It certainly isn't a new idea, but it needs to be restated every so often:
A body is only as strong as its weakest link.
Many people overlook that piece of wisdom when designing a strength program. Whether the program is for yourself or for a group of athletes, it's easy to get into a rut when setting up routines and even easier when using the same one over and over, without bothering to examine it and make notifications.
Quite often, the smaller muscles get neglected.
That's frequently the case with the muscles in the lower legs. Obviously, strong lower legs re beneficial to basketball and volleyball players, since their sports involve lots of leaping, but it's also useful in any sports activity that includes running, jumping or extending high on your toes.
Powerful lower legs are essential to anyone who's serious about weight training. Olympic weightlifters, in particular, must have strong lower legs because they enable you to extend upward at the conclusion of the snatch and clean. They're also useful for performing the jerk. Physique contestants understand the value of developed lower legs as well. Scrawny ones kill the presentation, and I'm not just referring to the calves. The front of the lower leg must also show plenty of muscle.
Powerlifters don't do any explosive movements, so it might seem that they don't need to be concerned about lower leg strength. That's very wrong. Strong lower legs are critical in handling heavy squats and deadlifts. I've known many cases of powerlifters adding pounds to their squats and deadlifts simply as a result of adding a strenuous lower leg routing to their program.
Those who do strength training to become better athletes need strong lower legs. They do many explosive movements and heavy weights on the squat and deadlift. In short, everyone who lifts weights for whatever reason needs to pay attention to the muscles of the lower leg -- the entire lower leg.
Most people see the lower leg as being synonymous with the calf muscles, and they're quite surprised to learn how many muscles are involved: There's the biceps femoris, the gastrocnemius, the soleus, the peroneus longus and brevis, the extensor digitorum longus and the posterior and anterior tibilais -- plus a few others.
For simplicity's sake I'll focus on the three main groups:
(see photo at top)
(see photo at top)
When you work those groups diligently, all the others are involved as well. The following is a brief anatomy and kinesiology lesson . . .
The gastrocnemius is the most prominent lower leg muscle and the one that most people think about when it comes to calf development. It's formed by two heads, an inner and outer, with the inner head potentially being the larger. The gastrocnemius provides the calf's rounded form, and when it's highly developed, it flares like wings, setting off the physique nicely.
The gastroc originates at two tendons, starting at the condyles of the femur, the long bone of the upper leg, extending downward to help form the Achilles tendon and then inserting at the foot. It's a prime mover for plantar flexion: In layman's terms, it extends the ankle. It also assists in the flexion of the knee, since it originates on the femur. Keep that point in mind.
The soleus isn't as well known as its bigger brother but is equally important to lower leg strength. It lies directly behind the gastrocnemius. The soleus originates at the upper part of the posterior surfaces of the tibia and fibula, the two bones of the lower leg. It extends downward, helps form the Achilles tendon and proceeds to the heel bone. Like the gastrocnemius, it extends the ankle.
The soleus and gastrocnemius work in concert, forming a functional unit called the triceps surae. There's a slight difference between them, however, and it has to do with their origins, as the soleus originates below the knee. That has a bearing on the way you plan a routine, which I'll get to in a bit.
That takes care of the rear of the lower leg and, unfortunately, a great many strength athletes stop there. They don't bother with the front portion, and that's a mistake. You need to train all the groups in any bodypart in order to maintain proportionate strength. For the lower leg that means you should exercise the tibialis anterior.
The tibialis anterior originates high on the lateral surface of the tibia and the membrane that joins the tibia and fibula. It runs down the outer portion of the tibia and inserts into the foot. At the top it's dense muscle, and as it goes lower, it becomes a thin tendon at the ankle. Its main job is to lift the foot, and if you've ever injured your tibialis anterior, you know how awkward you become when your foot refuses to respond the way you expect it to.
The tibialis anterior also stretches the soleus, a function of great importance. Some bodybuilders have amazing tibialis anterior development. The front portions of their lower legs seem to bulge, which greatly enhances their appearance when they're standing in a lineup. That goes for many athletes. Strengthening this group also helps to avoid shin splints.
Working the lower leg hard and consistently reduces ankle injuries, which are very common in young athletes. Once an ankle is injured or sprained, the problem can become chronic. So let's see what you can do to make all the groups a lot stronger.
We'll start with the calves. You can do calf raises in a variety of ways, but the basic method is that you do them either standing or seated. Which is better? The answer is, neither is better because they work the calves differently. Here's where the short anatomy lesson comes into play. Because the gastrocnemius originates above the knee, you can only work it effectively when the knee is locked. That means standing calf raises are best for strengthening the gastrocnemius, while the seated variety is best for the soleus, which originates below the knee.
In other words, your routine should include both -- not necessarily on the same day but in the weekly program. Twice a week is sufficient if you have machines available. If you're doing your calf raises with bodyweight or a weight on your legs, you can do them more often than that.
Yes, you can get a good calf workout using only bodyweight on the standing raises and some sort of weight on your legs for the seated variety. I have a friend who put an inch on his calves doing all his exercises in his apartment. He did standing calf raises on stairs, one leg at a time, and seated ones at his desk with a 45-pound plate cushioned on his thighs and a thick phone book under his feet. When a workout no longer got him sore, he increased the reps until he was doing sets of 220 reps seated and 100 standing.
I've known others who held dumbbells or milk jugs filled with water when they did standing calf raises or added resistance by using a dip belt. If there's a will, there's a way.
I know that some authorities on strength training believe in stacking on the weight and doing moderate reps of 8-12. I think the calves have to be abused, not teased, It's tough to get them to respond because they're weight bearing muscles. The bodybuilders I was around back at the York Gym always did high reps -- 30's -- and I saw the results. John Grimek, Bob Gajda, Sergio Olivia, Val Vasilief, plus others who came through the gym, all attacked their calves.
