How to Build Strong and Defined Calf Muscles
You can show off your quads and hams, but small calves can lead to slower sprints times, less stability on the court, lower jumps at the hoop, and a higher risk of injuries.
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A listener named Victoria wrote to me the other day and said, “I have really skinny calves. So skinny that I am starting to feel self conscious about wearing leggings without high boots. How can I get my calves to match the rest of my strong physique?”
Well, Victoria, you are not alone. Tons of people have trouble building their calves. Just look at photos of body building competitions and you will likely see that more than half of the competitors have an imbalance or two, and that imbalance is usually centered around their calves. Heck even Arnold himself struggled with puny calves in his early bodybuilding days.
Believe it or not, working your calves is not exactly rocket surgery.
Luckily, believe it or not, working your calves is not exactly rocket surgery. Calves are not a difficult body part to work but they can be a difficult body part to grow. The good news is that calf workouts do not tire you out like squats do (so you won’t need to spend the remainder of the day on the couch) and they don’t burn you out like a shoulder workout does (so you won’t have to get a close friend to wash your hair for you). Calves are also pretty easy to foam roll or self-massage so there is really no excuse to not add some serious calf work into your plan.
The calf muscles may look like a complicated set of interlocking and intertwining bands of tissue but in actuality they’re not that wacky. Let's break them down.
Gastro is Greek for "belly" and this muscle is what people most commonly refer to when they talk about their "calves." They’re the most noticeable muscles in the lower leg, and they get the most action during everyday activities.
The gastrocnemius (or gastroc) is most visible when you are standing up. If you want to see them well, try this: stand up and raise your toes off the ground toward your shins. Now look behind you at your lower legs, there you will be able to see your medial and lateral heads of the gastroc contract. Cool, right?
The gastrocnemius may be the most obvious section of the calf muscles but it should not be the only one that you train in the same way that the pecs are not the only chest muscles that should be worked on. We don’t want to look wonky or move weirdly, right? (No, we don’t.)
Soleus is Latin for sole (yes, the flat fish) and it is heavily involved in making your body stand up from a seated position. In bodybuilder terms, the soleus makes the back of your lower leg wider.
To find your soleus, sit down and put your hands around the back of your calf. Raise your leg with your toes, like you would if you were standing on your tippy toes. When you do this in a seated position, the soleus bears almost the entire load while the gastrocnemius is nearly inactive. Which is why the Seated Calf Raise is so effective for working your soleus.
The Tibialis Anterior
Located in the front of your lower leg, the Tibialis Anterior separates the inside calf from the outside calf, and often only makes itself known as the muscle that is involved in shin splints.
The tibialis anterior is used for walking up hills and any movement that puts your toes on a higher plane than your heel.
In bodybuilder terms, a well-developed tibialis anterior will make the lower legs appear larger and less boney, which makes this a bit of a “vanity muscle” although it does also serve as a good stabilizer in certain sports, exercises and daily movements.
Before we move on, a few words about types of muscle fibers and why they play an important role in developing your calves.
Type 1 fibers: Also known as “slow twitch” fibers which have a lower potential for growth and force output but are more resistant to fatigue.
Type 2 fibers: Also known as “fast twitch” fibers which have a much higher potential for growth and force output than Type 1 fibers but fatigue sooner.
A research paper on the soleus muscle shows that the composition of the muscle fibers of the gastrocnemius can vary significantly from person to person.
For example, your gastroc might be as high as 50% Fast Twitch fibers (the ones with the higher potential for growth) while mine might only be 20%. So you will find it easy to add mass to your calves while I will have to fight tooth-and-nail for every millimeter of gained girth.
Everyone can build their calves. Some of us just have to work harder than others.
Don’t let that bum you out. Everyone can build their calves. Some of us just have to work harder than others.
How long should a calf workout be?
Like all things, we are looking for quality not quantity. Ultimately, it is not a great idea to work your calves out for more than 20 minutes max. That goes for most body parts. There is a thing called the law of diminishing returns which I am sure you have heard of, outside of weightlifting. It simply means that more is not always better. In fact, more can very frequently result in less.
Let’s break this down. Today’s workout is three sets of seated calf raises (don’t worry, I’ll explain what that is later). Each set takes ~30 seconds of lifting and 90 seconds of resting. So the time to complete that first exercise would be, 3 sets * 30 seconds = 1.5 minutes + (90 seconds of rest * 3 sets) = 6 minutes. There are usually only three calf exercises included in a good day at the gym, so 6 minutes * 3 = 18 minutes of total calf work. Give or take some time for admiring yourself in the mirror or (if you are like me) wiping puddles of sweat off of the equipment.