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Calves represent quite a dilemma for many when it comes to creating a complete and balanced physique. They are among the most difficult muscles to develop. In large part, this is because of the difference in calf structure among different individuals. Everyone’s calf structure goes from the knee to the ankle, but in some cases the muscle itself (the “muscle belly”) is very long and the tendon attaching it to the lower leg is short. Even a few inches of extra length can make a big difference in muscle volume, because muscle size is measured in volume - three dimensions, not two. Anyone who has spent any time around boats knows that a 40-foot yacht is not just a little bit bigger than one that’s 30 feet – it’s MUCH BIGGER, because you’re dealing with cubic volume, not just length.
An individual with “high” calves is going to have much more trouble developing a lot of size than somebody whose calf is mostly muscle and very little tendon attachment. The same is true for forearms. But that doesn’t mean the task is impossible. With high calves you may never develop the best lower leg on the planet - or even just in your gym – but you can increase size and end up with a lot more development than you initially thought possible.
Of course, if you’re genetically well endowed for calves, you’re still going to need to train them to achieve your personal potential (there are a few exceptions to this, but if you were one of them you’d already know it and wouldn’t be reading this article). But it’s sometimes difficult to know in advance what your potential might be. One of Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s major weaknesses when he began bodybuilding was calves. The story goes that he cut off the bottom of his training pants so that he couldn’t hide his calves and would be forced to train them as hard as possible. His credo was “attack your weaknesses” and that’s something all of us should do.
Of course, how to go about overcoming a weakness like this - or simply making good calves better - requires making some intelligent choices. Mechanics know that there are often two choices when it comes to fixing a broken piece of equipment: Employ a more effective technique or just use a bigger hammer! Sometimes the answer is subtlety and other times it’s to just beat the hell out of it. The trick is to know which application applies.
Weight training can be like that as well. There are some bodyparts that require a very complex understanding of physiology if you want to achieve maximum development - special intensity techniques, different angles, esoteric training principles. But there are others that respond best to straightforward, pedal-to-the-metal concentration of effort. Sometimes “training smart” is not as important as just training hard.
One key to understanding the difference is to look at the structure of the muscle or muscles being trained. The back and chest, for example, have complex structures and you need to know a great deal of technique in order to get the most out of them. But the calf muscles are not that complicated. There are two of them: the outer gastrocnemius muscle and the underlying soleus muscle. They both have fairly simple functions. In practical terms, all they do is flex the ankle. So to train them effectively, all you need is exercises in which you flex the ankle against the appropriate amount of resistance.
There is a principle of exercise physiology that says, in most cases, the most efficient way to train a muscle is on a direct line from point of insertion to point of attachment - that is, on a line directly between where the tendons at each end of the muscle attach to the bone. Muscle groups like back and chest have multiple points of origin and/or attachment. But the calf muscles don’t. They have single points of both origin and attachment.
Because of this simplicity of structure, there are only two types of effective calf exercises: calf raises with the legs straight and calf raises with the leg bent. Why the difference? The outer gastrocnemius muscle originates above the knee. So to fully extend and stretch it, you have to keep your knee locked and leg straight. The standard exercise for this is some kind of straight-leg calf raise movement. However, since stretching the hamstring also stretches the gastrocnemius to some degree, actually bending forward with your legs straight while doing calf raises is an even more effective way of working this muscle. The best movement to achieve this is the traditional donkey calf raise - and if you look at the “Pumping Iron” era photos from the original Gold’s Gym you’ll see Arnold, Denny Gable, Franco Columu and other bodybuilders from the ’70s doing donkey calf raises with a training partner (and sometimes two) sitting astride their hips.
Once you bend your knee, the gastrocnemius goes slack and is less involved in calf raises. But the soleus muscle originates below the knee, so this is the muscle you’re primarily working when you do seated or bent-knee calf raises.
In terms of special techniques for calf raises, you often see individuals in the gym doing calf raises with their toes pointed out or toes pointed in. But all this does is make your calf raises somewhat less effective, since you’re no longer training the muscles on a direct line between point of origin and point of insertion. Doing the exercises isn’t useless or harmful, and it may help add some variety to your workouts and keep you interested, but this technique is less effective than straight-forward, toes-straight-head calf raises, so training this way is often times less effective and will result in less corresponding response from the muscles involved.
Another technique worth trying for stubborn calves is to do your calf training without wearing modern athletic shoes. Such footwear are designed to help you flex your foot and ankle, but what you need is for your calves to do all the work, with no help from artificial “springs” built into shoes. Doing calf raises in bare feet, wearing socks or some kind of soft foot covering may increase the effectiveness of the movements.
And so might doing at least some of your reps light enough to go way up on your big toe like a ballerina to get full flexion of the calf at the top. Or, alternatively, the same way many stretch their calves between sets, you can do toe raises instead, holding onto a piece of equipment to help you get way up on your toes.
To further increase the effectiveness of your calf training, below are a few helpful hints: