have one, simply set up a smith machine with a block of wood underneath the balls of your feet. Rest the bar on your shoulders and perform the movement as usual.
A seated calf raise, performed with a bent knee, will also recruit both muscles, but bending the knee will relax the gastrocnemius, causing the soleus to take over as the primary muscle in the seated calf raise.
Best Volume for Calves
The calf is a small muscle that will also be worked indirectly through compound movements such as the deadlift, squat, or even just by walking throughout the day. As such, I would recommend performing between 50-60 repetitions per week of direct calf training. These repetitions can be split across your workout days and sets as you see fit, but I’ll go into a bit more detail below.
Given the recommended weekly volume for calves, you must divide that volume across your working sets. To determine the optimal rep range for calves, consider the physiology of each muscle:
- The gastrocnemius is composed primarily of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which respond best to heavy weight/low-rep training. Since standing calf raises primarily recruit the gastrocnemius, perform 3 weekly sets of low repetition/heavy weight standing calf raises.
- The soleus is primarily made of slow-twitch muscle fibers, which respond best to lower weight/higher-rep (fatigue) training. Since seated calf raises primarily recruit the soleus, perform 3 weekly sets of higher repetition/lighter weight seated calf raises.
I like to split up the working sets as follows:
- Tuesday (Push A): 3 sets standing calf raises
- Set 1: 5-8 reps
- Set 2: 6-10 reps
- Set 3: 6-10 reps
- Friday (Push B): 3 sets seated calf raises
- Set 1: 8-12 reps
- Set 2: 8-12 reps
- Set 3: Until failure (aim for a weight that allows you to complete 15-20 reps before failure)
That’s everything you need to know about calf training. Now get out there and build a sick pair of calves!