Most bodybuilders find the calves to be the most difficult muscle group to build. This trend has sparked many social media trends. Many people are hesitant to train calves, saying that they don’t have the genetics necessary for large calves. Although genetics play an important role in muscle development and growth, there are still secrets to calf training worth exploring.
Calf training is a controversial topic for many lifters. Because no one cares about calf muscle hypertrophy research and funding, it is a major problem. Because we don’t know much about human calf muscles, it is important to dig into rehab journals and analyze walking gaits. We’ve collected enough information to help you get started on your calf training journey. Let’s now go into the details of calf training.
Anatomy of Calves
Where should you start looking for clues when discussing how to train a particular muscle group? Anatomy. Anatomy is the key to understanding how to train muscles. It can reveal how big the muscle is, its origin and insertion, the joints it crosses, and even the pennation angle for its muscle fibers. Let’s now look at the anatomy of the calves.
Because there are 3 distinct muscle heads within this group, the calf muscles collectively go by the name “triceps suprae”. The soleus and gastrocnemius are the main muscles involved. The medial and lateral gastrocnemius can both be divided, giving rise to the 28-head designation.
Medial and lateral gastroc muscles are what you see when you strike a calf pose (assuming you don’t have bird legs). Let’s now get to the important anatomy components. The big one, the soleus. It is a single-joint muscle that originates at the back of your tibia and inserts into your Achilles tendon.
The Achilles tendon crosses the heel and performs actions at the ankle joint. We’ll discuss that in detail in the next section. The gastroc is slightly different. The gastroc is located on the femur and inserts into the Achilles tendon. Gastrics can cross both the ankle and knee joints. This could have significant implications for training, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Actions of the Calves
Both calf muscles affect the ankle joint. They mainly perform plantarflexion, which is when your toes point in one direction. Although the calves may also play an important role in other actions of the ankle joint, such as inversion, I doubt that many people are doing those exercises to increase calf growth. The calves will also experience a lot of stretching when they are in ankle dorsiflexion. This is when your toes touch your knees. This could have implications for calf training, which we’ll discuss in another section.
Calves can also be active when walking, balancing, and doing anything that requires standing. The calves are very efficient at walking, and they are unlikely to receive much training stimulus from walking. The calves can also be quite active in squats and deadlifts, and even grow slightly when they are trained with a flywheel device squat program. This section shows that calf raisings are the best way to target calves. Calf raises are the only exercise that isolates ankle plantarflexion. This is not a new concept, so let’s get into it.
Training Considerations and Muscle Size
When trying to determine how to train a particular muscle, the next step is to measure its general size. While simply looking at a muscle does not tell the whole story, it is important to determine its cross-sectional area and muscle volume. This is crucial because many people mistakenly assume that muscle size is based on the eye test. We see this in the fact that the triceps are technically larger than the lats as the lats are very thin muscles. It’s unlikely anyone would guess that just by looking at someone.
Why is muscle size so important? The size of a muscle tells us how easy it is to activate it. Because muscle activation can tell us about half the story of whether or not a particular exercise will cause a muscle to grow, it is crucial. While a muscle must be active in order to grow, it will also need to be mechanically challenged. We’ll get to that in another section. We know that the bigger a muscle is the more difficult it will be to activate maximally. This can be seen in the fact that quads are the most difficult muscle group to activate, while biceps are the easiest major muscle group.
What Is Activation?
Not only is activation a sign of potential growth, but it can also indicate how much muscle damage might be expected from training. Although this is dependent on mechanical factors, research has shown that larger muscle groups are more likely to recover from injury faster. This is because they activate less and aren’t as sore/damaged.
How do the calves compare? The gastroc muscle is quite large in comparison to other muscles in your body. It’s not as big as the quads but it is larger than the quads. In fact, the medial head alone of the gastroc is likely larger than the biceps. The medial gastroc and entire soleus muscles are smaller than the lateral head and are therefore easier to activate. This is a pity since the medial gastroc forms the bulk of our visible calves. However, it’s likely to be the most difficult muscle to activate in the calves.
Despite being easier to activate than smaller muscles, the calves aren’t the easiest muscle to activate. The calves won’t be as sore as the upper body muscles, but will likely recover faster, which could provide more clues about how to train.
Training Considerations and Muscle Fiber Type
To determine the best training methods, we need to know more about the muscle’s fiber type. The fiber-type composition of a muscle can reveal three things: how vulnerable it is to injury/soreness, how fast it can grow, and which repetitions are best. How do the calves compare?
Science has discovered a wide variety of fiber splits in the gastroc, ranging from 44% slow towitch to 76% slow towitch. However, the soleus has consistently been shown to have a very slow twitch with a range of 70% to 96% slow-twitch fibers (9,10-12,24). The gastroc will probably be slower for most people unless you are a good sprinter. The soleus will be slower regardless of your athletic ability. Let’s talk about what this means for training.
