It’s no secret that the calves are a notoriously difficult and stubborn muscle to grow and it’s something that a lot of people tend to struggle with the most when it comes to training and building a physique.
Whilst genetics are often used as an excuse for poor development of the calves this is actually only a small contributing factor. Of course there are people who will have bad genetics when it comes to calf development but this is no way near the number of people who ‘claim’ to have bad genetics.
Often the real issue that holds people back when it comes to building their calves is poor exercise selection, not targeting all muscle groups, using too much momentum to lift the weights, not prioritizing calf training and also not using enough training volume or frequency.
A lot of people will be guilty of at least one or maybe even all of the above when it comes to training calves and therefore I’m going to lay out an action plan in this article to accelerate your training progress and see you add some size to your calves.
How long does It take to get bigger calves? Following a specialized training program you could add ½ – 1 inch to your calves in as short a time frame as 4-6 weeks. For most people however, it will take 6-12 months of dedicated training before you can expect to see any noticeable size gains for your calves.
Even if you think you have bad genetics when it comes to growing your calves then you shouldn’t be deterred by this, just because your growth potential is lower than someone else’s doesn’t mean that you can’t max out your own genetic potential.
Your mindset will also play a big role when it comes to building a physique and if you’ve only ever done some calf raises for 3 sets of 12 reps and accepted that you just have ‘bad genetics’ then you have plenty of untapped potential to work with.
How Long Does It Take to Get Bigger Calves
For most people, building your calves is not a quick fix. This is arguably true of most muscle groups because building total body muscle mass is a slow process with expected gains of 1lb-2lb per month of lean muscle tissue for beginners.
Something that makes calf training such a slow process is the muscle fibre makeup. A muscle group made up of a higher proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres has a higher growth potential however the calves generally have a higher percentage of slow twitch muscle fibres.
The calves are made up of two primary muscle groups, the gastrocnemius (larger muscle group making up the upper and inner portion of the lower leg) and the soleus (making up the lower, outer portion of the lower leg just above the achilles tendon).
The soleus can actually have as high as 90% slow twitch muscle fibre makeup which means the growth potential is lower and more stimulus is required for growth. Don’t forget that walking means our calves are highly active and adapted/resistant to low training load, volumes and frequency.
This is something worth keeping in mind and is also something that is often overlooked. If you weigh 225lbs but do calf raises with 100lbs then at a very basic level you could argue that this ‘direct’ training causes less training stimulus than if you were to simply stand on your tiptoes and walk around.
A good real life example of this (just to show it’s not a crazy comparison) is the calf development you find in ballet dancers. Ballet dancers do not perform seated calf raises but instead spend a prolonged period of time tiptoed with their calves contracted supporting their body weight.
This training volume and time under tension, while indirect, actually leads to ballet dancers having phenomenal calf development. Just Google “ballerina calves” or go via the link if you want to see for yourself.
This point therefore leads me nicely into ways you can start to kickstart your calf growth, especially if your training has accidentally been less demanding than on your calves than simply going for a walk.
How to Build Your Calves Faster
I don’t want to claim that calf training is simple or easy because it’s not. There are however a few things that you are either doing (or not doing) that are likely holding back your progress and not using more weight than your own body weight is just one example.
If you start to apply some of the strategies below then you should see your calf progress start to accelerate. It’s quite hard to get the feeling of DOMs (delayed onset muscle soreness) in your calves but if you implement some of these things and start to get the feeling of DOMS then you will know you are on the right track.
Train the Gastrocnemius and Soleus
The number one area where you are likely leaving gains on the table is not fully training your calves and to be more specific I mean training one muscle group while neglecting another.
The gastrocnemius is the standout muscle of the calf and is the one that once fully developed can start to look like an upside down love heart.
The gastrocnemius is primarily worked when your leg is perfectly straight as this places the gastrocnemius under a fully stretched position. An old school exercise like a donkey calf raise is a good exercise because by bending at the hip you increase that stretch further.
Training a muscle in the fully stretched and fully lengthened position are key to maximizing muscle growth. A standing calf raise, calf press in the leg press machine, donkey calf raise, smith machine calf raise and any other type of calf raise where your leg stays straight primarily works the gastrocnemius.
