How much can you calf raise?
Has anyone ever asked you that?
I didn't think so.
It's not the usual bodybuilding question. People might ask, "How much can you bench?" or "How big are your arms?" Or if they know you and want to bust your chops, "How small are your arms?"
The fact is, the major attention-grabbing muscle groups in and out of the sport of bodybuilding tend to be chest, arms and abs. Not that many people are impressed with or even notice great calves. It's too bad.
Calves should be noticed.
A good pair of calves, even if they aren't the heart of the physique, certainly lend a great deal to it, whether they belong to a competitive bodybuilder or a serious hardcore lifter who competes against his own limits. The unique potential for size and flare of the muscle group, with its vastly different appearance from all angles, can set off an otherwise average physique and make it look really great.
Consider the following: Chris Dickerson's calves, with their great shape, balance and definition; Reg Park's strong muscular calves; Flex Wheeler's calves, which feature great size and sweep; and even Arnold's calves, which he transformed from a lagging bodypart into a tremendous bodypart. Then there's Steve Reeves, who, although he started with great genetics for calves, developed the best pair ever seen on the planet - in any era. Now think of bodybuilders whose lagging calf development detracted from their physiques (you can fill in the names yourself).
The point of all this is simple: Don't neglect calf development, even if your calves are stubborn and not one of your better bodyparts. If you're a natural trainee with ordinary genetics, which includes most of us, calves can be a real problem. For that reason, the best mental approach to training them is to simply begin by thinking how much better your overall physique will be when you've improved them.
The best methods for training calves have changed over the years somewhat. In the 1950s and '60s many bodybuilders didn't train them at all or barely trained them, while others worked them with heavy weights. After a while the conventional wisdom suggested that since most bodybuilders who trained calves heavy got mediocre results, the best way to work them was with lots of reps. Eventually, ultra-light reps came into fashion, with the pump and burn being the only criteria for a successful calf workout, and the quest was further clouded when trainees started using steroids.
The problem with such haphazard methodology is that most of the approaches include some correct elements and some incorrect ones. The exception is not working your calves at all, which is not only incorrect but, unless you have the most genetically endowed calves around, totally foolish. Because of the elements that make training calves just a little different from training other muscle groups, it becomes very difficult to figure out the best combination of elements for you.
For example, most of us can do fairly heavy close-grip bench presses for set of 8 to 12 reps and get some triceps growth, but if you do 8 to 12 heavy reps of calf raises or 20 to 30 light reps (perhaps even without weight), you run the risk of nothing happening in your lower legs.
Face it: Calves are different. If you can get results in bodybuilding by applying yourself to a simple, clear method or working out and dieting, you don't have to cast about for years, experimenting until you find methods that work. Some bodybuilders find relatively simple workout programs - such as using the basics, with various modifications - that produce reasonable gains for them in size and shape; reasonably heavy weights, straight sets, compound exercises, a variety of isolation moves and the judicious use of intensity techniques with the sets kept within reasonable bounds. Others have easily identified, for example, that benches do little for their pec development and they have to do inclines and dips, or that every time they go beyond, say, 8 to 10 sets per bodypart, they don't fully recover and build back bigger and stronger. When it comes to calves, however, many are puzzled and cannot make equally sure statements about training them, even after they've tried a lot of things.
The differences between your calves and your other muscle groups are subtle. Calves respond to stress placed on them somewhat similarly to the way biceps, triceps, quads or any other muscle group responds, but their makeup makes them respond just differently enough that you have to attack them differently.
You must work them heavy. After all, calves contain fast-twitch high-growth fibers, the kind found in lats, pecs and other muscle groups - although there's speculation that they may not have as many as the other muscle groups. On the other hand, they probably have more than their share of fast-twitch endurance fibers or at least the growth-type fibers that usually need higher reps. Add the biomechanics of most calf exercises - the short stroke (of, for example, a standing calf raise) - and you've got a different scenario from one that simply requires using a heavy weight for 8 to 12 reps. Planning a calf routine becomes a little less straightforward.
Most bodybuilders who have done any kind of calf training have discovered all that through experience. That's why back in the ancient days of bodybuilding, some resorted to wild and wacky techniques, such as tying something around their calves to keep the blood in after they did a set of calf raises (no kidding). Don't even try it as a joke.
