Our calves are used to hard labour, so building them up is tough. Lucky for us, here we have our health and fitness expert Ben Hardman to give us the best calf exercises for more size.
Are you struggling to get those stubborn calves to grow? Or maybe you’re wanting to maximise the good calf muscle genetics you’ve been blessed with?
You’ve reached the right spot as I’m here to give you the best calf exercises you need to add more size and width to your lower leg. I like training my calves as you can really isolate them – and feel a top notch burn when worked properly.
Everyone can appreciate the look of well-developed calves. They might not be the largest muscle group in your body, but they’re one of the most prominent when your legs are on show. There’s no doubt that a good set of calves are the unsung hero for a great set of legs and key for a more complete and balanced physique.
But aesthetics are not the only reason to concentrate on building up your calves.
There’s also a functional side to the story. A strong set of calves can help you walk more efficiently, run faster, jump higher, as well as support better knee health and stability.
Ready to kickstart your calf gains? Let’s dive into the best science-backed calf exercises you need to add into your leg day routine.
My 6 Best Calf Exercises
Here are my six favourite calf exercises for adding big size and definition.
Standing Calf Raise
In my eyes, the standing calf raise is the best exercise for adding size. It trains your calf muscle in the full range of motion and, importantly, you can go heavy with this move.
Loading up your calves with heavy weight is important. Your calves are used to high-volume work. They help us walk thousands of steps each day. If you hit your 10,000 steps a day, that’s 5,000 steps for each calf. So, if you weigh 80kg, your calves are already comfortable lifting this type of weight.
To stimulate growth, you need to go above and beyond these everyday weights.
The standing calf raise primarily targets the gastrocnemius muscle, which makes up the bulk of the calf muscle. But it will also hit your soleus muscle too, that lies just behind. This ticks off all three parts of your calf muscle, also known as the triceps surae.
One of the best ways to perform the standing calf raise is at a dedicated machine. You’ll place your shoulders under the pads and step on to a plate or platform with just your toes and the balls of your feet. Your heels will be hanging off the edge.
Push your toes and balls of your feet into the plate and raise your body up. At the top of the move, squeeze your calves, before slowly lowering your heels back below the step edge to stretch your calves to their full range of motion. The only joint moving with the standing calf raise is your ankle.
If your gym hasn’t got a standing calf machine, it might have a donkey calf raise machine. If it doesn’t have this, it should definitely have a smith machine for you to perform a very similar version of the exercise whilst standing on a small step.
For all of these exercises, it’s important to keep your legs straight and in a ‘soft lock’ position. A soft lock is where there’s an ever so slight flex in your knee (to prevent hyperextension), but your legs are straight to the extent where your gastrocnemius is fully engaged and activated.
You can emphasise sections of the calf muscle by adjusting your toe position. Having your toes in a standard straight position is good for all-round calf development. However, if you point your toes slightly inward, you can target the outside of the calf. Point your toes slightly outwards and you will target the inner head of the calf.
Seated Calf Raise
Differing from the standing calf raise, the seated calf raise zeroes in on the soleus muscle and the lower part of the calves. This is because the knees are bent, which has the effect of relaxing the gastrocnemius.
Most gyms will have a plate-loaded seated calf machine. If not, you can use a combination of a bench, barbell and small step to mimic the machine.
With the seated calf machine, place your knees under the pads and lift the mechanism off the resting position. Push your toes into the step and lift your heels up. When you reach the top of the move, contract your calf muscles for a second or two before slowly lowering down all the way to the bottom so your heels are lower than the step.
Keep your body perfectly still as you perform this exercise and let your calves do all the work to feel the burn.
Single Leg Calf Raise
The single leg calf raise is a variation of the standing calf raise.
The main difference is that it’s a single leg, or unilateral, move. This makes it an excellent exercise for addressing any imbalances between your calves that get covered up when you lift a weight with both muscles together.
The single leg calf raise is best performed with one foot on a small step or platform, so that your heel can lower down towards the ground before exploding up. It’s important the platform is high enough to give you full range of movement. This is why this exercise isn’t great to perform just by standing on the floor.
As I’ve hinted at, the calves require heavy weight to grow. I like to perform the single leg calf raise by holding a dumbbell in one hand (on the same side as the calf you’re training). Use your free hand to hold onto something to keep your balance.
Perform a set of 12 -15 reps on one calf before switching sides.
Leg Press Calf Raise
The leg press calf raise focuses on all three sections of the calf – both the two heads of the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
The leg press version is a very similar movement to the standing calf raise, but performed in a horizontal plane.
A big advantage to this move is that your spine is deloaded. Instead of the weight being transferred through your spine, everything happens away from your central column. So, for anyone with a dodgy lower back, use this version to take the pressure off.
To perform the leg press calf raise, sit in a leg press machine with just your toes and the balls of your feet in contact with the plate – your heels should be hanging off the bottom.
Push the platform away using only your toes and the balls of your feet. You should feel your calves actively engaging to achieve this.
