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Training my calves muscle isn’t at the top of my list of favorite body parts to workout. It’s not that the load is too heavy, or that I have to put in a lot of effort. Maybe its because my shoulder bruise from using the calf standing machine. The main reason I despise working my lower legs muscle is that I just don’t feel anything. If anything in my case “no pain no gain” applies.
I do standing calf raises next to a mirror, and I don’t see any progress! Granted I can see that my ankle plantar flexing and my body is going through the movements, but in terms of any semblance of an actual calf muscle contraction, there is none.
The burn that I used to get as a 160-pound teenager is gone. Sometimes I feel that I would have a better experience watching someone else do them.
This mind-muscle connection is critical for any kind of muscle adaptation, and is usually the first thing to occur when you begin working out. But for some reason, after a decade and a half my calves seem to have become desensitized. My calves muscles just don’t contract any more.
And then there’s something called the bilateral deficit. Applying this deficit means you’ll have a better muscle contraction/muscle activation when doing unilateral training exercise. The problem is that utilizing these principles seem to not work on my calf muscles. I’d love to say this is a universal problem, but I’m sure it’s just my genetics. I’ve used all my knowledge of strength training, anatomy, physiology and biochemistry to build my lower leg muscles but nothing seems to work. Until I discovered the following training tips.
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 Schwarzenegger did it and that was good enough), but I had never exercises with the donkey calf machine. I had tried almost every training tip 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 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.
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.
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.