As a health connoisseur, going to the gym, lifting weights and doing intense exercise all go hand in hand. Not only is lifting one of the best ways to stay in shape, but the sense of discipline that comes from moving heavy weights can be transferred to all aspects of life. So, about a month ago and a half ago, I was walking from the kitchen to the living room when I hear my girlfriend make a slight comment. “Your calves are kind of small”. Maybe a slight little comment to her, but nonetheless a nightmarish feeling erupted inside of me. I peered down, it was completely true. I have been training incredibly hard the past four years and in spite of this, I had admittedly never really trained my calves. That was, until then! I even measured the circumference; a mere 33cm. At that very moment, I decided to go all in with my calves training and started working them almost every day. After four weeks of training them 6 times a week, I re-measured them. To my delight, they were now 37cm in diameter. That’s 4cm in a matter of 4 weeks! I was impressed and I’m going to show you how I did it.
A lot of people believe calves are much more stubborn in terms of muscle growth. This is due to the fact that we’ve already been using our calves every time we walk around. In any case, if you work them hard they will grow and get stronger, even if it takes a bit of time.
Our calves consist primarily of two muscles; the soleus and the gastrocnemius. The soleus lies underneath and is surprisingly the bigger of the two muscles even though the gastrocnemius is the muscle that pops out. It’s important to note that the soleus is commonly comprised of between 70-96% slow twitch type 1 fiber. The gastrocnemius muscles contain almost a 50/50 split between type I and type II muscle fibers, also known as fast twitch (type II) and slow twitch (type I) muscle fibers. Type I muscle fibers, also known as slow oxidative muscle fibers, have a fairly high endurance due to the content of mitochondria and myoglobin. Type II muscle fibers, also known as fast oxidative muscle fibers, have a somewhat low endurance and therefore are possibly better for lower rep and heavier weight training movements. Out of all the muscle fiber types, the type II fibers are the fibers that tire the most quickly.
In layman’s terms, if we want to see better improvements in our calves we need to train them at both low and high reps! Let us dig in…
Start your calf training by training the gastrocnemius first. We do this because as previously stated, the gastrocnemius has a higher concentration of fast twitch muscle fibers and therefore will burn out quicker. The gastrocnemius is better worked when our legs are straight. There are several exercises that are efficient in working the gastrocnemius including standing calf raises with a barbell or dumbbell, donkey calf raises, or calf press on the leg press machine. One-legged calf raises can also be very beneficial to those of you who have imbalances such as one leg being longer than the other. Remember, we want to do both low and high reps for the workout. I tend to start with a specific calf raise machine, which your gym may or may not have, or single leg dumbbell calf raises. First, do a few sets in the 6-8 rep range to target the type two muscle fibers, going to failure and making sure to rest a few minutes between sets. I usually do three sets in this range. Then move up into the 8-14 rep range for a few more sets. Finally, finish off the gastrocnemius with a couple more high rep sets upwards of 20-25 reps.
I should intervene here. There are a few techniques you can do to make your calf training much more efficient.
After we work our gastrocnemius to exhaustion, we move on to training the soleus. The soleus is recruited the most when our knees are bent at a 90-degree angle. If your gym has a seated calf raise machine that would be perfect. Otherwise, you may have to sit on a bench and place dumbbells or a barbell across your thighs. As we now know, the soleus muscle is compromised primarily of slow twitch fibers and responds much better to high rep training.
I usually aim to do 3-4 sets with the soleus after training the gastrocnemius. The first set will be within the 12-16 rep range followed by a set in the 16-20 rep range and a final burnout set with half the weight I used for the first set. When we train our soleus we want to use the same techniques highlighted above holding both the top and bottom stretch positions and making sure we never bounce our calf raises.
We’d like to hear from you!
Have you encountered any different techniques for successfully training your calves?
What’s your primary motivation for being fit?