My point here is that to fully work the soleus you need to do so with a bent knee. If you are only ever doing a straight leg variation of a calf raise then you are quite literally neglecting a muscle group completely.
It’s the equivalent of doing plenty of dumbbell front raises and shoulder presses from the front without ever training your rear delts. To fully develop a muscle group you need to select exercises that work all the head that make up this muscle group.
Therefore if you are not including any seated calf raises then you are leaving 50% of your development on the table. Just to note it’s not a 50/50 split between the gastrocnemius and soleus but you get my point, not working a bent knee position leaves an entire muscle group under stimulated.
If however you are in a gym with only a seated calf raise machine and this is all you do then it’s just a reverse situation and you never fully stimulate the gastrocnemius. I go into a bit more detail about this here.
Train Your Tibialis Anterior
If you train your biceps but not your triceps then you will not see the upper arm growth that you want and the same is true of the lower leg. Whilst a lot (or not a lot depending on your routine) of focus goes on training the back of your leg by doing exercises that raise your heel, not so much focus goes on the front of your leg.
The tibialis anterior is the agonist muscle that works against your soleus and is worked when you raise your toes. Most muscle groups have an agonist and antagonist pairing, when one is contracted the other is relaxed.
During a bicep curl your bicep contracts while your tricep contracts and the reverse happens when doing a tricep extension. This is also the same for the lower leg however you will never see anyone training their tibialis anterior.
The reason being is that it’s not a very noticeable muscle group and the equipment you can use to work it is limited. If you are in a commercial gym then you will not find anything to target this muscle group and a select few bodybuilding gyms will have a tibialis anterior raise machine (I bet you’ve never even heard of one before!).
The way I see it though is that if you are looking to build the size of your calves then you should be doing everything to increase the circumference of your lower leg to make your legs look bigger. Therefore if you have access to kettlebells or dumbbells then you can still target the tibialis anterior.
Holding a dumbbell between your feet sit back further on the bench so that your feet are off the ground and legs are out in front of you. Then all you need to do is lift your toes upwards to contract and then lower the weight for the eccentric portion.
It’s a small range of motion to target a small muscle group but if you want to maximize your calf development then you need to put in the work that isn’t fancy or exciting.
Just to demonstrate before moving on; sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor and a 90 degree bend in your knees (basically how a normal person would sit down). Now simply lift your toes upwards as high as you can, chances are you will feel two things.
- A slight tightness around your ankle because most don’t have great flexibility in this range of motion
- More importantly you should feel a contraction in the front of your leg as the muscles tense and contract.
This is your tibialis anterior and this is the contraction you want to mimic but with some weight. It’s very simple but often neglected.
Increase the Range of Motion for Bigger Calves
The next issue that is holding you back from your calf development is a poor range of motion. Firstly the calves get notoriously tight from a combination of overuse from walking and also from being locked into a tight position when sitting down at a desk job all day.
Remember the soleus is active during flexion of the knee, take a seated position similar to the one I just had you do (as though you are working a desk job) and feel/grab your lower leg just below your calf (the gastrocnemius to be precise).
You should notice that it feels firm and quite tight, all I want you to do is extend your leg and straighten it out whilst still holding the lower part of your leg. What you should feel is a slight tension suddenly going more relaxed as you extend your leg.
Now bring your leg back to a 90 degree angle again while still holding that same position and you should feel the muscle start to tense up again. Move it backwards and forwards and really get a feel for it flexing and relaxing as you extend your leg and take it back to a normal seated position again.
Now imagine sitting in this position for 6-10 hours per day. People often say their back or neck hurts from a desk job but it’s the lower half of your body where the tightness really occurs.
Your hips are in a flexed position which shortens the muscle group but so too is the soleus and you should be able to actually feel them when extending and then pulling back your lower leg. A shortened muscle over a prolonged period of time becomes a tight muscle.
A tight muscle has a lower growth potential. You can see how a knock on effect here means that a lack of flexibility leads to a reduced range of motion which leads to a reduced potential for muscle growth. Some of the leading coaches in the personal training world advocate loaded stretches because a tight muscle fascia will hold you back in terms of growth potential.
