By Ken "Skip" Hill
Back in the "Golden Days of Bodybuilding" calves mattered. If you didn’t have a pair the judges marked you down – just ask Tony Pearson. These days even though you can win without them, it will add another dimension to your legs if you have a solid pair of diamonds for calves.
Training calves sucks. It is painful and growth is slow. The bodybuilder that trains calves consistently will undoubtedly end up with a solid pair of calves but it takes time – a lot of it. I’m not talking weeks and months. I’m talking years in most cases!
It is important to note that the calf complex is actually made up of two main muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. In simple terms, the gastrocnemius is hit the hardest when the legs are locked or almost locked at the knee. The soleus muscle on the other hand is worked hardest when there is close to a 90-degree bend at the knee.
My best advice for training calves is to go old school and revert back to some of the principles that were used back in the 70s and 80s. Here are my six tried and true methods for turning your calves into one of your best body parts:
Train calves through a full range of motion
Some muscles can be trained very effectively through a partial range of motion but the calves are not one of those muscle groups. We use the calf muscles quite a bit in daily activity and they are used to moving the weight of your body around many hundreds if not thousands of times a day. It is going to take an extraordinary stimulus to really make the calves want to grow. It is therefore crucially important to emphasize a full stretch and a full squeeze on every rep.
Do not count reps when you train calves
The best way to train calves is to forget counting and simply perform controlled reps until you cannot tolerate the pain anymore. Extending the set with partials or shaking out your calves to get a few more reps is always a good idea when you are forcing a stubborn muscle to adapt and grow.
Train without shoes
The first thing that comes to mind for most of us is the classic shot of Arnold in bare feet doing donkey calf raises with Franco on his back. There are a few main reasons why training with no shoes will build better calves than training with shoes.
First of all, your grip is better without shoes. When wearing shoes the tendency is to “slip” because the sole of your shoe can’t get good enough traction and you will have to continue to readjust your footing throughout the set. Without shoes you will more likely use weights that you can control because if you go too heavy it will hurt the balls of your feet.
Without shoes moreover, you aren’t limited in the stretched position so you will get a better stretch, which means a greater range of motion. As we established above, a greater range of motion means the muscle is working harder.
Train the gastrocnemius and the soleus separately on two different days
When you train the gastrocnemius the soleus gets worked as well. However, when you work the soleus, the gastrocnemius is left largely untrained. Try training the gastrocnemius first and then one or two days later hitting the soleus. Both muscles recover very, very quickly so don't be apprehensive about training both again after only a couple of days.
Don’t get fancy with calf exercises
Variety is overrated when it comes to calf work. Find a couple solid calf exercises that you like, stay with them and pound them. Standing calf presses are the old standby that work so well I am convinced that it is the single best exercise for gastrocnemius growth. Seated calf raises are easily the most effective exercise for building the soleus muscle. Between these two, almost anyone can build a very good set of calves over time.
Get fat if you want big calves
This might sound strange but not many skinny dudes have big calves. If you want big calves as fast as possible then you need to gain weight and the more the better. Ever see a fat person’s calves? Rarely are they be skinny. The next time you see a really heavy person be sure to look at their calves and I think you will be surprised. Moving all that weight around every day for months and years have made their calves as big as they are. So why wouldn’t it work for you?
Getting a quality pair of calves that balance out strong quads and hamstrings will take work over the long haul. That being said, if you are willing to put in the time and effort, I can assure you that your investment will pay off.
Ken “Skip” Hill has spent 30 years in the trenches of bodybuilding. He owns TEAM SKIP Nutritional Consulting, where he specializes in conditioning for bodybuilders and high-level athletes. You can reach Skip through his website, TEAMSKIP.net and follow him on Twitter (@IntenseMuscle).