Is working out calves worth it? Truths you need to know
January 16th 2019
As I continue to work out my legs, I always thought about this - Is working out my calves worth it?
The calves are a large muscle group that makes up your lower body. It is vital to train your calves as these are the first major muscles to activate and fire as your feet hit the ground. While it is commonly thought to isolate calves training by doing calf raises or other isometric exercises, it may not be the most efficient use of your time. Doing compound leg movements already activate your calves and for most athletes, can be sufficient stimulus for overall calf development.
There are hundreds of calf exercises you can include for your lower body accessory work. So, let us dive straight into them.
Standing Calf Raise
Done with a barbell, dumbbell, machine or without weights, the standing calf raise is both simple and effective. The athlete will stand up with the resistance and use their calves to raise and lower their body against gravity. This is by far one of the most iconic calf exercises of all times.
Seated Calf Raises
These babies can be done with a machine, dumbbell, barbell or without weights. The seated calf raises are an alternative to the standing calf raise and are also a very popular exercise choice among the lifting community.
Calf Presses on a Leg Press
This exercise is done on a leg press machine where your calves push against resistance. Your legs will be straight and your calves should be pressing the weight outward.
In addition to these isometric calf exercises, here are more dynamic calf workouts to include into your program.
Single leg Mini hurdle hops
- Set up 6-10 hurdles in a straight line, about two feet apart
- Hop through the hurdles with one leg, spending as little time on the ground as possible
Sets/Reps - 2-3x6-10 each leg
Single leg powerful calf raises
- Stand on one leg on a stair with your heel hanging off the step
- Keep your knee straight and slowly lower your heel
- Forcefully extend your ankle as far as your range of motion allows
- Repeat for the specified number of reps
Sets/Reps - 2-3x6-10 each leg
Single leg box hops
- Stand on one leg with a 4-6 inch box in front of you
- Hop onto the box, extending your ankles to generate force and power
- Hop down and immediately repeat for the specified number of reps
Sets/Reps - 2-3/6-10 each leg
Benefits of Strong Calf Muscles
No matter your training background, lifters of all ages will agree that you need to work on training your calf muscles. As a result, the most common exercise used is the calf raise. I mean, why not? The movement is simple - you extend your ankles against resistance and gravity to activate and strength your calves. Do enough sets and reps and your calves will feel an amazing pump. Is this good for proper calf development? Yes, but you can do better.
Isolating movements like the calf raise helps build a strong foundation, especially if you are new to lifting. However, other compound movements like squats, lunges, and deadlifts also hit multiple muscle groups along with your calf muscles.
Calf raises will help build up your base level of strength, which is fantastic news. If you are doing compound lower body movements, you are getting excellent calf development already. So, while isolated calf strength exercises are not a bad thing per se, it may not be the best use of your time in the gym.
In addition, no lifter said he/she wanted to calf raise and improve his/her 1 rep max. Your calves do not need to be absurdly strong. You may have noticed in many popular athletes in the fitness industry without lackluster calf gains. It is rather difficult to increase your calf size as a matter of fact. At the same time, we do not want to have weak calves. So, it is still vital to make sure our calves are strong and powerful. Advanced calf development allows athletes to limit ground contact time when running, which improves racing speed. It also allows athletes to demonstrate power, through jumping and throwing.
Some researchers believe that another key component to train power calves is to include dynamic and high velocity isolated calf movements. This way, you are training the calves for explosive movement while isolating the calf muscles.
The calf muscles help stabilize your ankles and feet. Strong calves prevent athletes from rolling their ankles in any event. As a result, pronation and supination (your foot’s tendency to turn inward and outward) decrease with sufficient calf gains. Everyone benefits from strong calf muscles as it is one of the key muscle groups that allow us to perform daily activities.
Increase in overall leg power
It should be no surprise that your calves are an integral part of your ability to walk, run, and jump. Therefore, strengthening your calves can help you achieve a higher vertical jump, prevent leg injuries, provide stability for your knees, ankles, and foot and increase your sprinting times.
Less likely for calf injuries
As you obtain stronger calves, you are less likely to injure them. A stronger, thicker muscle is able to handle more stress and work. This is one reason why the quads and hamstrings are not as frequently injured in certain events. For example, in running sports, calf pulls are the second most common injury sustained by these athletes. If the calves were not strengthened and still being pushed to their limits, your risk of injury skyrockets. Like all injuries, calf pulls could take a few weeks to heal, a small muscle tear, or a few months, significant tears.
They look good
Stronger calves are aesthetically nice to look at. Great looking calves are a excellent complement to your overall muscular symmetry. So, not only are you gaining more functionality with your stronger calves, but you are also looking great too.
Your calf muscle is composed of two muscles - the gastrocnemius and the soleus. These muscles are responsible for the plantarflexion, extending your ankle. The gastrocnemius makes up the bulk of your calf, composing of 18- 64% of fast twitch muscle fibers. These is the muscle you physically can see as you touch your calves right now. Ideally, these fast twitch muscles are used to powerful movements, like sprinting and jumping. The more fast twitch fibers you have, the more explosive you can be.
The soleus is located behind your gastrocnemius. The soleus makes up 80-100% of slow twitch fibers. Slow twitch fibers are ideally used for endurance activities such as walking or jogging.
Because the calves are the first major muscle groups to activate when your feet make contact with the ground, it is important for everyone, especially athletes to maintain good strength in both the gastrocnemius and the soleus to effectively push off the ground and generate that explosive power.
Do squats work your calves?
One of the best compound movements to train your calves is the squat. The calves work as a powerful stabilizer to ensure that your squat is successful. The calves protect and stabilize your knees, ankles, and foot to ensure that they do not deviate from a neutral position.
If you are looking for more development in your calves, some lifters are great responders to just squatting. They can grow huge calves by doing very little. Some lifters need a bit more stimulus and can add a few lower body accessories that can target calf development. Then, there are some lifters that have small calves despite squatting over 500+ lbs or doing decades worth of calf training. I hate to break it to these lifters, but they probably have not found something that works for them.
Learn from dancers
If you are not getting adequate calf development, you can learn a thing or two from dancers. Many strength training athletes may consider dancers small and petite but they pack on serious calf development that big many bodybuilders to shame. And why is that? Dancers get well developed calves because of their sport specific training - they are constantly on their toes. And with the daily repetition of bodyweight calf raises, over time, they result into huge calf gains.
So, if you are interested, here is a challenge for all those looking to make calf gains. Start off by doing 25 bodyweight calf raises, on each leg. Do this daily for about 30 days without fail. Every couple of days, try to increase the number of calf raises you can do. Try to work up to 100 calf raises each leg.
You may be surprised by the amount of progress you could make IF you stay consistent. This means you stick with this challenge for at least thirty days. Establish a routine so that so can pack on some serious mass on your calves. And the best part, this does not take any equipment! Nothing is required - no money, no machines, no weights, nothing. It just requires a plan and effort.