Calves are often referred to as a ‘stubborn muscle group’ – which means that very few people know what on earth to do to them to make them grow. Often, however, people who struggle to grow this muscle group don’t realise they are training them in a lacklustre way. They use the same exercises, working them with a few lazy sets tacked on to the end of a long leg workout, and become frustrated with a lack of progress with their calves even if the rest of their fitness goals are coming along nicely.
If this sounds familiar, don’t worry. Calves for the most part should be treated like any other muscle group, but need to be trained multiple times a week with a decent amount of volume in each session, in order to force growth. Follow the instructions below to build your own calf routine that will bring you great results from the time you put in.
The calves need to be stressed heavily by weight training because their role in walking and running means they are worked in daily life to a far greater extent than muscles like the chest and back. Therefore, they should be trained a minimum of 2-3 times per week to provide adequate stress to the muscle group to induce quick growth.
It would also make sense to put your calf training at the start of the workout. I wouldn’t recommend having an entire day in your routine dedicated to calves, but they need to have your full attention during training. So do their sets first thing when you arrive at the gym after a quick warmup.
What we refer to as the calves is actually a selection of smaller muscles with a similar function. The largest is the gastrocnemius, with other smaller muscles such as the soleus around it. In order to maximise growth, both bent-leg and straight-leg movements should be employed to ensure stress is applied to all the small muscles of the calf. A minimum of 2-3 sets of each kind of exercise should be performed per calf workout, with rep ranges starting from as low as 6-8 and as high as 15-20, based on your personal preference. So, your workout might look like this:
Standing single-leg dumbbell calf raise: 3 sets x 6-8 reps (straight leg exercise)
Seated calf raise machine: 3 sets x 8-10 reps (bent leg exercise)
You can vary the rep ranges if you would prefer to do higher reps per set for a bigger pump. The only thing that matters is that you make progress every week in strength and size.
Every rep should be performed relatively slowly under good control. Make sure to use a full range of motion, too: begin each rep with your heel significantly lower than your toes, and finish with it raised as far as possible to achieve a good squeeze on the calf.
The final point to cover is that you must be consistent to make your calves grow. You wouldn’t bench press once a month and expect to get a big chest, and similarly you need to train calves hard and often to see great results. Keep up the pressure, force them to adapt, and you will see great progress, stubborn muscle group or not.
Bent-leg calf raises should be done seated at a machine or using a leg press. These are hard to do with free weights.
Straight-leg calf raises should be performed using a machine, a leg press, or standing on a step holding a dumbbell or with a barbell on your back for loading. You will use heavier weight on straight leg exercises, as your calves are stronger in this position.
Written by Ben Neal