Q: Hi Denis,
I need my calves to grow. I’m told that calves grow only with high reps (15-25). Is this true?
. . . Dave Rickard
A: Hi Dave,
Indeed, calf training seems to be a big issue with numerous bodybuilders, and it’s true that it takes a lot of hard work and time to make them grow. The thing with calves is that not only are they endurance oriented (type I muscle fibres are less prone to significant hypertrophy), but they are also stimulated a lot in daily activities, as they play a big role in everyday posture and movements (locomotion). To force them to grow, you need to use strategies that will shock them and promote hypertrophy.
Another undeniable fact is that, unfortunately, most people who actually have great calf development already have a genetic advantage in that area and don’t train them very often. I know, since I’m that kind of guy – sorry about that. Nevertheless, although I may not personally train my calves that much, I have to train with my clients (since they don’t have the same advantage I have) and I’ve had some good results with them, so I can surely give you some hints about calf training.
Since calves are constantly stimulated to some degree, they need to be trained more often than most other muscle groups. As a result, I often recommend training them twice a week. If you’re familiar with my articles and the way I train my clients, you already know that on a five-day schedule I train legs twice a week (on days 2 and 4), often separating the back (hamstrings on Tuesday) from the front (quadriceps on Thursday). Having two different days for the lower body allows me to train the legs more thoroughly and put some calf training at the end of each session to increase frequency.
I also separate the gastrocnemius muscle (trained with the hamstrings) and soleus muscle (trained with the quadriceps) on those two days to further stimulate hypertrophy in the lower limbs. That way, I double the chances of getting results by giving specific training time to each muscle group. You might wonder why such detail, but there is a slight difference between the two.
The gastrocnemius muscle is a biarticular muscle that assists the hamstrings during knee flexion, which is why I schedule it with the hamstring exerises. To target that muscle specifically, you simply have to select exercises in which the knee is extended (straight). The gastrocnemius will be stimulated more due to the stretch at the knee joint, and the stretch will be even more efficient if you can perform the exercise with the hip in flexion (like in a leg press machine). Stretching the hamstrings at the same time will put the gastrocnemius under even more resistance due to the stretch of the whole posterior chain of the lower limb. In fact, this happens to be one of the best exercises to effectively work the gastrocnemius. I rarely use the standing calf-raise machine as it doesn’t give me that advantage and, especially, because I don’t like the idea of putting the whole vertebral system under that much pressure (load) in order to work the calves.
Left: Standing calf raise
Right: Calf raise on leg press
The soleus muscle, which is trained with the quadriceps, is a monoarticular muscle that will be the one stretched first when the knee is already bent. You can simply use the seated calf-raise machine that most gyms have, with the padding on the thighs.
The soleus is lower on the leg than the gastrocnemius and that fact has to be considered when designing your calf workout. For example, some people have good development of the soleus but not the gastrocnemius. I might then voluntarily select exercises that focus on the latter in order to bring up that area and make the leg “look” better. For a female figure competitor, for example, I will often not prescribe any direct calf training but will specifically choose exercises that “indirectly” stimulate the gastrocnemius to some degree (but not specifically), but still more than the soleus, to avoid a “bulky” look of the leg. So, sometimes, I have to decide that one or the other of the muscles will be trained for a certain period of time in order to correctly “shape” the lower limb. In most cases, though, when I just need to put on as much muscle as possible, I train them both.
As I pointed out in my last article, one thing that works really well for stimulating hypertrophy in a muscle is the stretch. Stretching is well related to hypertrophy in the literature, and some studies have specifically been conducted toward that aspect (how the calf muscles react to a repetitive stretch stimulus). I teach all my clients to hold every rep for a count of one second in the stretch position to increase time under tension and stress overload. You can either use stretching positions during the set or stretching exercises after the set. For example, you could use techniques like partial reps (when you hit the stretch position twice or more on each successive rep at the bottom of the movement) or you could decide to maintain the stretch position at the end of your sets until you can no longer stand it. Be aware, though, that these techniques are extremely painful and will come with a lot of soreness, so don’t go all out the first time! Take your time to gradually increase the intensity of the workouts, because having sore calves is one of the worst and most incapacitating things in the world. I’m sure those of you who had great calf workouts know what I’m talking about. I remember once I had a client so motivated by his new program that he immediately went all out to test it. He was so sore the next day that he thought he had injured himself and went to see a doctor to get a prescription to relieve the unbearable pain. Once in the hospital, they realized that he had put his calves under so much stress that he had simply created an acute condition similar to rhabdomyolysis (rapid muscle-tissue breakdown). Of course, everything went back to normal after a couple of days, but, still, that’s something you don’t want to experience, especially if you want to be able to train your calves more than once a week.
Increasing the intensity
To further stimulate the calves and force them to grow, you can use special techniques to “shock” them! You could either go with endurance-oriented techniques (like drop sets), or strength-oriented techniques (heavy sets, for example), alternate them, or even mix the two.
One technique I like is called Muscle Rounds, which was developed by Russ Horine and Leo Costa. It is an excellent mix of intensity and volume that has you work your way up to 25 reps with a load you would normally do for about 10 reps (5 x 5). Here’s how it’s done: First you select a weight you know you could do for about 10 reps. The only thing is that you will perform only five good, controlled reps. Following those reps, take a 10-second break and then immediately do another 5 reps, rest another 10 seconds, and do that for 5 consecutive sets (a total of 25 reps). That is one set, and you have to do 1-3 of them! If you have the correct weight, you should feel the burn really coming up around the 3rd set of 5, and the 4th and 5th sets of the 5 should be very painful with blood and lactic acid filling the muscle! I find it to be a very effective way to expand the muscle tissues and simulate hypertrophy. You could also do it one foot at a time and simply alternate the feet instead of waiting for 10 seconds.
One mistake a lot of trainees make, especially when training calves, is going fast during their sets. The negative part of an exercise is the one that will stimulate the most hypertrophy due to the eccentric mechanic load put on the muscle fibres, so take your time to control the way down, to stop at the bottom and make sure you benefit from a good deep stretch, and then go back up.
Another mistake I see a lot is misplacement of the feet on the block. If you take a look around the gym, you’ll notice that most people tend to support themselves on the edge of their feet using their toes. Doing that not only places you in a disadvantaged lever mechanism, but will also prevent you from going to the full stretched position at the bottom, missing the benefit that comes with it. For an efficient alignment, you should place the edge of the block in the middle (arch) of the foot so that you simply use it as a lever. The pushing motion will then be divided into two parts: a first push at the metatarsal level (ball of the foot) and a second push at the phalangeal level (toes). You’ll notice that you’ll not only be stronger, but you’ll have a much greater range of motion without having the feeling of sliding from the edge of the board.
If you take a brief glance over all of these tips, you‘ll realize that training the calves isn’t quite so simple, and you’ll also understand why so many people seem to be lost and just don’t get results. It takes time and dedication, but it is physically possible when done correctly.
I hope you’ll be able to use some of this information to propel your calves to new highs!
Have a good workout!
. . . Denis Pedneault, Canadian Champion 2005, 2006 and 2009