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Calf Training: Build Bigger Lower Legs

Stuck with small calves? Jolt some growth with these 2 quick tips.

David Barr, CSCS, USATF Exercise


I loathe calf training. It's just terrible.

It's not that the load is too heavy or that I have to put in a lot of effort, and it's not the shoulder-bruising I get from using the calf standing machine. I wish it were any of those. The reason I despise working my lower leg is because I just don't feel anything.

I do standing calf raises next to a mirror, and I don't see anything happening! Granted I can see that my ankle is plantar flexing and my body is rising, but in terms of any semblance of an actual muscle contraction, there is none.

Even the burn that I used to get as a 160-pound teenager is gone. From a feeling standpoint, I'd probably have a better experience watching someone do them.

Feeling that Feeling

This mind-muscle connection is critical for any kind of muscle adaptation, and is usually the first thing to occur when you begin training. But for some reason, after a decade and a half my calves seem to have become “dumber.” They just don't know how to contract.

And then there's something called the bilateral deficit. Applying this deficit means you'll have a better contraction/muscle activation when doing unilateral work. The problem is that it doesn't seem to work for my calves. I'd love to say this is a universal problem, but I'm sure it's an isolated issue. I've thrown all of my applied anatomy, physiology and biochemistry at them, but my calves simply laugh.

The following tips are for anyone who has a hard time developing calves. 

1. What To Do When Told To Bend Over 

A couple of weeks ago a friend urged me to use the donkey calf machine. I had done donkey calf raises before with someone on my back (I know it's lame today, but Arnold did it and that was enough for me), but I had never used the machine. I had tried almost everything up to this point - varying weight, exercise, foot position, tempo, range of motion - without success, so I was quite surprised when I hopped on the machine and felt a muscle contraction in my calves!

I promptly did five sets, which is nearly double what I'd do on any given exercise (and far too many for the first time attempting a novel movement). But there it was: the muscle contraction I had been seeking for years.

Why Here? Why Now?

This begs the question: Why does this exercise induce such a strong contraction in the superficial muscles of the gastrocnemius? The answer is simply due to a stretch in the hamstrings, which carries over to the calves. As both muscles are biarticular (crossing two joints), the hip flexion puts the gastrocs in an optimal position to contract, not unlike the strong contraction induced by performing incline biceps curls.

2. The "Other" Movement

Another problem with my calf work is that I’ve been training across only one joint. Again, the gastrocs cross two joints, each of which has different contractility. When I’d do leg curls (which is the other movement we’re concerned with), I’d point my toes down (plantar flex), essentially taking my calves out of the movement.

People invariably do this exercise with their toes pointed up because it allows for full activation of the gastrocs, thus making the exercise easier. I thought I was doing myself a favor by plantar-flexing and focusing on my hamstrings, but it turns out I've been missing a tremendous opportunity.

Try going through a full calf-training session and then some heavy leg curls (toes pointed up). You'll notice the leg curls will be much more difficult if you pre-exhaust your calves. To mix it up, do the initial sets with a short range of motion at the peak-contracted phase, followed by partial sets using full range of motion.

Conclusions

Most people don't need to worry about working both joints, but if you're a freak like me you'll find stretched hamstrings and leg curls to be incredibly helpful.

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