It’s Back To Basics time again, and today is a very personal post. Why? Because today is all about calves – those stubborn, pain in the ass, either “you got em’ or you don’t” muscles.
In my case- I don’t got em’ unfortunately, and while I have improved them substantially and they’re ripped, they’ll never be the massive full bellied “cows” that I envy on others. Oh well….
Calves are tough to develop, really tough. Some speculation for their stubbornness is that they are comprised of different muscle fibers than other muscles, have tight fascia surrounding them that restricts their growth, and that since you walk on them all day they are already used to very high loads and demands. Mostly it seems it’s just the cards you’re dealt and I can tell you no other body part is as dependent on your genes more than calves. Unlike other body parts, the small calf phenomenon has even lead to pro bodybuilders getting calf implants, and rumors of the former Governator doing the same some 40 years ago!
Either way, you still need to train them as part of a complete program. They obviously provide ankle support outside of just being aesthetically pleasing, which helps prevent injury and improves performance. So here’s a favorite calf workout of mine.
First up is Smith Machine Heel Raises. I drop my heels off the back end of a step with the bar on my back, and slowly press the bar up, making sure my feet stay flat and don’t roll outward. I used to go through complete ranges of motion, but I personally am finding that concentrating more on the top portion of the lift, and not going so deep on the stretch, feels better and target more of the Gastrocnemius (the two big outward calf muscles). For sets and reps I’ve done it all and still do. 10 sets of 20 reps, 5 reps of 6 reps, drop sets, high reps, low etc. Generally I shoot for 12 sets total (all exercises) so an option may be 4 work sets before the next exercise.
You have two choices for the next movement- either Donkey Heel Raises or Leg Press Heel Raises. They’re very similar to #1, but due to your torso being flexed nearly 45 degrees at the waist, these movements target the calves a bit differently. Again, here I perform multiple sets and reps with various rest periods. Mix it up and go for the burn!
The Seated Calf Press is a machine that confuses many people. Most are under the impression that it works their calves (as the name implies) when really it targets a muscle beneath the Gastrocnemius call the Soleus. You need to strengthen this muscle as it also works hand in hand, or actually foot in foot, with the calf muscles to accomplish the same tasks; standing, walking, running, flexing the foot (plantar flexion). By increasing this muscle’s size, you can effectively “push out” the bigger outward muscles and make them appear larger. Sets and reps? Yes, you guessed it – vary and change it up.
This last exercise is seen rarely in the gym, but ever so important- Foot Dorsiflexion. I know, you’ve never heard of it. Okay, Plantar flexion is the action of pointing your foot; Dorsiflexion is the opposite – pulling the foot up through use of the flexing the Tibialis muscle on the front of the shin. You know – that area where you get shin splints? That’s the muscle we’re talking about.
To train it you need to essentially do the opposite of a heel raise, with resistance from a band, a cable, even a barbell across your toes. While the resistance is pulling your foot forward into a pointed position, flex your Tibialis and pull your foot back towards you or lift your toes up off the floor. Got it? Adding strength and musculature here serves two purposes. 1) It helps to prevent injury and keeps strength balances in check, and 2) It looks cool and adds girth to your lower leg.
Those are my general go to calf movements. Unlike other body parts I just can’t give you specific reps and sets because as I’ve said they’re not your typical muscle group. Some people get results with low reps, some high, some a mix etc. You really have to try them all and experiment.
Also of importance, don’t lock your knee joint on any of the calf presses. Use a soft knee, meaning a slight bend in the leg and maintain that position through the movements. Focus on squeezing and really feeling the burn (you will!) and be sure to keep you foot stable and level. The jury’s out on whether or not foot placement; toes out, toes in etc., has any effect. But I can tell you that I feel a difference with varied foot placement so try that as well.
Work those calves and let me know how it goes!
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