With the exception of competitive bodybuilders, calf training is usually not a training priority – after all, that’s what pants are for! Those who do want to pack on more muscle mass on the lower legs, however, are often frustrated because the calves tend to grow slowly – plus, calf training hurts! There are some solutions, however – just ask Arnold.
Despite having relatively poor calves when he was a teenager in Europe, Arnold Schwarzenegger did well in competition. In 1966 he entered the Mr. Universe competition and lost to America’s Chet Yorton. Yorton had massive, diamond-shaped calves that made Arnold’s weakness even more apparent. Two years later Arnold lost to a much smaller Frank Zane – Arnold joked that he lost to a bodybuilder with 17-inch arms – but who had exceptional symmetry. Because he wanted to be the best bodybuilder ever, Arnold became obsessed with bringing his calves up to par with his massive upper body.
Arnold’s mentor was Reg Park, a bodybuilding legend in the sport who sported 20-inch calves. Park taught Arnold the importance of high-frequency training. Arnold said that Park would get up at 5 am to train and begin every workout with 10 sets of calf raises. Park, who was the first bodybuilder to bench press 500 pounds, also believed in using especially heavy weights with calf training. In fact, when Arnold trained with Park in 1969 at his home in South Africa, he said Park would begin his calf workouts with 500 pounds on the calf machine!
According to the muscle magazines, after his visit with Park, Arnold would train his calves six days a week. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, he would do donkey calf raises, standing calf raises, and seated calf raises; 4 sets of 10 reps. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, he would again do standing calf raises, following a 15,10,8,8 sequence, then do calf raises on a leg press machine for 4 sets of 10 reps. This type of workout reportedly enabled Arnold to add two inches to his calves in a single year, and they eventually grew to 21 inches.
Before getting into specific guidelines for calf training, consider that the average American man takes 5340 steps a day compared to the average woman who takes 4912 steps. Such statistics suggest that high-volume, low-intensity exercise is not likely an effective way to stimulate growth in the calves. What this also means is that the calves need to be shocked with a variety of training protocols. The challenge is that there are not many exercises that can be performed for the calves (compared to other muscle groups), and the range of motion is relatively small, so it’s difficult to vary the speed of movement of the exercise (such as with a bench press or a squat).
One issue with following the workouts of those with outstanding calves is that some people are simply born with exceptional calf development. The lower your muscle belly inserts on the bone, the greater your potential to develop large calves. Chris Dickerson possessed low muscle bellies that contributed to his win at the 1982 Mr. Olympia, and he reportedly said that he only trained his calves twice a week because he didn’t want them to get too big. However, popular bodybuilding writer and Nautilus founder Arthur Jones said that Dickerson had a brother (one of two surviving triplets) who didn’t train but had better calves that Chris.
Another issue is that it’s hard to infer information about calf training from research, as it would be especially difficult to recruit motivated subjects to participate in a long-term study on calf training. As such, we have to look at empirical evidence from those who have had success getting their calves to grow. In addition to Park’s advice to train the calves frequently with heavy weights and perform them first in your workout, here are eight commonly-shared ideas.
1. Perform a full range of motion. Calf training should be performed on an elevated platform, preferably at least six inches off the floor. A rounded edge is preferable as a straight edge can dig into your arches, and a rubber surface will prevent slipping. Pausing at the bottom of the exercise can help stretch tight calves. Also, always use flexibility shoes when performing calf work, and for variety try performing some workouts in bare feet.
2. Emphasize eccentric contractions. Eccentric training has the most muscle building effect, so using techniques such as negative accentuated training should frequently be included in your workouts. With this technique, you raise the weight with two calves, and then lower with one.
3. Perform more reps for the soleus than the gastrocnemius. Some research suggests that the soleus muscle has a predominately slow twitch fiber make-up and as such would respond better to higher reps that the gastrocnemius. As a general rule, the gastrocnemius should be performed with sets lasting 20-40 seconds, and the soleus with sets lasting more than 40 seconds. Also, experiment with using short rest intervals (as little as 10 seconds), especially for the soleus.
4. Vary foot position. Turning your feet outward may increase the work of the lateral (outside) head of the calves and turning your inward may increase the work of the medial (inside) head of the calves. Such variety creates a unique stress that promotes faster muscle growth.
5. Try slow tempo training. Performing a slow tempo increases the intramuscular tension in the calf muscles. For example, lift the weight in five seconds and lower it in five seconds. You can also try holding the last rep of a set for several seconds to increase time under tension.
6. Train dorsiflexion. To prevent injury and ensure all-around lower leg development, perform exercises that involve dorsiflexion (pulling the toes towards you). If a dorsiflex machine is not available at your gym, using bands can help you isolate these muscles.
7. Use a hack squat machine. A hack machine positions the body at a 45-degree angle, making it easier to achieve a full range of motion.
8. Train like a weightlifter. Weightlifters often have good calf development, suggesting that the explosive work they do, along with the full-range squats they practice, may have a good training effect on the calves. If you can’t do the Olympic lifts, jump squats are a good alternative. Performing these with a hex bar places less stress on the shoulder girdle (and the spine if the bar separates from the body) and gives you a good trap workout.
Of course, many elite bodybuilders have succeeded following a variety of training protocols, some that go against this advice. If we are to believe the muscle magazines, 8-time Ronnie Coleman only worked the middle range of the motion of the calves to just short of a full stretch, 6-time Mr. Olympia Phil Heath only trains his calves twice a week, 4-time Mr. Olympia Jay Culter performs the same reps for both seated and standing calf raises, and Mike Mentzer, who won the heavyweight division at the 1979 Mr. Olympia, reported only did one set of calf raises during a workout. Maybe such training methods worked for them or perhaps they were successful in spite of these training methods, or perhaps these individuals were had genetic advantages for calf development? Whatever the reasons, we should consider such training methods unconventional.
It would be great to be able to give absolute answers about what calf training methods will work best for you, but we can’t. Your calves should grow if you train them hard and often, but you’ll need to experiment with a variety of training protocols to determine how to force your calves to grow to their full potential.