Remember to give your calves a good squeeze at the top of the move for maximum muscle contraction and allow for a full stretch at the bottom.
One of my favourite plyometric exercises – the box jump.
The calves aren’t isolated here, but it doesn’t matter. Box jumps are a great way to work the fast-twitch muscle fibres of the gastrocnemius and build real, explosive power in your calves. It’s a very functional exercise. After all, your calves are built to help you walk, run and jump!
Where possible, I like to throw in one or two more functional movements like box jumps alongside the heavy weights and conventional hypertrophy exercises.
If you’re not used to box jumps, just start off with a small height and work your way upwards. They can be a little daunting once you start to increase the height of the box, but it’s all a process of marginal improvement for progressive overload.
To perform, stand in front of a sturdy box, lower down into a squat position and explode upwards and forwards to jump up onto the box. Carefully jump back down into the starting position and go again.
The number of reps depends on the height of the box. To give a figure, I like to aim for between 6 -10 reps.
Dumbbell Jump Squat
The dumbbell jump squat is another plyometric exercise that targets the calves in addition to the quads, glutes and hamstrings.
The dumbbell jump squat is similar to the box jump, except you’re not jumping onto a box or platform. Instead you’re just jumping up into the air, which some people may prefer – it takes the danger element out at least!
To perform the dumbbell jump squat, hold a dumbbell in each hand, perform a regular squat and explode up into a jump. As you jump up, concentrate on powering off your calves for maximum activation and keep your legs straight in the air.
Depending on the weight of the dumbbells, I’d aim for 8 -12 reps of the dumbbell jump squat. If working out from home, using a good quality set of adjustable dumbbells means it is space efficient and affordable to do so.
Understanding Calf Anatomy
The calves are an intriguing part of the human body. They can easily be forgotten, but they’re actually a powerhouse muscle that are essential when it comes to everyday movements.
Their main job is to flex your foot – bring your toes up towards your shin, known as dorsiflexion, and push them back down again, or plantarflexion. The simple act of standing on your tiptoes all comes down to activated calves.
The calf comprises two main muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. Each plays a similar, but distinct role, in your calf functionality.
The gastrocnemius muscle is the most visible part of the calf. It also provides the most bulk to overall muscle.
The gastrocnemius is made up of two muscle heads. The medial head sits on the inside of the calf and the lateral head sits towards the outside. The two heads converge to form one functioning muscle, but it’s why the shape of your calf looks like an upside down heart.
The gastrocnemius is a long muscle that starts above your knee joint and travels down past your ankle joint and to the heel bone of your foot. Towards the top end, the gastrocnemius muscle attaches above the knee and to the lower section of the femur.
Understanding this information helps inform our training. Imagine a piece of string attached from your heel to the back of your hamstring.
When the knee is bent, the angle is more acute which causes the gastrocnemius to be slackened off. However, when the knee is straightened out, the muscle becomes stretched, which is when it then becomes activated for flexing your foot.
Beneath the dominating gastrocnemius, we find the soleus, which gets its name from the flat sole fish.
The soleus may not be as visible or provide masses amount of size to your calf, but it’s still an essential muscle to develop for better calves.
Differing from the gastrocnemius, the soleus muscle attaches to the bone under the knee joint. This means it can be activated and used in foot flexion when the knee is bent.
When the knee is straightened, the soleus still works, but to a lesser extent as the gastrocnemius takes over.
In terms of muscle fibre composition, each of these calf muscles differs greatly.
The soleus muscle is made up of around 90% slow-twitch muscle fibres. This slow-twitch dominance means the soleus has fantastic levels of endurance. This is why you can walk for a long time without your calves tiring.
In contrast, the gastrocnemius is predominantly a fast-twitch muscle. It tires relatively quickly, but is brilliant for quick, explosive, powerful movements, such as jumping and pushing off to sprint.
Together, the two heads of the gastrocnemius and the soleus form what is known collectively as the triceps surae.
Best Way To Train Calves
Due to their unique anatomy and functioning, the calves require a different training approach than many other muscle groups.
The calves are made up of dense muscle fibres that handle the daily, repetitive stress of walking around, and even running, with ease. This means it’s going to take a significant amount of stimulus to get them to grow.
The consensus is that calves respond well to both high volume and heavy weight.
We can take a leaf out of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book here (never a bad thing). Arnold initially struggled and neglected his calf development. This cost him during his early competitions.
Did he blame his genetics? Absolutely not. Instead, he hit his calves multiple times a week. He developed a programme of high volume and heavy weight to kickstart his calf growth and catch-up with the rest of his body.
Arnold favoured 4 or 5 sets of 15 reps for each calf exercise. This is a good rule of thumb to abide by.
Genetics will play a role in the overall shape and size of your calves though. Individuals with shorter calves may find adding size a challenge, whereas people with long calves can add mass with relative ease.
Despite this, you can always work with what you’ve got. An effective calf exercise workout regime that incorporates big weights and high volumes can optimise their development and maximise calf size.