Therefore with the calves specifically you first need to stretch, foam roll and potentially even trigger point your calf with a lacrosse/tennis/massage ball to reduce all that muscle tightness. The seated example might not relate to most people but if you are walking for that duration of time then you are faced with a similar issue but just in a different area of the calf.
First plan of action is to therefore increase your flexibility and reduce the tightness in your calves because there is no point in saying get a deeper stretch at the bottom of your calf raise like most will suggest if you don’t have the flexibility to do this in the first place.
The second thing is therefore to do what I’ve just said and make sure you go through the full range of motion in terms of ankle extension and flexion to work the calves. The reason a calf raise uses a raised platform is because your heel needs to come below your foot in order to fully stretch and lengthen the calf muscle.
This is something that most people are aware of and will do a good job of getting a good stretch on the calf however it’s the concentric portion of the exercise that many people do not fully work. It’s not enough to just come up onto the balls of your feet to contract the calves.
The best exercise cue that I ever heard in relation to contracting the calves comes from Joe Bennet (the hypertrophy coach) and he said that you need focus on pushing your ankle forward as far as possible.
Most people will go up and down in a straight motion but the focus is on going upwards, when you make a conscious effort to push your ankle forward however as you go up then you will feel a much greater contraction in the calves.
This is how you can work the calf in a close to fully shortened position. Again you can try this immediately to test it out. Stand against a wall for support and perform a calf raise coming up onto your tiptoes.
Now hold the position at the top and make a concentrated effort to push your ankle forward as though you want it to make contact with the wall. Don’t lean forward or move your feel but simply try to drive your ankle towards the wall.
You should start to feel a significantly greater contraction in your calves and this is the range of motion that you should be looking for to ensure you are fully working them.
Hopefully you can see that even without weights all of these minor things I’m having you do demonstrate that you are likely not training your calves to their full potential. That one adjustment alone will instantly make your sets harder and ensure you are working the calves to their full potential.
Reduce Momentum and the Stretch Reflex
This is the single most frequent thing you will hear people recommend when it comes to calf training and that is to take a pause at the bottom (reducing momentum) in order to take the stretch reflected out of the equation.
Your calves, tendons and surrounding muscles of the ankle have a great potential to use elastic energy brought about by the stretch reflex. A similar example can be found in competitive powerlifting for the squat.
Many that are new to powerlifting will descend with a bit of speed and as soon as they break parallel with their squat they will accelerate upwards. This genuinely makes a lift easier because your muscles have the ability to produce elastic energy.
The best way to consider this is to look at an elastic band, when you stretch the elastic band it stores energy that when release produces force and momentum and the same is true with the bodies tendons and muscle fascia (take note from earlier, a tight muscle means tight fascia and this will mean a reduced in terms of strength so you don’t just limit your growth potential with tight muscles but also your strength).
For a brief overview of how elastic energy works in the human body you can check out this brief study here.
Back to the point however, this elastic energy is most noticeable in calf raises and squats when there is zero pause at the bottom. The reason this is preventing your muscle growth is because you will be utilizing elastic energy to ‘bounce’ the weight up instead of a muscular contraction.
Of course your calves will still be active but if you imagine the force generated when you stretch an elastic band then it makes it much easier to imagine the assistance your muscles are getting from this elastic energy during a lift!
Therefore the straightforward tip is to take a 2-3 second pause at the bottom of the rep and then a 1 second pause at the top for peak contraction. This is necessary to elminitate momentum completely and reduce the impact of elastic energy.
It’s really this simple, 2-3 second pause on all calf exercises will see you work your calves like never before.
Increase the Volume, Frequency and Weights in Your Calf Workouts
The final thing that you need to be doing in order to grow your calves faster is significantly, and I mean significantly increase your work capacity.
I’ve covered this earlier but the calves are a stubborn muscle group for good reason, they carry around your body weight all day and need to be resistant to fatigue. Imagine if your calves started to fatigue after 8 steps, a step probably isn’t the equivalent to a rep but I manage an average of 8,000 steps per day and my calves don’t even notice.
Even writing this article today my step count was 16,000 steps (screenshot below to show my average as well) because we had a rare day of nice weather here In Manchester, UK! I’ll admit my calves felt the burn a slight amount but that’s a lot of work that they can easily handle.
