If there’s a body part guys neglect time after time out of sheer frustration, it’s calves. You go at ‘em with dogged determination for a month, they grow a bit, but then you get tired of the monotony, and they shrink back down. Too bad we’re heavy into summer and your legs are on display for the next three months. But, here’s something to take comfort in: There are numerous tricks for getting your calves to grow bigger and stronger. You just don’t know them—yet.
Joel Seedman, Ph.D., a neuromuscular physiologist and strength & performance specialist, knows the training tricks of the trade for adding mass to your calves. Lucky for you, he shared them all.
Hold and Squeeze
“The most common calf training mistake I see is mindlessly going through the motions of the exercises, using excessive momentum, and bouncing at the bottom of a move,” Seedman says. To counter this, he recommends two courses of action. First, squeeze your calves maximally at the top of any movement—say, calf raises—by holding the fully contracted position for two to three seconds. This creates tension and metabolic stress in the muscle, both of which are critical for maximizing growth. Second, control the eccentric movement (the two to three second lowering phase) and hold the fully stretched position for an additional three seconds. “Not only will this break down the surrounding fascia (connective tissue that covers your muscles and hinders growth) but this technique will also produce the greatest muscular damage, which is key for triggering muscle hypertrophy,” Seedman adds.
Combine Rep Ranges
Confusion is the only way to keep progressing and growing—in your muscles, not your brain, that is. “Like any group, the calves respond best to a variety of rep ranges and intensities,” Seedman explains. At the beginning of your calf workout, perform sets of heavier weight and lower repetitions (4-6 reps) when your muscles are strong and fresh. “This will optimize stimulation and overload the fast twitch fibers,” Seedman says. After completing these, gradually drop the weight while increasing the rep range by incorporating sets of 8-15 reps and ending with several finisher sets of 20-50 repetitions. This will stimulate cellular swelling and maximize muscular growth, particularly in the slow twitch fibers of your calves.
Perform Higher Frequency
Calf muscles typically respond best to higher frequency training, because they’re relatively small and tend to be more slow twitch. So, rather than training them once per week at the end of your leg workout, target them three times per week by adding them into other training days. Intersperse them in with other muscle groups like chest, shoulder, and back. “For instance, you can perform a set of calf exercises in between your sets of rows, pullups, or presses,” Seedman advises. “Not only will this maximize the efficiency of your workouts but your calves will be shocked into new levels of growth.”
Go Barefoot and Explosive
“This is probably the most underrated tip when it comes to triggering growth in the calves and lower legs,” Seedman says. Training barefoot or using minimalist footwear—especially when performing plyometrics, sprints, agility drills, jump rope, and calf exercises—will do wonders not only for the larger muscles in your calves, but also for developing the smaller muscles around your calves, shins, and lower legs. “You’re essentially waking up new muscles that help to stabilize your body and absorb shock; just make sure you gradually progress into the barefoot or minimalist training approach,” Seedman cautions. If you don’t? Your legs can be out of action for days—and you kind of needs those.
Don't Neglect Single Leg
If you’ve ever played a sport or routinely participate in athletic activities, chances are one calf muscle is significantly more developed than the other. “Not only does this visually detract from your physique but it also places you at greatest risk for injury,” Seedman says. The best way to balance any asymmetry is to train each leg individually. Practically every standard calf exercise can be modified into a single leg variation, and you can even perform single leg calve raises on a step at home. Seedman suggests performing 3 sets of 20 reps on each leg every other day for four weeks to see your calves grow rapidly and equally.
Train to Failure and Beyond
You may have noticed by now that calves can be unusually stubborn and often need to be shocked into growth. To do so, you need to use high intensity techniques to train to failure—and then some. For each workout, push at least one set to failure. “Once you’ve reached this point, instead of terminating the exercise, use set extenders such as drop sets (reduce the weight by 30 percent and perform additional reps until failure), partial repetitions, or holds in the contracted position,” Seedman says. “Make sure you’re mentally prepared—the burn will be incredible, but the results are even better.”
Do Free Weight Calf Exercises
Here’s something else you can do at home: Try using basic free weights to perform weighted calf raises. This can be done on any surface with a barbell on your back or dumbbells held at your sides. “The key is stabilizing and balancing your body without support from a machine,” Seedman says. Although your range of motion will be slightly smaller, you’ll make up for it—the amount of stabilization you need will increase activation and recruitment in and around the muscles of the calves.