Others pumped up their calves for hours, after which their calves would pump back down, probably to less than their original measurements, accompanied by a deep, burning muscle soreness.
Some used super-heavy weights, though lifting prodigious poundages on the calf machine often failed to budge the muscles' size.
It was important experimentation, but all a lot of misdirected effort in the main.
Unless your genetics for calves are like those of Steve Reeves or Chris Dickerson - both of whom did minimal calf work - you'll have to try to incorporate many of the methods (the reasonable ones, not the BENGAY rubbing, calf-choking tourniquet type), vary your attack and, once you determine what you need, keep at it.
Your ideal routine will probably include elements of the following:
- heavy weights for moderate or even low reps,
- moderate or even light weights for higher reps,
- exercises done both singly and in combination,
- both fast and slow reps, and
- a variety of exercises.
What's more, you'll do it all without performing so many sets and reps that you overtrain. Nothing to it, right?
One of the best techniques is to set up your workout as a template, a starting point. You may wish to use the workout exactly as written, although there's such a wide variance in responses to calf work - possibly more than with any other muscle group - that you will have to make changes and corrections. Even so, you want to keep within the general structure of what the workout's trying to achieve.
You may notice, for example, that your calves respond best to the heavier weights, lower reps facet of the workout; so you need to keep that as part of the program's core.
. . . the heavier work may do zilch for you growth, but reps, supersets or even free-standing (bodyweight) raises may turn out to be your ticket to better calf development; so you need to factor that into your calf quest.
Here's the basic program:
Weeks 1 and 2
Standing Calf Raise (contracted - positions of flexion), 2 x 8-12
Donkey Calf Raise (stretch), 2 x 15-25
Seated Calf Raise (soleus contracted), 2 x 15-25
Leg Press Calf Raise (stretch), 2 x 10-15
Weeks 3 and 4
Seated Calf Raise, 2 x 15-25
Donkey Calf Raise, 2 x 10-15
Donkey Calf Raise, 2 x 8-12
Standing Calf Raise, 2 x 15-25
Weeks 5 and 6
Standing Calf Raise, 2 x 15-25
Donkey Calf Raise, 2 x 10-15
Leg Press Calf Raise, 2 x 15-25
Seated Calf Raise, 2 x 10-15
Standing Calf Raise, 2 x 15-25
Bodyweight Calf Raise (contracted), 2 x 50 or failure.
Work your calves twice per week, alternating workouts A and B. The designations "contracted" or "stretch" are for those who train with Positions of Flexion protocols. Though the workouts are not total POF programs, the beauty of this routine is that you can incorporate it into many training styles.
The designation "soleus" on the seated raises tells you that the exercise works the soleus muscle. All the exercises target the gastocnemius, the muscle that lies over the soleus and makes up the majority of what we call the calf.
You may notice that the workout has a built-in progression. That, too, is by design. At the beginning you use heavier weights and lower reps; as you move along, you include more higher-rep work, and eventually, during the final two weeks, you do supersets. Supersets for the same muscle group, particularly one as compact and concentrated as calves, are killers, but for the short period required by this schedule, they're often radically effective.
Powerlifting USA magazine frequently presents a workout feature called "Hurt Me . . ." highlighting specific bodyparts. Well, if you're doing calf work, you're in the land of hurt me most of the time. The four to six sets called for in these workouts may even put you into the kill me category because that's the way you feel when you're done. The point isn't pain for its own sake but the effective arrangement of a variety of sets and reps to give you a surge in calf growth.
You'll need to warm up well, stretch before and after and include plenty of water and electrolytes in your diet to prevent or minimize cramping.
You may notice that the majority of the exercises work the gastrocnemius. Since the soleus makes up a smaller percentage of the calf's mass, it gets less work. Practical considerations also dictate that with limited sets you've got to max the development of the gastrocs. In addition, all the exercises are stretch or contracted position movements because there's really no good midrange movement that anybody can reasonably do for calves for any length of time (though I think toes-pointed let curls would almost qualify). Perhaps one day someone may invent one and a machine on which to do it.