When I trained at the old Muscle Beach Gym in Santa Monica in the early '70s, there was a group of bodybuilders who absolutely punished their calves -- and with remarkable results, I might add. They worked in pairs. One would do his set, and while he stretched, the other did his. As soon as the partner finished, the first guy jumped back on the machine. They competed 6 sets of 30's in a short time.
Since I thought it might be nice to add some size to my calves, I tried their routine. I only made it through three sets, and I still couldn't walk properly for the rest of the week. I had overlooked a basic point. While I was stronger on any big muscle exercise than those guys, I was far behind them when it came to the smaller groups. I needed to work into their killer routine more slowly. I needed to take some time to establish a solid base.
Another lesson I learned was that their first set of calf raises, either standing or seated, should be done with a moderate weight -- much less than what I planned on using for my work sets. Like any other group, the calves respond better when they're properly warmed up.
And I don't think overloading to the point of absurdity is the right approach. I once trained with a young carpenter who was on a mission to build massive calves. He only did standing calf raises, but he did set after set of eight reps, stacking increasingly more plates on the poor machine. After he filled the horizontal racks, he piled more on the top. On his final sets his knees were bending to set the weights in motion, and his heels barely moved a quarter of an inch. His calves didn't grow a centimeter.
Out of frustration he asked my advice. I suggested that he do four sets of standing calf raises and one set of the seated variety for 30 reps each. The first set was a warmup, to be done with moderate weight, and then the most he would use was 180 pounds on the standing calf machine. But he had to perform each rep deliberately, doing a full range of motion with a slight pause at the contracted top. On the seated calf he used 135 pounds and followed the same procedure. After each set he stretched his calves for a minimum of 45 seconds.
At the next workout he told me that he could barely walk the day after that session, and the second day was even worse. He knew the routine was effective, though, and he stayed with it -- and build massive calves.
Here are some key form points . . .
One the standing calf machine place the shoulder pads in a comfortable position, set the balls of your feet firmly on the block, assume a perfectly erect posture and lock your knees tightly. Look straight ahead and don't allow your head to move around during the exercise. Start with your heels as low as possible, extend up in a smooth, dynamic fashion. Climb high on your toes, then hold that top spot for a brief moment and repeat. Don't get in the habit of rebounding when you get tired because it's stressful to your lower back.
How much weight should you use?
The rule that I follow is that you need to be able to complete all your reps using correct form, but the final ones shouldn't be easy. By the 20th rep your calves should be screaming. If they cry out earlier than that, you aren't going to maintain good form to the finish, so lower the weight. On the other hand, if you finish your set and your calves don't complain at all, add weight. These are not effective if you stay in the comfort range.
Your can do your standing calf raises using a barbell inside a power rack. You can also use a squat rack, but the power rack is better because you have the railings to guide the bar up and down, which helps with the balance. Stand on a block to get a fuller range of motion. With practice many people get very good at these. I've also seen a few rare individuals who could take a loaded barbell off a squat rack, step back, plant the balls of their feet on a block and proceed to do calf raises.
Perhaps the most important consideration in performing seated calf raises is to make sure the pad is in a comfortable place on your thighs. Midthigh is best. Don't put it too far forward, as that's stressful to your knees. If you use a machine that hurts your thighs a great deal, go ahead and put some sort of pad on your legs. It's the same motion as the standing version: Start with your heels low, rise high, hold, lower and repeat in a rhythmic fashion. The fuller the range of motion, the better the results.
You use less weight on the seated calf raise than what you can handle on the standing machine, but the same idea applies -- by the 2oth rep your calves are on fire.
I like to change the angle of my feet on either kind of calf raise, standing or seated, because I get sorer when I do it. I don't turn them in or out very much, however, only slightly. If you exaggerate the position of the ankles, it adversely affects the movement and can be harmful to your ankles.
I cannot overemphasize the necessity of stretching when you train calves. You need to stretch out the muscles after every set and again at the conclusion of the overall workout, and it's smart to do more at night and on the morning after. If you plan on participating in any athletic endeavor that involves your legs the day after an energetic calf workout, make certain you stretch first. And by all means don't go from the weight room and play basketball or racquetball or go for a run after you've hammered your calves.
I put calf work at the end of the day's routine. That adheres to the big-muscle/small-muscle concept. If you do calf raises early in the session, you won't do well on any attempt to pull or squat. For the same reason, if I'm doing standing and seated calf raises on the same day, I do the standing variety first because the gastrocnemius is larger than the soleus. Usually, though, I like to do them at separate workouts.
Now, I haven't mentioned the calf shoe or donkey raise because they aren't necessary if you put your full effort into the standing and seated calf raises. The donkey raise duplicates what the standing raise does and requires a partner, which I've never liked.
To me weight training is an individual activity, although I would change my mind if Brandy Dahl were my training partner.
The tibialis anterior is a bit harder to strengthen than the calves. Some modern gyms have a piece of equipment specifically designed to work the front of the leg, and there's an apparatus called the Dard that's very effective.
Before they came along, we worked the muscle on a leg curl machine by sitting on the end, hooking our feet under the rollers and pulling out toes toward our shins. You may have to improvise. Find a way to put some resistance on your toes, then bring the weight back toward your leg until you feel your tibialis anterior contract. Even if you do these without any resistance and work the muscles to the point of fatigue, it will be beneficial.
If you have the use of a machine or Dard, do 3 sets of 30. Otherwise, do 3 sets to failure. As with the calf raises, do these twice a week, either with your calf work or on different days.
Include some serious lower leg work in your overall program and in no time you'll find your other lifts moving upward -- with the added bonus of a matching pair of humongous calves.
Enjoy Your Lifting!