The 4 Best Calf Exercises To Build Massive, Ripped-Up, Bulging Calves [Exercise Lists]
Image: Muscle and Fitness
Check out your legs. Flex ’em. If you’re anything like the legion of leg-starved bros in America, your calves likely need MAJOR work. Like, a complete overhaul. It’s a code red pandemic.
Mine definitely do, which is why they’re a priority for 2015. I’m over the beach-season embarrassment.
Frankly, the calf muscles are insanely stubborn and a pain in the ass to grow, which is why most people stop focusing on them altogether. Genetics and a predisposition to explosive calf growth do play a surprisingly large role in that, but equally—if not more so—calf issues are predicated on the willy nilly, uncalculated, half-assed nature at which most people attack the muscle group.
And because of that, they’ve become one of the biggest enigmas on the human body. People blast their calves into oblivion, with no results to show for it.
Start training SMARTER and overhaul your calf strategy. It’s a valuable investment with an extremely high return, and one that’s capable of completely transforming your lower body without doing much work whatsoever.
The process is simple. Slap 10 minutes of dedicated, progressive calf work onto the tail end of leg day and you’ll quickly sprout lumps on the backside of your lower legs.
And do it on a regular basis and you’ll gradually build mountainous, diamond-shaped calves that’ll make socks feel like asphyxiation chambers.
The Anatomy Of The Calves
Successful calf development starts with an understanding of the anatomy and muscle fiber types involved, which directly influence the exercises, rep schemes, and loads used. The calves are made up of two primary muscles — the gastrocnemius + soleus.
- The gastrocnemius is effectively the biceps of the lower body. It’s the visible muscle that bulges out of any pair of killer calves, and conversely, is noticeably absent from toothpick legs. It’s composed of 2 different heads (medial and lateral) that together create a diamond shape when grown out.
- The soleus is a long, flat sheath of muscle tissue that runs down the back of the leg. It sits underneath the gastrocnemius and Achilles, and because of that, isn’t actually visible.
Even though the gastrocnemius is the calf muscle everyone sees when you’re prancing around the beach, the soleus is incredibly important.
Aesthetically, it adds height to the gastrocnemius and helps it pop out of the legs with 3D-like effect. It also specializes in endurance-based activities (more on that in a second) and works synergistically to improve the strength of your lower legs, which directly translates to accelerated growth.
But there’s one key difference that has massive implications for calf training — muscle fiber types. The gastrocnemius is predominantly composed of fast-twitch fibers (FT), while the soleus is made up of slow-twitch fibers (ST). Translated for training purposes, FT fibers generate power and respond better to heavy loads; ST fibers are more conducive to endurance-based aerobic training and respond better to higher reps.
Combine the two effectively—leveraging their individual attributes—and you’ll see growth skyrocket. But don’t worry, we’ve done the heavy lifting for you.
The 4 Best Calf Exercises To Build Massive, Ripped-Up, Bulging Calves
The beauty of calves is that they’re an uber-simple muscle to stimulate. Hit ’em hard and him ’em fast with a few key exercises and you’ll reap massive gains. They slide nicely into the back-end of any leg workout, and shouldn’t take up more than 10 minutes to thoroughly blast from a variety of angles.
For the most part, calf exercises fall into one of two categories:
- Straight-leg — all straight-leg exercises, usually done standing, primarily hit the gastrocnemius. They also hit the soleus, but to a smaller degree.
- Bent-leg — all bent-leg calf exercises, usually done sitting, almost exclusively work the soleus.
It’s an easy pattern to keep track of, but ample balance is critical for effective results. As you’re training calves, aim to bang out both types of exercises.
Two more pro tips:
- Don’t use momentum or bounce — the recoil takes most of the emphasis off the calf muscles (it displaces it to your Achilles).
- Always aim to increase the weight over time — go HEAVY.
Use the foundational calf workout below to supplement your leg days—calf exercises ARE NOT a replacement for squats and lunges—and leverage all 4 power exercises below to keep growth consistent and fresh. BADABOOM!
*Click each exercise name for a pop-up video demo.
Target Calf Muscle(s): Soleus
Seated Calf Raises are THE best exercise to hammer the soleus directly. They have to be a staple in any leg and/or calf workout routine.
- (1) Load a plate machine. Sit upright with a tight core.
- (2) Powerfully contract your calves and press up as far as possible. Hold for 1 second and lower slowly all the way down to the bottom throughout the full RoM. You should feel a deep stretch through your calves.
- (3) Hold for 1 second at the bottom and repeat the movement.
Variation(s): If you don’t have a plate-loaded calf machine, you can easily replicate the movement by placing two dumbbells on top of your quads (the front half).
Target Calf Muscle(s): Gastrocnemius
The Standing Barbell Calf Raise is an all-around calf killer that not only hits the gastrocnemius, but also works the core and cranks up the intensity.
Because it’s not machine based, you’ll have to work hard to stabilize and maintain your balance. And if you want to take leg training to the next level, superset Standing Barbell Calf Raises with Barbell Squats one after another.
- (1) Load a barbell and place 2 plates together on the floor. Stand with your feet slightly more narrow than shoulder-width, with the balls of your feet on top of the plates. The plates help increase range of motion.
- (2) Powerfully contract your calves and press up as far as possible. Hold for 1 second at the top and slowly return all the way down to the ground. Repeat.
Variation(s): You can also do these with dumbbells, a Smith machine, or a standing squat machine. Or use your bodyweight and do them with one leg.
Target Calf Muscle(s): Gastrocnemius
These aren’t a joke. Donkey Calf Raises are an effective move to hit your gastrocnemius from an alternative angle. Because you’re bent over with weight on your back, they tend to work the core and hamstrings to a higher degree.
Some gyms have a machine that’s specifically for DCRs, that’s your best bet. You can also strap on a weight belt or load up a Smith machine. Or use your girlfriend/boyfriend. Seriously, try it.
- (1) Set up so that there’s some type of weight positioned on your lower back. You can also place a weight plate or step under your feet to increase the RoM. Bend over to a 45º angle and keep your legs straight.
- (2) Powerfully contract your calves and press up as far as possible. Hold for 1 second and slowly return down to the ground. Repeat.
Target Calf Muscle(s): Gastrocnemius
- (1) Load up a leg press machine and keep your legs straight. Place the balls of your feet on the platform with your heels hanging off.
- (2) Powerfully contract your calves and press the platform up as far as possible. Hold for 1 second and release back as far as possible. Hold for 1 second at the bottom and repeat.
ELLO ELLO I'm Bryan DiSanto.
I'm the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Lean It UP
, a CPT/CSN/Fitness Coach, Chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu – Paris, NYU graduate, ex-fat kid
, and all-around fitness junkie.
I also contribute to Men's Health Magazine
When I'm not working on my abs (or somebody else’s), whipping up avocado roses
and avocado toast, or running a Tough Mudder, I'm probably yelling at a Carolina Panthers game somewhere.
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