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Basic Calf Training

As anyone who has been training for a while can verify, the quest for diamonds, unless you have been blessed favorably by genetics, can seem a never ending road. All of the really great bodybuilders had awesome calves; with names such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Platz and Gary Strydom coming to mind. Many bodybuilders falsely believe that calves are virtually impossible to build because they are genetically pre-determined. In actual fact, persistence, and the correct application of an array of high electromyographic (EMG) stimulating exercises that address your particular weak points, is all that is required for truly awesome diamond-shaped calves.

Basic Anatomy & Physiology

The calves consist of two muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the large fleshy part of the calf which lies on the upper part and to the rear of the lower leg. It has an outside and an inside head and tapers down towards the ankle. It is the gastrocnemius that gives the calves that diamond appearance. This muscle is responsible for pointing the toes toward the ground and bending the knee. The second muscle of the calf is the soleus. The soleus lies deep under the gastrocnemius and is responsible for pointing the toes toward the ground. It is more efficient at this function when the knee is bent.

Anatomy & Physiology of the Calf

The calves themselves consist of two muscles, which are as follows: Gastrocnemius (gaster = belly & kneme = leg) - The gastrocnemius originates on the posterior surface of the medial and lateral sides of the femur. It inserts onto the calcaneus and is responsible for the following muscle actions: ankle plantar flexion, and knee joint flexion. It is the gastrocnemius that is responsible for giving well developed calves that ‘diamond’ appearance. Soleus (soleus = fish) – the soleus lies directly underneath the gastrocnemius and has its name originate from being shaped like a fish. It has its origin on the upper two thirds of the posterior surface of the tibia and fibula and it inserts onto the calcaneus. The muscle action of the soleus is ankle joint plantar flexion. The following table identifies exercises for the gastrocnemius and the percent (out of 100) EMG activity. In addition to EMG studies, MRI has also been used to determine which heads of the gastrocnemius are recruited maximally in various exercises. The results are as follows:

Exercise

% EMG

Donkey calf raise

80

Standing one leg calf raise

79

Standing two leg calf raise

68

Seated Calf raise

61

  • Donkey calf raise – the medial head is recruited maximally whilst the lateral head’s contribution is minimal. If the toes are pointed outward, the lateral head’s contribution increases.
  • Single leg calf raise – both heads contract maximally.
  • Standing two leg calf raise – with the toes pointed in, both heads are recruited minimally. If the toes are pointed out, the medial head has a greater contribution whilst the lateral head only contracts moderately.
  • Seated calf raise – irrespective of foot position, both heads contract minimally.

We have not seen any data for soleus EMG activity and am consequently unable to provide that data; however, the following points on stimulating the soleus should prove useful:

  • The soleus is more effective as a plantar flexor when the knee is bent. This is because the gastrocnemius is disengaged as its origin and insertion are brought together. This decreases its contribution in ankle joint plantar flexion.
  • In all donkey calf raise variations the soleus only contracts moderately.
  • In a single leg standing calf raise with the toes pointing outward, the soleus is a maximal contributor. In contrast, with the toes pointing inward the soleus contracts only moderately.
  • In a calf raise on a hack squat machine and all seated calf raise variations, the soleus contracts maximally.

Additionally, and as a rule of thumb, the calves are better suited to high reps with short rest periods. This is because they are predominantly slow twitch muscle fibres that have a high fatigability. However, like all muscle groups, calves should be trained and the variables manipulated in accordance with the phase of training you are in, as per the periodised model.

Calf Proportion

As far as symmetry and proportion go, another ‘rule of thumb’ is that the calves should be the same circumference as the biceps. If you want to improve the gastrocnemius, use a variety of donkey and single leg standing calf raises. If you want to develop the soleus, use a variety of seated calf raise exercises, which will also help with your calf width. We have neglected to provide a specific program as the law of individual difference suggests we all respond differently. Furthermore, as an advocate of the periodised training model for serious strength training, we believe the variables will be subject to the particular phase of training you are in.

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