First, faster twitch muscle fibers are more susceptible to muscle damage. This is likely due to faster twitch fibers developing more force and being less oxidative than slower twitch. The calves won’t be very sore or damaged from training. This is evident in the fact that they are one of the fastest muscles to recover after a bad training session. Although it may feel like you haven’t done enough, not feeling sore can give clues about the calves’ training frequency. The calves don’t get much training done and they recover quickly so you can train them fairly often. Here’s tip #1.
Knowing the fiber composition of a muscle is a good indicator of how it will grow. Normal training will be best for fast-twitching muscle fibers. These fibers experience the greatest fatigue and tension and produce the most force. The calves are slow-twitched and therefore the 8-12 rep range may not be the best for them. Here’s tip #2.
Let’s continue to discuss tip #2 in detail. The fiber type composition can help us determine how long to spend on certain rep ranges. How can we use this information to guide our decision since the calves are mostly slow-twitch? It is well-known that slow-twitch muscle fibers are extremely resistant to fatigue. These muscle fibers will likely need to be held under tension for longer periods.
How can you increase your time under tension? Perform more repetitions. Slowing down on purpose will reduce muscle activation, and not cause much growth. The calves’ muscle fiber composition tells us that they can be trained quite often and that they should probably also have a lot of volumes to maximize their growth. There’s one more thing we need to know.
Muscle and Joint ROM, Training Considerations
When developing a training program for a particular muscle group, the joint range of motion should be considered last. The range of motion can affect how much muscle is stretched during training, which can lead to muscle soreness, muscle damage, and overall recovery requirements.
What information can we get from the calves, since they primarily affect the ankle joint? The ankle joint is not able to move in a wide range of movements. It has a fairly restricted range of motion and doesn’t require a lot of flexibility. It’s unlikely that the normal ankle range can cause any significant stretch to the calf muscles.
It is unfortunate because the contractile units in the soleus can stretch to a great extent. This means that the soleus may benefit from a wider range of motions, which could provide a more effective training stimulus. Because the contractile units of the gastroc aren’t as flexible, any soreness you feel from training is likely to be in your gastroc.
The stretching of these units can cause injury and soreness. This information is important because loaded stretching can cause growth. Therefore, focusing on the stretch during calf exercises could be a key to calf growth. Ankle range of motion is still an important factor in this situation. Tight calf muscles, tight sciatic nerves, and tight calf muscles can all contribute to decreased ankle range of motion.
To ensure your ankles are ready for loaded stretching, it is important to do a thorough warm-up. Even if you only have a few degrees more ROM, this can make a difference in your long-term growth. The difference between seated and standing calves raises is another important component of joint ROM. They will have similar effects on the ankle joint.
However, flexing your knee while seated calf raises can have some interesting effects on the activation of the calf muscles. It is well-known that flexing your knee decreases gastroc activation, and increases soleus activation. Active insufficiency is a phenomenon that causes this. The gastroc crosses the knee and ankle joints, so flexing your knee reduces its ability to activate the gastroc. The soleus must bear the brunt of this force as the gastroc shuts down when the knees are flexed.
Can pointing your toes in a different direction (thereby altering the ankle angle) affect calf activation? This is a question we don’t really have any data on. We rely mostly on the mechanical advantage of calf muscles at each toe angle.
It is important to remember that pointing your toes out will emphasize the medial gastroc, while pointing them in should highlight the lateral gastroc. You should note that your ankle should be able to undergo its greatest dorsiflexion (ROM) in a neutral position. This means you won’t feel as much stretch in the calves if you point the toes one way or the other.
How can we combine all this knowledge? Let’s summarize it in a list.
- Calf muscles don’t get activated as often as upper body muscles. They are less likely to become sore or damaged from exercise.
- Calf muscles are mainly slow-twitch muscle fibers which means they’re less susceptible to being damaged or sore than other muscle groups.
- Because the ankle joint is not able to move through a wide range of motion, it can be difficult for calves to stretch. This issue might be solved by calf raises, which hold the calf in a stretched position.
These are the key takeaways from these main findings:
- The calves can be trained quite frequently since they aren’t easily damaged by training. You can train your calves for 4-5 days per week.
- Simply add a calf raise variation to any workout that you do throughout the week.
- Always ensure you are using your full range of motion for every calf raise, especially in the stretched position.
- The Achilles tendon is extremely mechanically efficient, and the ankle can store large amounts of elastic energy.
- To maximize calf growth, it is important to pause in the stretched position during calf raises.
- Calf raises variations that target the gastroc or the soleus and should include straight leg and bent leg variations.
- Spend at least 60% of your total calves training on the gastroc, since it makes up the bulk of your calves.
- Finally, because of the slow twitch nature of calves, higher reps are likely to be necessary to encourage growth. Slow twitch fibers can resist fatigue and require long periods of tension to grow.
- Calf training should be done in the 6-12 rep range. A smaller portion (perhaps 1-2 workouts per week) can fall within the reps per set range.
Calf training can be very frustrating, especially for those who don’t have watermelons in their lower legs. Some recommend adding 100 reps to every workout for calf development. Although this strategy is one that we recommend, it’s worth spending a 2500+ word article explaining why it might be beneficial. We hope this article can be a guide to help you lead your calves to pasture for maximum growth.