When you think of calf training, your mind immediately time-travels to the classic bodybuilder pumping out calf work on the seated or standing machine.
And, we only think hypertrophy and muscle growth. Even so, why do we think that’s a “bad” thing?
Calf training is super important for athletic development, long-term health, aesthetics, and so much more. Strong and durable calves help us do a ton of things well, such as:
- Changing direction
- The acceleration-deceleration-reacceleration continuum
- Producing force
- Absorbing force
The list goes on and on.
Everyone loves a sweet pair of biceps and to fill the sleeves. Hey, I’m on board with that, but let’s not forget about the lower legs. Building a sweet pair of calves let’s you fill the jeans.
Calves are the new biceps. Change my mind.
Whether you’re an athlete playing sports, an avid fitness enthusiast, or just something looking to hop on a basketball court and shoot hoops recreationally—calf training is for everyone.
The lower leg, mostly referred to as the “calves”, can be broken down into two (2) very distinct areas:
- Triceps surae
- Achilles tendon
The triceps surae is composed of the gastrocnemius muscle and soleus muscle, which unite down into the thick Achilles tendon and ultimately connect onto the calcaneus (heel) bone. Think of the gastrocnemius as the muscle that pops out to the naked eye when performing heel raises. Although the soleus muscle sits deep (underneath) the gastrocnemius muscle, make no mistake that it is the powerhouse generator of the two.
The Achilles tendon, well, is only the strongest and largest tendon in the body with the ability to help you produce massive amounts of force (think: dunking a basketball).
With all of that being said, let’s dive into exercises that you can apply in your training to start targeting these areas.
The gastrocnemius muscle works best during standing positions. You can layer on a good amount of strength in your gastrocnemius over time, but be sure to start slow and really use a controlled tempo.
Start with bodyweight first while working in a full range of motion from the floor. Here’s a good place to start:
Then, once that becomes easy, increase the range of motion by elevating the foot like so:
Now, it’s time to load those calves up with some external resistance. You can use bands, dumbbells, kettlebells, and all sorts of weights. In the video below, I’m loading my calves up with the Safety Squat Bar (SSB):
The key in all of this is really focusing on a slow and controlled tempo throughout the entire range of motion. A good place to start is by incorporating 2-3 sets of 15-20 repetitions at light-to-moderate loads. Once you get the hang of it, you can advance from there.
An important consideration during strength training for the soleus muscle is to either sit down or position yourself in such a way that your knees remain bent at 60° or more of knee flexion. In doing so, this primarily loads the soleus muscle, otherwise known as the “powerhouse muscle” of the lower body.
You can kick everything off with soleus strengthening with the bodyweight exercise below:
After that, we can increase the overall range of motion a bit by adding some elevation. Here’s a simple way to do that:
After you’ve moved your way through these bodyweight soleus exercises, you can then begin adding some external resistance to increase the overall intensity. Here’s a good one to use:
Lastly, if you’re really looking to dial it up a notch with the overall intensity, you can advance into using the SSB, if you have access to it. If not, a classic barbell should work just fine, too. Check it out:
A major key in all of this, similar to gastrocnemius strength training, is to focus on a slow and controlled tempo throughout the entire range of motion. Start with 2-3 sets of 15-20 repetitions at light-to-moderate loads.
Respect the fact that the lower leg is a key player in force production and explosive capabilities, which means that we cannot neglect this area in training. Start training this area intelligently by strengthening the gastrocnemius in standing positions on one day each week and then the soleus in knees bent positions on another day each week. A little goes a long way, just as long as you’re consistent.
P.S. – Don’t worry, the Achilles tendon will benefit from ALL of this!