. . . there are no effective compound movements for calves. Everything you use in this workout is technically considered isolation (although using 500 pounds on a calf machine for standing raises might have the feel of a bone-crushing compound move). Nevertheless, you'll still be able to work the belly of the muscle hard for mass and the origin and insertion points with the stretching and contracting movements.
If the availability of equipment presents a problem, do what you can. You can still put a barbell across your back and do standing raises without a machine. Granted, it's not exactly the same as a standing calf machine, but so what. It can be done, and done well. You can bar-slide up and down the rack fine and dandy. [You can do one legged standing calf raises while holding a dumbbell]. Get a calf block or make one if you're a home trainer. You can get a belt on which to attach weights so you can do donkey raises if you train alone. Failing that, do free-standing raises but angle your body toward the wall. It's a compromise - and not truly equivalent to a donkey raise - but it does give you some of the benefits. You can perform seated raises with a barbell [one legged with a dumbbell] across your knee(s) if you don't have access to a seated machine. In any event, the lack of some machines should not prevent you from working hard on the routine and getting results.
Begin with strict reps. The standard cadence I recommend for other muscle for other muscle groups is two seconds up and two seconds down, but with the shorter stroke of calf exercises it's more like one second or less up and the same coming down. Later you can modify it with some explosive, or slo-mo reps but do it carefully, as they're intensity techniques and you don't want to pile on too many of those at once.
You may go to failure or near it on some sets but, again, you must gauge it.
Your toe position on all exercises should be the standard straight ahead, with the weight on the big toe as you come up, to start. Eventually, you'll shift to toes-in and toes-out positions for inner and outer calf development. Work with relatively short rest periods between sets, even on the heavy sets. In calf work a good pump usually does seem to contribute something to growth.
If you a beginning or early intermediate lifter keep your techniques simple; harder gainers can reduce total sets, and they should use the intensity techniques - even supersets - sparingly. If you're advanced and accomplished, you might do a few more sets but, again, with the heavy weights, limited reps and everything else involved, you'll be surprised how tough the workout can be.
For very easy gainers, adding a seventh week in which you do 150 bodyweight calf raises at each workout will give you a good high-rep finale to the routine. Most other trainees should take that week off or at least rest your calves while you continue to work the rest of your body. You can use the routine as a specialization program or incorporate it, with modifications, into your current workout.
As noted, you'll make adjustments along the way. For example, let's say that after the first couple of workouts you feel that the heavy standing raises are not promoting growth. In that case you can carefully move the reps into the higher range on your mass movement, leg press calf raises. On the other hand (see Illustration One above), if you get a great response from the heavy weights, you may want to keep the reps lower on the standing raises throughout the workout. You have to judge your results carefully.
Note also that heavy calf raises for 8-12 reps don't necessarily provide the pump that you normally get from a 15- or 25-rep set, so don't look to that as a measure of your results from the exercise - although that may sound contradictory when you consider the pump's potential importance.
Don't give up too soon on heavy weights for the standing raises. Sometimes you just have to blast your calves with heavy weight and not worry about the other factors. (Didn't Arnold work up to reps with 1,000 pounds on the calf machine. Mentor Reg Park?). You may get less pump yet surprisingly more growth from the heavy work.
On the other hand (cut that out!), you may find that high reps do it for you on almost all the exercises, and you may even find that performing peak contractions, or holds, at the top of every standing raise starts a firestorm in your calves . . .
. . . and gives you corresponding growth. So monitor your progress closely. In general, you'll get a good idea of the fiber makeup in your calves - whether, for example, it's predominantly high-growth, low-rep fast twitch or higher-rep fast twitch - which will help you figure out how to work them. By tailoring your workout and matching your reps to the appropriate responses in your muscles, you can eventually accelerate your calf growth.
You also want to pay attention to proportion and shape, and although I mention those factors at the end of the discussion, they're not afterthoughts. Shoot for strong inner development, with good mass along the backs and a touch of outer development. Diamonds, as in diamond shaped calves, are rare, but they're something to aim for. If your calves are massive but blob-like, don't delude yourself into thinking they're exceptional. They aren't. Work for size, shape, balance and, if appropriate, definition.
No matter how poor your calves are to start with, you can improve them.
Apply yourself and persevere over time.
Enjoy Your Lifting!
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