Today we are going to pounce on a topic that has been grazing my mind for a while – the calves. Why is it that so many gym goers train their calves with halfhearted effort? Or worse yet, they don’t even train them at all.
Growing the calves into thick slabs of striated muscle is arguably one of the most difficult tasks for athletes and bodybuilders. We have all heard the excuse about how calves are genetically determined, and that may very well be true. However, that does not mean that training them is pointless and that you are stuck with what you have.
The calves are a group of muscle fibers just like every other muscle in your body, and likewise, simply need a special kind of training to get them to grow efficiently.
Anatomy and Physiology of the Calf Muscles
All jokes aside (for now), to understand the insanity to my upcoming recommendation, we first need to cover some basic anatomy and physiology. The calves are a group of several muscles, although most only focus on two: the gastrocnemius and soleus. These muscles are responsible for pointing the toe down, while another muscle – the tibialis anterior (or shin) – is responsible for flexing the toes upward. The final muscle is the popliteus, which assists the hamstring during flexion (think leg curl). For our purposes, I will only focus on the gastrocnemius and soleus since they form the coveted diamond shape of the calves.
Calf Muscle Anatomy
Every muscle is composed of fast- and slow-twitch fibers. The gastrocnemius is primarily fast-twitch meaning that it responds better to high-intensity loads. It is also preferentially activated over the soleus during eccentric portion of moderate-intensity loads, but becomes nearly inert while the load is held almost completely by the soleus when the knees are flexed. The soleus is primarily a slow-twitch muscle and is activated mostly during the concentric portion of moderate-intensity training.
Role of Genetics and the Endocrine System on Calf Muscle Growth
Next come genetics. As I alluded to in the introduction, genetics do play a role in muscular development and help explain why the calves are so stubborn. Testosterone and related androgens play a large role in skeletal muscle hypertrophy.[i] This makes sense when you think about it.
Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone, which helps explain why men naturally carry more lean mass than women. However, testosterone needs to bind to androgen receptors to exert its effects. Thus having a bunch of testosterone floating around won’t do much good if there are no androgen receptors to bind to.[ii] This is where the problem lies. The lower body simply has far fewer androgen receptors than the upper-body.[iii]
Yes, I did just give you an excuse for skinny legs, but while genetics might set the boundaries of development, it is ultimately up to us to push these limits through proper training, especially since resistance training has been shown to greatly improve androgen receptor density. [iv]
Improper Training of the Calves
This herds our discussion into the (much) larger problem with stubborn calves – bouncing (overuse of the stretch reflex). We have all seen it at one time or another, someone doing calf raises with enormous amounts of weight that they could never do on another exercise. Tissues such as tendons are elastic, meaning that they can stretch and return to their original form afterwards (think of rubber bands). The Achilles tendon connects the calves to the feet as an adaptation for human movement.
When you walk, run, or do bouncing calf raises, the Achilles tendon stores energy with each eccentric stretch to return to us when we move. Genetics aren’t the only reason calves are stubborn; most people simply use the elastic energy of the Achilles tendon to move massive amounts of weight with little muscular tension, and since muscular tension and overload are needed for growth…
Now with all the scientific jargon out of the way, let’s take a look at how to properly train the calves.
How to Properly Train the Calves
First, let me make it perfectly clear that this is my recommendation. There is nothing to say that another calf training routine is better or worse, and everyone is different. While I have personally had great success with what follows, others may find little benefit. Furthermore, you need calories to build muscle. We can’t turn calves into cows with just wishful thinking. So without further ado:
- Exercise A: Straight-legged calf raises
- 4 to 6 sets of 6 reps
- From a 1 to 2 second pause at the bottom, explode up, squeeze and hold for 1 second, then take 2 to 3 seconds to slowly lower. Repeat.
- Go heavy and take 1 to 2 minutes rest between sets
- Exercise B: Seated calf exercise (knees bent 90˚)
- 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 12 reps
- From a 1 to 2 second pause at the bottom, take 2 seconds to slowly raise and lower the weight with a brief pause at the top. Repeat.
- Use a moderately heavy weight and take 1 minute rest between sets
Do the above twice (or thrice) per week. I usually just include it into my leg training. Also, don’t be surprised if you can’t walk for the first week. I can’t guarantee that this routine will grow your calves, but compared to how most people train calves it will only help.
[i] Basualto-Alarcón, C., Jorquera, G., Altamirano, F., Jaimovich, E., & Estrada, M. (2013). Testosterone signals through mTOR and androgen receptor to induce muscle hypertrophy. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 45(9), 1712-1720.
[ii] Helen E, M., W. S. Maria, C., Amanda J, N., Anna-Maree, A., Rachel A, D., Julie F, M., . . . Jeffrey D, Z. (2008). Impaired skeletal muscle development and function in male, but not female, genomic androgen receptor knockout mice. The FASEB Journal, 22(8), 2676-2689.
[iii] Björntorp, P. (1996). The regulation of adipose tissue distribution in humans. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord, 20(4), 291-302.
[iv] Li, J., & Al-Azzawi, F. (2009). Mechanism of androgen receptor action. Maturitas, 63(2), 142-148.