How to Build Bigger Calves: The Complete Guide

Some people are born with incredible intellect, some are gifted with angelic faces, others are born into money, and there are those who are blessed with huge calves. If it so happens that yours are like string beans and you can’t get them to grow, don’t despair because you’re not alone. Across the world, people are falling victim to what has been dubbed as “mediocre calves syndrome.”

Your shoulders are broad, your arms are well defined, and even your quads and hamstrings are in awesome shape. Yet, regardless of how hard you try, your stubborn calves never seem to grow. It’s hard not to envy those folks who rarely need to do a calf raise, yet possess thickly developed pair of diamond shaped calves.

It’s common for the calves to lag behind other muscle groups, and there is a good reason behind this. In fact, deep inside you know precisely why you are not adding mass to your lower legs…the reason? You are not training your calves properly, and likely not hard enough.

You go to the gym, work on your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and if you still have an ounce of strength left, you do a couple of calf raises. Several months later you are still trying to figure out why the heck your lower legs look so skinny. Most of us are guilty of not prioritizing this part of the body. The truth is that the calves usually take a back seat to other muscle groups that are easier to develop.

This is unfortunate especially when you consider the benefits that a pair of powerful calves can provide like the following:

  • Prevention of injuries (i.e. calf pulls, Achilles tendon tears)
  • Improved knee flexion
  • Stabilization of ankles and feet
  • Increased short sprinting speed
  • Increased vertical jumping power

So How Exactly Can You Develop Your Calves?

Doing a number of calf raises at the end of a workout won’t help much. A lot more is involved if you really want to develop strong and powerful calves. In order to turn your calves into cows, you’ll need to train harder and smarter. In this article, you’ll learn about the specific muscles that you need to target and how to modify your training routine to hit those muscles from all angles. 

Brief Anatomy

The calf is composed of two massive muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. They both run the entire length of your lower leg, originating behind the knee and inserting into the heel. Their primary action is to plantar flex the foot at the ankle joint and flex the leg at the knee joint.

The gastrocnemius and soleus are responsible for adding size and symmetry to your lower legs, so they are essentially the muscles that make your lower legs look sexy.

It takes time, effort and a bit of pain to shock them into getting bigger. However, you will achieve satisfying results if you use the proper training strategy combined with a balanced and healthy diet.

The Gastrocnemius

Commonly called as the ‘gastroc,’ it is located at the superior portion of the lower leg and is composed of fast twitch muscle fibers. It is bigger than the soleus, and while both are explosive and can generate high levels of tension, they fatigue quickly. This is the reason why you need to train them first; ideally with lower repetitions and heavier weights.

How to Isolate and Target the Gastrocnemius

You can best hit the gastroc by doing movements where your legs are fully extended. Standing calf raises are a perfect example of exercises that specifically target the gastroc. They also partially engage the soleus, but by paying attention to form and keeping your legs extended, you will be able to avoid putting a lot of tension on this smaller muscle. A good alternative to standing calf raises is the donkey calf raise as it localizes both the gastrocnemius and the hamstring. More on these exercises in the succeeding sections.

The Soleus

This muscle is located right under the gastroc and is the one that gives width to your lower leg. It is also provides stabilization so you don’t fall forward by maintaining your posture.

In stark contrast to the gastroc, the soleus is composed of slow twitch muscle fibers so it produces less power. But what it lacks in strength it makes up in endurance and recovery. And since it takes longer to fatigue, you can train it more often.

How to Workout the Soleus

If the gastroc can help you develop powerful calves, the soleus will help you add girth and size. The soleus can be targeted by doing flexed knee exercises like seated calf raises. Again, since it consists of slow twitch fibers, you can exercise it longer by doing more repetitions.

Exercises to Help You Build Bigger Calves

1Standing Calf Raises 

Stand on the edge of a step. Pull in your abdominals, make sure that the balls of your feet are planted firmly on the step, and your heels are hanging over the edge. Place your hands against a wall or hold on to a sturdy object for balance. Slowly raise your heels above the edge of the step – as high as you can – so you are standing on your toes. Hold the position and then lower your heels below the edge until you feel a stretch in your calf muscles.

2Seated Calf Raises 

This movement works out the soleus. Place a block about a foot in front of a chair. Sit on the chair and put the ball of your feet on the block. Rise up on your toes as you breathe out and squeeze the calves. Slowly return to the starting position. Repeat at least 10 to 20 times.

Add weight to increase the difficulty of the exercise. Have someone place a dumbbell/barbell on your thighs and hold it there. You can also modify the way in which the calf muscles are targeted by altering the angle of your feet. Do a set with your toes pointing inward, then do another set with your toes pointing 45 degrees outward.

3Leg Press Calf Raises (Donkey Raise)

Sit on a leg press machine and put your legs on the platform at a medium foot stance. Hold the weighted platform with your toes and the balls of your feet. Press the platform by raising your heels until your legs are fully extended. Your hips and knees must remain stationary throughout the movement. There should be no bending at any time.

Hold the position, then slowly lower your heels as you bend your ankles until your calves are stretched. You can increase the difficulty by adding weights. Remember that the key is to ensure that all of the weight is borne by your calves. Make sure that you don’t use other muscles to press.

4Jump Squats 

Assume the squat position, with your arms at your sides and your feet shoulder width apart. Bend your knees and move the balls of your feet and toes as you squat. Engage your core then jump explosively. Land softly on the balls of your feet and lower your body back into the squat position. Do 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

Regularly doing this workout is a great way to quickly build muscle. The explosive movement is what stimulates the calf muscles to build fast.

5Box Jumps 

Find yourself an exercise box and stand in front of it with your feet shoulder width apart. Start with a height of 20 inches while you practice getting the right form. Bend into a quarter squat then swing your arms back. Swing them forward then jump so you land on the box as gently as possible. Jump back down and then repeat.

To build power, aim for 1-3 sets of 3-5 repetitions, using as high a box without sacrificing good form. Make sure that the exercise box is firmly anchored to the floor so that it doesn’t move or slide and cause you to fall.

6Jump Rope 

Jumping rope is one of the easiest and fastest ways to build bigger calves. You just need to be persistent and push yourself to do this for long periods of time, approximately 5 to 10 minutes.

Final Note: Use The Correct Training Strategy

Always use the full range of motion because doing half-reps is useless when you’re building calf muscles. It’s imperative to complete the full range of motion with every repetition in order to engage the whole muscle. Remember that your calves are used to getting a little exercise every time you go for a walk. In order to build them, you must subject them to a workout that they don’t get every day.

Go as hard as you can and be persistent because your calves will only grow if you put them through some pain. Again, you use your calves on a daily basis, so they are already used to stress and strain. This means that when you are working out you, must go all in and keep going until they burn.

Make calf exercises a regular part of your workout routine. As much as possible, try to work on your calves 2-3 days a week in order to achieve maximum gains. However, note that the calf muscles, just like other muscle groups, need time to recover. Give them time to heal and do cross-training or strength training workouts on your non-calf days.

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