Got stubborn or skinny calves?
You’re not alone. It’s frequently one of the most neglected muscle groups to train.
For a lot of people, it’s because the typical training approach you might use to develop your chest or build bigger biceps doesn’t always work for your calf muscles.
Building bigger calves can be a stubborn process.
Here’s an example:
You probably don’t think of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the guy in the gym with skinny calves and a well-developed upper body. After all, he’s one of the legends of bodybuilding.
But when he stepped on stage to compete in a Mr. Universe event years ago, that’s exactly what happened.
His upper body was significantly more developed than his calves (although I’m sure his calves were still massive). And he lost the title to a bodybuilder named Chester Yorton.
Arnold left that competition fueled by the loss to create a training plan that would ensure he’d never take second place because of his calves again.
He changed his approach to training his calves. Different exercises. More volume. More frequency. Better form. Stretching.
And you know what? Not long after that he won Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia in the same year with more developed calves and balanced physique.
Need help developing your calf muscles? Here’s what you need to know:
Calf Muscle Anatomy
Your calf muscle is actually made up of two different muscles:
- Gastrocnemius. The medial and lateral gastrocnemius are the upper heads of the calf muscle, and the primary muscles associated with calf development.
- Soleus. This calf muscle runs underneath the gastrocnemius at the back of the leg and extends to the ankle.
- Type 1 and Type 2 muscle fibers. The gastrocnemius muscles are mainly made of Type 2 muscle fibers. These fast-twitch muscle fibers can produce a lot of force and help you sprint, lift heavy weights, and jump higher. The soleus is made up of slow-twitch muscle fibers. It’s fatigue resistant, and used for activities like stabilization, walking, jogging and running.
How to Get Better Results from Calf Training
If you’re not getting results with the typical 3-5 sets and 8 to 12 reps for hypertrophy to build your calf muscles, you might think more volume will make a difference.
That’s partly true, but there’s more to calf development that just reps and sets. Here are some things you can do to maximize your calf training:
- Stretch. Stretching your calves a few times a day can promote strength gains. In a 10-week study, researchers had people stretch their calf muscles three days a week. The stretch was easy. Step back. Plant your heel, lengthening the calf muscle. And hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Complete four sets. Researchers found stretching helped increase range of motion by about 8 percent, and boosted the one-rep max for a calf raise by up to 29 percent.
- Use full range of motion. You might be tempted to hit your calf exercises with heavier weights than you can handle, thinking that’s the way to build muscle. But it’s one of the early mistakes even Arnold made with calf training. Drop the weight so you can complete a full range of motion for calf exercises.
- Squeeze and lengthen. Another common mistake I see people make when it comes to calf training is sloppy, half-assed reps. Use a slow and controlled lifting tempo and perfect form. Squeeze your calves hard at the top of a rep and hold it for a couple of seconds. At the bottom of the rep when your calf muscle is fully lengthened, hold it there for a couple of seconds. This is a great way to increase tension on the muscle, create metabolic stress, damage more muscle fibers, and ultimate stimulate growth.
- Increase frequency and volume. One of the main reasons I think the calves can be stubborn is the fact that you’re using them all the time. They’re conditioned to handle all the walking, standing, running, training, and all the other activities you do. And they don’t respond as well to the typical hypertrophy program. I recommend training your calves three times a week with 5 to 6 sets and 15 to 20 reps.
- Vary calf training exercises. Your calves need variation to stimulate muscle growth. Vary your lifts and use exercises like Standing Calf Raises, Seated Calf Raises, Donkey Calf Raises, Leg Press Calf Raises, and even Jumping Rope and Box Jumps can help you hit your calves to stimulate muscle growth better than the typical calf-day workout. Mix in supersets, heavy weights and low reps, lighter weights and higher reps, and a set where you train to failure, and you’ll be on your way.
You don’t have to settle for stubborn calves, wear pants around all the time to hide skinny legs, or give up and blame genetics. Change the way you train your calves and you can get results.
Need training advice to build your calves and a better body? Check out my customized training and nutrition plans designed to help you shred fat, build muscle, and transform your body.
- Binstead, J., et al. (2017). Anatomy, lower limb, calf. St. Luke’s University Hospital. From: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459362/
- Nelson, A., et al. (2012). A 10-week stretching program increases strength in the contralateral muscle. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. From: http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2012/03000/A_10_Week_Stretching_Program_Increases_Strength_in.33.aspx