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Calf Anatomy & Training

This article will briefly outline the anatomy of the calf and its biomechanical role in the skeletal muscle system. It will also cover training the calf muscles from a bodybuilding perspective and offer a sample calf routine that can be used to develop monster calves.

Firstly, Watch Our High Intensity Calf Training Video


Anatomy of the Calves

There are two main muscles that make up the part of the leg known as the calf.

  • The first of these muscles is the Gastrocnemius muscle. The Gastrocnemius muscle is found superficially and consists of the medial and lateral head, or the inside and outside head. The medial and lateral head of the Gastrocnemius originate from above the knee on the femur (thigh bone) and attach to the calcaneus bone in the foot via the Achilles Tendon.
  • The second calf muscle is the Soleus muscle. The Soleus muscle is found deep to the Gastrocnemius. It originates on the femur from below the knee and like the Gastrocnemius attaches to the calcaneus bone in the foot via the shared Achilles Tendon. The Gastrocnemius and Soleus muscle are both commonly referred to as the Triceps Surae Complex. Another calf muscle, that is present in only a small percentage of the population, is the Plantaris muscle. This small muscle originates from above the knee and inserts to the calcaneus bone again via the Achilles Tendon. The Plantaris muscle is not really significant in regards to both lower limb function and in regards to developing larger calves.

Role of the Triceps Surae Complex

The calf muscles are very important in gait and any dysfunction of one or more of the calf muscles can cause major problems, especially to the proper functioning of the ankle and foot. To put it simply, the major role of the calf muscles are to plantarflex the foot at the ankle joint i.e. to point your toes downwards. The calf muscles help during walking to lift you onto your toes and they also help as an accessory muscle to flex the knee joint. The calf muscles are also very important in running and especially jumping. Lastly, they help to provide strength and stability to the ankle joint.

Calf Training for Bodybuilders

Calves are one of hardest, if not the hardest, muscle group for most professional and amateur bodybuilders to develop. Many people neglect their legs when they first start off bodybuilding mostly because they focus on developing their upper body and because training legs is too difficult and painful. This neglect is often very easy to spot, especially in those individuals who have managed to build themselves a respectable upper body. However if you want to build yourself a well-balanced physique you need to train your legs, and this means training your calves. Unfortunately, it is not enough to just throw in a few calf exercises at the end of a workout. If you want your calves to grow you have train just as you would any other muscle group. Just like any other muscle group you have to create a set, scheduled routine to follow and you need to stick to it to see results. Training your calves is painful and it will take a lot of hard work, dedication and discipline to develop them but in the end it will be worth it.

Calf exercises can be divided into two main groups: standing, or straight-knee exercises, and sitting, or flexed-knee exercises. In order to develop your calves you need to incorporate both standing and seated calf exercises. Standing exercises primarily involve activation of the Gastrocnemius muscle fibers. Conversely, seated calf exercises activate the Soleus muscle fibers to a greater extent. The reason for this is basically due to the fact that the Gastrocnemius muscle crosses the knee joint (and therefore has an action on the knee joint) whilst the Soleus muscle does not. Therefore if you want to develop both these muscles then both seated and standing exercises should be utilised in your calf routine. While it sounds black and white, in reality doing seated calf exercises will still work the Gastrocnemius to some extent and doing standing calf exercises will still work the Soleus muscle to some extent. However for those wanting to go the extra mile and looking to put on decent size to their calves, then both exercises types should be incorporated for maximum muscular hypertrophy.

Standing (Straight Knee) Calf Exercises

Standing calf exercisess primarily work the Gastrocnemius muscl, these include:

  • Standing calf raises
  • Donkey raises
  • Calf raises on leg press machine (with knees straight)

These three exercises, especially the first two, are great for developing the Gastrocnemius muscle due to their ability to contract the muscle from its fully stretched position to its fully contracted position, in other words, working the muscle through its full range of motion. Unfortunately, with the exception of standing calf raises, these exercises can be a bit awkward to perform correctly. However with practice and time they are easily mastered. The Gastrocnemius muscle has the greatest potential for hypertrophy when compared to Soleus. Therefore, it is often best to do standing calf exercises first to maximise muscle stimulation and growth.

Seated (Flexed Knee) Calf Exercises

Seated calf exercises primarily work the Soleus muscle and include:

  • Seated calf raises
  • Calf raises on leg press machine (with knees slightly flexed)

The seated calf exercise is the most effective and easiest exercise that can be utilised to develop the Soleus muscle. Again this exercise is great as it works the muscle through its full range of motion (the Gastrocnemius muscle is not worked through its full range of motion during seated calf exercises as the knee is in a flexed position). Seated calf exercises are usually best done towards the end of the calf workout as they are less taxing on the body than standing calf exercises.

Calf Training Reps & Sets

Your calves do a lot of work. With every step you take your calf muscles are working to lift your entire bodyweight. Thus, as you can imagine your calves are used to being activated on a regular basis and with moderate to heavy weight (depending on how much you weigh). This is one of the primary reasons why they are so hard to build and develop and why they require so much dedication and persistence. Although everyone is different, most people tend to respond to high reps and heavy weight when it comes to training calves for hypertrophy purposes. If you are starting to train calves for the first time, then like any muscle group, start off light and build up to heavier and heavier weights. With calves you should be aiming to add five to ten kilos every week or so. Reps should always be kept between 15 and 25. Some people even suggest up to 50 reps! Whatever the case high reps works! Experiment and you will find the rep range that works for you. As calves are accustomed to doing lots of work, their ability to recover is excellent (although this may not be the case initially when you find it hard to walk properly for a week!!). As a result of this, over time, you may find that you are able to train your calves twice a week. This is often great for calf development. When you reach this stage you may wish to do all seated calf exercises (Soleus) on one day and then all standing calf exercises (Gastrocnemius) on the second calf training session day. Or conversely you may wish to do both exercise types on both days, just make sure you leave at least two days rest between if this is the case.

Sample Calf Routine for Bodybuilders

Calf training is more often than not completed after upper leg training. It can be done whenever fits your schedule really, provided you are not working them excessively over two consecutive days. While training calves is painful and requires a lot of weight, reps and discipline, it should not take you hours to do. Only a few exercises are needed, especially if you are at the stage of training calves twice a week. The following is a sample calf routine suited to those just starting calf training:

  • Standing Calf Raises (6 sets, 15-25 reps) – gradually adding weight for each set
  • Seated Calf Raises (5 sets, 15-25 reps) – gradually adding weight for each set
  • Donkey Calf Raises (5 sets, reps till failure – provided you get over 15 reps) or Calf raises on leg press machine (knees straight OR bent) (5 sets, 15-25 reps)

This is just a sample routine. Try different exercises and experiment with sets, rep ranges and weight and you will soon find what works best for you.

Bodybuilders Known for their Calves

Here is a list of a few bodybuilders that are known for their monstrous calves. Make no mistake these people would have put in a lot of hard work, time and dedication into building their calves, it’s not just genetics as some people may have you believe.

  • Dorian Yates
  • Erik Frankhouser
  • Tom Platz
  • Mike Matarazzo
  • Ben Pakulski

So in conclusion, train your calves!! If you give your legs (and calves) the same attention you would give any other muscle group you will see results. Use heavy weights, high reps and high intensity training and your calves will have no option but to grow.

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