Bring Up Your Stubborn Calves

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel to bring up arguably the most frustrating muscle group in the body. But you will need to bring the pain.

By Joe Wuebben | January 5, 2016

Be honest: How big are your calves? And now for the more embarrassing question: How big were your calves five years ago…10 years ago…when you were 18 years old? Same size as they are now? If so, you’re part of the unfortunate majority.

“The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles — the calves — are one of the toughest muscle groups to build due to the fact that they’re used in a repetitive manner every time you take a step, walk, run or jump,” says Rocky Rogers, a certified personal trainer at Iron City Gym Hardcore in Cypress, Texas. Problem is, most people go too easy on this stubborn body-part. “The best way to grow the calves is to completely break them down,” he says.

In other words, if you want to build bigger calves you have to make them grow. Going through the motions simply won’t cut it. So if you’re ready to bust through your lower-leg sticking point once and for all, add this routine (designed by Rogers) to your program and leave those 18-year-old calves far, far behind.

The Workout

Rogers believes in using a basic template to train the calves, employing exercises and rep ranges you’ve undoubtedly done before. But he also takes a systematic approach in which the weights are heaviest early in the workout when you’re fresh and get progressively lighter with each exercise. This helps to ensure that you achieve a full range of motion — as high as possible on the tips of your toes at the top and feeling a nice stretch in your calves at the bottom — on every rep of every set, even after fatigue has set in. His workout consists of the following:

Exercise 1: Heavy Standing Calf Raise

Point your toes inward on the first set, straight ahead on the second and outward for the finisher to blast your calves from all angles. Use as much weight as you can while still achieving full contraction in the gastrocnemius (the target muscle on this move), even if that means hitting 10 instead of 15 reps. At the top of each rep, squeeze the contraction hard for one or two seconds.

Exercise 2: Seated Calf Raise

Here you focus on the deeper soleus muscle: It’s less visible than the gastroc, but provides much-desired thickness to the lower legs. Many lifters use too much weight on this move, resulting in an abbreviated up-and-down bouncing motion. Don’t be one of those guys; they almost never have big calves. If you have to stick to one or two plates (even non-45-pounders) to achieve full ROM, do it. On each set, hit 20 strict reps to failure, then take one plate off and rep out to failure again. Repeat three to four times or until there are no more plates on the machine.

Exercise 3: Bodyweight Standing Calf Raise

You’re back to the first exercise, but with no machine this time. Find a raised surface (such as a wooden block or the base of a power rack) and something to grasp for balance, and use the same foot placement scheme as in the weighted version. Your calves should be pretty fried by this point, so you may not be able to hit 50 consecutive reps with full ROM. That’s okay. Rest 15 to 20 seconds mid-set as many times as needed until you reach 50 reps, a technique known as rest-pause. When you hit 50, rest a minute, then start the next set. You’ll do 150 reps total. If that doesn’t induce serious muscle burn in your calves, you’re probably using insufficient ROM or not squeezing the contraction at the top of each rep.

“All three of these exercises should be done to complete muscle failure,” says Rogers. “Calves can be worked two to three times per week, as long as you’re giving the muscles a full two days of recovery between each workout. Repeat this protocol for a couple of months and continue to measure your progress.”

With this no-fibers-left-behind program, you’ll be hobbling your way to new growth in no time.



About the Author

Joe Wuebben

Joe Wuebben is a veteran fitness writer with over 15 years of experience. He was a staff editor at Muscle & Fitness magazine from 2002-2014 and currently writes for Muscle & Performance, The Box and Oxygen magazines, among other publications. He's authored or co-authored four books, including Mario Lopez's Extra Lean.