The secret to sculpting great abs and calves seems to vary for each person. Ask a group of bodybuilders what they do for either bodypart and you are almost guaranteed to get different answers from everyone.

While we could write volumes about different strategies for working the abs and the calves (and, in fact, we have), here we’ll concentrate on the weight (or lack of it) and the corresponding repetition ranges used. This is a hot topic of debate in the gym, as well as in the lab.

Specifically, the debate is over the optimum repetition range to use for training abs and calves. Is it better to train both of these hard-to-develop muscle groups with lighter weight and higher reps (12-and- above rep range), or with heavier weight and lower reps (10-and-below rep range)?

To duel it out on this topic of muscle maximizing are two sharp swords in the world of training science: Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS, who parries with lighter weight and high reps, and William J. Kraemer, PhD, CSCS, who ripostes with heavy weight for low reps. M&F will clean up the mess when it’s over and help you come to grips with the outcome.

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Point: Slicing Abs and Calves With High Reps

By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS

From a physiological standpoint, the purpose of any training session is to stress the body so that adaptation results. Training is beneficial only if it forces the body to adapt to the stress of physical effort. The Weider Principle of Overload states that habitually overloading the body causes it to respond and adapt. Here, overload is defined as a positive stressor that can be the result of the load (or weight used), the rest period allowed, the frequency of the stressor (how often you work that muscle group) and the number of repetitions done with a given weight. For example, one way to overload any muscle group is to increase the number of reps you can do with a certain amount of weight. You could also increase the amount of weight you can do for a certain number of reps. The question: What is the optimum blend of weight and repetitions for the abs and calves?

To the Point

Calves and abs are similar to other bodyparts, but in some ways, they are a breed apart. They both speak a different language, or at least a certain dialect. Unlike most major bodyparts, the calves and abs are incredibly resilient and resistant to fatigue. Abdominal and calf muscles are generally composed of a greater percentage of slow-twitch (endurance) muscle fibers than fast-twitch (power) fibers. Many bodybuilders wish this wasn’t so. They wish calves had the same genetic make-up as other bodyparts because they tend to train them in the same fashion. They’ll pound their calves with heavy weight and low reps, such as with heavy calf raises, but I believe that the slow-twitch muscle fibers are not very responsive to this type of overload. To get them responding, the reps have to be high – above the 12-rep range.

Repeated Blows

Let’s say you’re doing crunches or standing calf raises with nothing but your own bodyweight. You could probably bust out about 25-30 reps without feeling too much pain, right? This is by no means a negative thing, because as we’ve learned, these fibers are genetically designed for high reps. How many footsteps did you take today? Did you have to rest your calves every 10-15 steps? I hope not. How many times per hour do your abs contract to stabilize your spinal column? The point is that if a muscle fiber prefers high reps to low reps, why not add resistance to the high-rep variation as adaptation occurs? In other words, when your calves and abs can perform more than 20 reps, resistance should be added. This way, you can work on overloading the muscle with more weight, but you remain in the rep range in which these muscles perform best.

The Final Cut

Some of the best abs in the world of bodybuilding were built without the use of any extra weight, and many big calf owners rarely drop their reps below 15. High repetition is the dialect that abs and calves understand. The muscle responds only if the message is understood. Just as you shouldn’t waste your time speaking Cajun to a native New Englander, don’t waste your time hammering abs and calves with a message that is unclear to them. By all means, use progressively heavier weight with abs and calves, but you should meld it into the rep range that those muscle fibers understand.

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Counterpoint: Attacking Abs and Calves With Heavy Weight and Low Reps

By William J. Kraemer, PhD, CSCS

For most bodybuilders, abs and calves are the toughest bodyparts to develop, especially for mega gains in muscle size. I believe that you need to use heavy weight for low reps in order to achieve the optimum development of each. The reason for this has to do with recruitment of the muscle fibers involved.

Hitting All the Muscle Fibers

It’s essential that you stimulate all of the muscle fibers in order to optimally train a muscle, regardless of its muscle-fiber composition. The basis for this is the Size Principle. According to this principle, the smaller, slow-twitch muscle fibers are recruited first. Progressively larger, fast-twitch muscle fibers are recruited based on the increasing demands of heavier weights. Heavier weight (that which you can lift for about 3-5 reps) requires the recruitment of more muscle fibers than lighter weight (that which you can lift for 12 or more reps). Thus, there is a greater potential to develop these stubborn bodyparts. Light weight will stimulate the slow-twitch muscle fibers in the abs and calves, but it may not sufficiently hit the fast-twitch muscle fibers. Training with heavy weight gets at the slow-twitch fibers and recruits the fast-twitch fibers as well.

The Final Blow

The Size Principle convinces me that you need to use heavier weight in your training program to optimally develop any bodypart, including your abs and calves. I suggest you cycle your ab and calf training to incorporate a rep range of 5-10. Those bodyparts will then be able to reach their full potential, and you should see gains that you never expected.

The Verdict

Of course, no one method is the best and only way to train any bodypart. In this respect, both experts are right and we must call this match a draw. Both their arguments are compelling, and currently, too little is known about muscle growth to rely solely on one premise. 

Balancing the Highs and Lows

Mix up the weight and reps used in your ab and calf routines for best results.

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Abs

Looks like going heavy on ab day is a good thing. Using a selectorized ab machine, the pulley for rope crunches, or a plate or dumbbell can help you stimulate those fast-twitch muscle fibers and maximize your ab development. Just be sure to perform all movements in a slow and controlled manner. The object is not to go as heavy as you can, but to make the lightest weight feel as heavy as possible by concentrating on squeezing and holding each contraction.

Calves

Hitting calves with a variety of exercises and repetition schemes is essential to keep them from getting stale and coerces them to continue growing. Remember to keep your knees fairly straight when hitting the gastrocnemius, and to include seated varieties of calf raises to stimulate the underlying soleus muscle. Regardless of your rep range, be sure you can perform most reps with a full contraction by raising your heels as high as possible and squeezing the calf muscle.

Whether training abs or calves, follow these suggestions to cycle your repetition scheme with heavy (5-10 reps) and light (12-25 reps) phases:

  • Try switching from the heavy to the light phase every 3-4 weeks.
  • Or try a shorter cycle of switching heavy and light from week to week.
  • You may even want to switch heavy and light phases from workout to workout.
  • Mixing up your rep scheme within a workout is also effective. You can start out with exercises performed with heavier weight in the beginning and progress toward lighter weight for the exercises at the end of the workout.
  • You can also mix up your reps within an exercise by starting off heavier and lightening the load as the sets progress.

Don’t forget that when you train abs and calves with heavier weight, you need to let them recover as you would your other muscle groups. Follow heavy days with at least 2-3 days of rest before hitting the abs and calves again.