There is no denying that some individuals can develop outstanding calves with minimal effort. For the rest of us, getting those calves to turn into cows is going to take not only a lot of hard training, but smart training as well.
One famous example of a bodybuilder with great genetics for calf development is 1982 Mr. Olympia Chris Dickerson. Dickerson reportedly only trained his calves twice a week, because he found that more frequent training would make them too large and thus out of proportion to the rest of his physique. Further, according to the late Nautilus founder Arthur Jones, the bodybuilding champion had a brother (a surviving triplet) who didn’t train and had better calf development than Chris!
In contrast to the genetically blessed calves of the Dickersons, in the early years of competitive bodybuilding Arnold Schwarzenegger’s upper body development overshadowed his calf development. This asymmetrical development was especially evident in the 1968 NABBA Mr. Universe when Arnold finished runner- up to Chet Yorton, an American bodybuilder with exceptional calf development. This loss encouraged Arnold to make calf training a priority, and this focus resulted in dramatic changes in his development.
Despite the inspiration that is Arnold, many serious bodybuilders decide to avoid the calf training challenge altogether by undergoing calf implant surgery. An estimated 1,170 calf implants were performed in 2003, and according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons that number increased to 2,559 in 2009. Being an elective surgery it is likely the cost, which could be as much as $9,000, will not be covered by insurance.
With that background, here are seven tips to help jump-start stubborn calves into new growth.
1. Train the gastrocnemius with lower reps. The two major muscles of the calf are the gastrocnemius (upper calf) and the soleus (lower calf). Although the exact numbers vary, the gastrocnemius primarily contains fast twitch fibers and the soleus slow twitch. Fast twitch fibers respond better to low reps and heavy weight which produce the highest levels of muscle tension, whereas slow twitch fibers respond better to higher reps and thus relatively lighter weights but longer exposure to muscle tension.
As a practical recommendation, start by performing calf raises with your legs straight (to focus on the gastrocnemius) with sets of 8-12 reps, and perform calf raises with your legs bent (to focus on the soleus) with 15-25 reps. Of course, the tempo of the exercise influences the repetition bracket, but because calf exercises are performed through a relatively short range of motion the time under tension prescription will be relatively short – for example, it would be extremely difficult to perform a standing calf raise with a 10-second eccentric contraction.
2. Start with gastrocnemius exercise. Because the upper calf is primarily composed of fast twitch fibers, they should be trained before exercises for the soleus so that you can produce the highest levels of muscle tension.
3. Train the soleus more frequently than the gastrocnemius. The slow twitch fiber composition of the soleus enables them to recover faster than the fast twitch gastrocnemius. As such, the soleus can be trained more frequently than the gastrocnemius – in fact, many individuals find they achieve their best results by training the soleus daily and the gastrocnemius only twice a week.
4. Make the single-leg calf raise with a dumbbell a core exercise. One of the most effective exercises for calf development is the single-leg calf raise with a dumbbell. It develops both the gastrocnemius and the flexor hallucis longus muscle. The latter muscle is important for many athletes because it pulls up the big toe when you lift your foot, thus playing an important role in sprinting. A few tips: First, hold the dumbbell on the same side as the calf you are working, and at the bottom position squeeze the glutes. Squeezing the glutes will promote even more growth by stretching the fascia.
5. Contract the tibialis anterior at the bottom of calf raises. The tibialis anterior is the lower leg muscle that stretches across the outside of the shin and helps dorsiflex (pull up) the foot. To increase the level of tension on the muscles, at the bottom position of a calf raise isometrically contract the tibialis anterior muscle.
6. Train the tibialis anterior. In addition to contracting the tibialis anterior at the bottom of calf raises to increase muscle tension, it’s important to perform specific exercises for this muscle. This is because weakness in the tibialis anterior muscle inhibits the strength and growth of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. You can isolate this muscle by using bands attached to the foot and performing dorsiflexion, and there are several machines available to isolate this muscle.
7. Stretch the calves. Tight calves will restrict the range of motion of your calf exercises and thus inhibit muscle growth. One of the best ways to stretch the calves is by performing a few sets in which you rest in the bottom position of calf raises – letting the resistance do the work. Holding this stretch for sets of 15 seconds should do the trick.
Although genetics play a key role in calf development, those with poor development should realize that the calves can grow significantly with hard work and sound training. Start with these seven tips and you’ll be surprised at just how well you can develop your lower legs. Arnold did it – so can you!