Therefore to really grow your calves you need to lift heavy, frequently and for a lot of reps. It really is all about weight, frequency and volume when it comes to calf training.
To use my example from earlier you know your calves can handle your body weight if you are capable of tiptoeing which I’d imagine most people are. You’ll notice that heavily obese people or just naturally big and heavy people have well developed calves while the skinny ectomorph has toothpicks and it’s for a good reason.
The heavier person is bearing more load on their calves on a day to day basis. To mimic this you need to first work up to seated and standing calf raises at a minimum of body weight and it should not take you long to get there.
If you employ some of the tips that I’ve mentioned like paused reps and pushing your ankle/heel forward during the concentric portion then this will hold you back slightly in your progress while you master these aspects but they will be worth it when it comes to calf growth.
Then you need to be doing your heavy weight with high reps, it’s not enough to bang out 8 reps and think you’ve worked your calves sufficiently. At least one exercise will need to be high rep and heavy weight.
Therefore you can do a standing calf raise with a heavy weight and 8-12 reps but then your seated variation should be in the 15-25 rep range to make sure you are fatiguing those stubborn muscle fibres.
Finally, one workout a week won’t suffice. In order you grow your calves you’ll need to commit 2,3 or even 4 days per week to calf training and make sure you are doing them first in your workout when you are fresh.
Many will leave them to the end, bounce the weight up and down for 3 sets and call it a session. I’m guilty of this in the past and I guarantee some of you reading this can relate because you see it happen all the time.
Example Workout for Bigger Calves
With all that being said you should now make your calf training a priority, hit it hard and hit it often and the results will come.
If you implement a lot of these changes and have ok genetics then it wouldn’t be a surprise for you to gain an inch to your calves in 4-6 weeks.
There are specialist programs out there that claim to do this but because the calves are so often under trained and under developed that the potential for growth when this is changed is rapid.
If you see something claiming to put 1 inch on your arms in that sort of time frame I’d be sceptical but the calves are such an untapped muscle group for most people that when you up your training game and do all of the above then the potential is there.
The hypertrophy coach I mentioned earlier brought out a specialized calf program that says add 1-3 inches to your calves in 12 weeks and this is for an advanced level lifter tested on a professional bodybuilder so an inch in 4-6 weeks for a beginner is definitely achievable.
I personally don’t think that you need to overcomplicate your routine either because of the limitations when it comes to calf training (you basically move your ankle up and down) so getting stronger on a consistent basis is key.
To start with I’d recommend a 3 day routine similar to the below for an absolute beginner looking to bring up their calves. It’s by no means groundbreaking and incredibly basic but it covers all bases.
Smith machine calf raise – 4 sets x 20 reps (2 second pause at the bottom, 1 second squeeze at the top)
Seated calf raise – 3 sets x 20 reps (2 second pause at the bottom, 1 second squeeze at the top)
Dumbbell tibialis anterior raises – 3 sets x 15 reps (the stretch reflex is less relevant here and controlling the dumbbell with reduce momentum)
Calf raise in leg press (super set) – 5 sets x 15 reps (1 second pause at the bottom)
Seated calf raise superset (super set) – 5 sets x 15 reps (1 second pause at the bottom)
Kettlebell tibialis anterior raise – 3 sets x 12 reps (2 second squeeze at the top)
** The superset means that you do 1 set of calf raises immediately followed by 1 set of seated calf raises and this counts as 1 set, do 5 of these. This will create a burn with high reps and high volume so choose your weight carefully.
Donkey calf raise – 3 sets x 10 reps (2 second pause at the bottom, 1 second squeeze at the top) (if you don’t have this machine available then do a calf raise on the leg press)
Seated calf raise – 3 sets x 10 reps (2 second pause at the bottom, 1 second squeeze at the top)
** Workout C is a reduced volume workout due to the high volume of workout B but your weight and pauses should still be strict.
As you can see this isn’t groundbreaking and I took that super set Idea from an old workout that Charles Poliquin used on an olympic skier to build his calves as a cushion for his knees. What it is however, is covering all the basics that you need to get bigger calves within 6 months of dedicated training.
If you apply the earlier principles then this is where the growth will really happen. If you are struggling with any of the points then feel free to drop me a message on my “ask the trainer” page and I’ll be happy to help out.
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