Leg Exercises

Simple & Effective Calf Training

To maximize calf development, the key is to keep it simple.


Donkey Calf Rasies

Understanding the Structure

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.

Calf Training Techniques

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.