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.

Brock Armstrong
9-minute read
Episode #362
Photo of three woman building stronger calf muscles

Should calves be trained in isolation?

The great thing about calves is that they can be trained along with any other muscles in your routine. In fact, some leg exercises work multiple leg muscles so most people suggest working calves along with hamstrings and quads.

While we’re on the subject, some people prefer to skip the specific calf work and simply do deadlifts or squats. Sure, both are superb exercises for the quadriceps but they don’t even come close to using a full range of motion for the calves. I would say that by doing squats to build your calves you are leaving more than half of the benefits on the weight bench. Make sure you hit them specifically—as well as incidentally—on your leg day.

Calf Exercises

It is important to do these exercises safely so always warm up thoroughly first by doing some sun salutations, and walking or jogging slowly for five to ten minutes. During the workout, focus on using proper form and stay focused on what you are doing at all times. It can be helpful to watch yourself in a mirror to make sure you aren't collapsing or favoring one side over the other.

Standing Calf Raise (with straight legs)

Since the claves (or Triceps Surae) is an extremely powerful muscle group, don't hesitate to work it with heavy weights using a range of 4-6 reps (to failure).

  • Stand at the machine or in the rack with your back straight, place your shoulders under the pads (or the barbell across your back), and place the balls of your feet on the foot plate.

  • Rise up by extending the feet, while keeping the knees straight, and hold the contraction for one to two seconds.

  • Return to the starting position, and try to get a full stretch when you lower your heels.

  • Repeat to failure.

Donkey Calf Raise (with straight legs)

This exercise will increases the width of the calf muscles. Reps in the 12-15 range provide best results.

  • Lean over (forming an L shape with your torso and lower body).

  • Stand on a small ledge or platform, allowing enough room for your heels to hang off the edge.

  • Hold on to something stable for support so that your torso is parallel with the ground.

  • Flex your calves, raising yourself up as high as possible.

  • Return to the starting position where your calves are fully stretched and your heels are hanging off the edge.

Seated Calf Raise (with bent knees)

This is great for increasing the size of the soleus. 12-15 rep range provides best results.

  • Sit at the machine with your knees positioned under the pads, and the balls of your feet placed on the foot plate.

  • Extend your feet, and hold the contraction for one to two seconds.

  • Return to the starting position, and try to get a full stretch when you lower your heels.

Leg Press Machine Toe Press (with straight legs)

This exercise benefits the entire calf muscle. Be certain to go through full range of motion so you get full development of the muscle.

  • Sit at the leg press machine, and place the balls of your feet on the foot plate.

  • Push up on the balls of your feet, and hold the contraction for one or two seconds.

  • Return to the starting position, and try to get a full stretch when you lower your heels.

Standing Reverse Calf Raise (with straight legs)

This one really targets the Tibialis Anterior. Training this one will add width to the front of the lower leg.

  • Stand under the smith machine bar, and place your heels on the platform.

  • Position your toes facing forward with a shoulder width stance.

  • Push the barbell up by extending your hips and knees until your torso is standing erect. The knees should be kept with a slight bend; never locked.

  • Raise the balls of your feet as you breathe out by extending your toes as high as possible and flexing your calf.

  • Hold the contracted position for a second before you start to go back down.

  • Slowly go back down to the starting position as you breathe in by lowering the balls of your feet and toes.

Jump Rope

This one is usually thought of as a cardio exercise but it can also build your calf muscles. You will need to perform it for 30-40 minutes to get the best calf building results.

  • Grab the jump rope with each hand.

  • Jump with both feet with each turn of the rope.

  • Vary which foot takes the most weight and how quickly you move the rope to keep it interesting.


About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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