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The Best Calf Exercises for Building Strength and Mass

Tyler Sellers
Published by Tyler Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: November 3, 2021

I don’t know how often I have new and especially young bodybuilders come to me for advice, and the first thing I notice is that they’ve spent way too little time working on their calf muscles.

It’s what I call the lollipop effect.

Guys with big chests and shoulders, a ripped six-pack, and then these skinny toothpicks for legs.

Some of you might think that doing a few calf raises a week will be enough, but there’s a lot more to it.

To help you better plan out your leg days, we’ve put together the best calf exercises that we recommend to clients.

But first, let me introduce you to your calves.

Anatomy Of The Calf

What are Calf Muscles

Before we get to the list of recommended calf exercises, it’s important to understand what calf muscles you’re trying to train and define.

There are two muscles you need to be aware of

1. Gastrocnemius

As you look at a leg from behind, the gastrocnemius muscle [1] is the big and well-defined one that makes up the upper half of the calf.

It allows you to point your toes as well as flex your knee, and it plays a critical role in creating explosive power for sprinting, jumping, sudden direction changes, and heavy lifting.

That’s why you’ll find these very well defined in sprinters, basketball players, and football players as well.

2. Soleus

The soleus muscle [2] sits underneath the gastrocnemius and isn’t really visible from the outside.

It plays a role in allowing you to point your toes but not so much for bursts of power. That makes it a lot more important for walking and running.

If you look at professional marathon runners, you won’t see the same bulky gastrocnemius muscle, but rather much slimmer calves.

10 Best Calf-Strengthening Exercises

Through all the work we’ve done with bodybuilders, we’ve come up with a set of targeted calf workouts that you should find easy to implement.

1. Standing Calf Raise

man doing calf raises

One of the best ways to effectively isolate your calves during training is to start with the standing calf raise.

All you need is some heavy dumbbells or a barbell to provide some additional downward force.

Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding the weights comfortably in front of your body.

Transfer your weight to the balls of your feet and then slowly lift your heels off the ground and stretch your ankle as far as you can.

From the top, slowly lower your heels again to the ground to complete the first rep.

There are two additional ways you can spice up this exercise to further isolate your soleus and gastrocnemius muscles.

First, you can point your toes in and outward during the different sets, which will activate each calf muscle differently.

Secondly, you could also do a single leg calf raise to feel the burn a lot earlier.

2. Seated Calf Raise

The seated calf raise is a good option if you're struggling with the full range of motion, and I would always recommend using some dumbbells for this one.

Your starting position is seated on a bench with your back straight and the end of a dumbbell resting on your thigh just above your knee.

The movement is the same as with the standing option above, where you push up your heels and then release them back to the ground again. I prefer doing both calves at the same time, but you could also do a single leg calf raise if that feels more natural.

You can also do the seated calf raise by slightly elevating the balls of your feet, which would increase the range of motion and the strain on your muscles.

It adds a nice calf stretch at the bottom too.

3. Weighted Jump Squat

man doing a weighted jump squat

This is a great option for anyone who loves plyometrics, and they’ll certainly get you into a sweat.

Get your feet shoulder-width apart and either wear a weighted running vest or hold a dumbbell with both hands at about chest-high.

From here, bend your knees down into a low squat position, and then explode back up into a jump.

The important thing is to take it easy to start with, as the added weight may throw you off balance.

Save yourself the embarrassment of a stupid fall at the gym.

The weighted squat jump is a great compound exercise that will also activate your core, and you should really feel a burn in your legs.

Are you having problems growing your calves? Check out our article on how to get bigger calves.

4. Jump Rope

The jump rope exercise is great for building up some endurance and strength, primarily in your soleus muscle, but it’s also a good way to develop more body coordination between your arms and legs.

Get a good grip on the handles of the rope and make sure it’s long enough to comfortably get under your feet.

Start on the balls of your feet about hip-width apart and jump as you spin the rope forward under your feet and over your head.

Aim to not allow your heels to touch the ground to add more strain to your calves.

To get more out of this exercise, try these tips.

  • Keep going for longer than 60 seconds per set
  • Increase the speed of your jumps
  • Increase the height of your jumps
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5. Farmer’s Walk

man doing a farmers walk

The standard farmer’s walk is simple enough but won’t trigger your calves much at all.

That’s why I suggest this modified version.

Set up two heavy dumbbells on each side of your feet. Pick them up and hold them with straight arms beside your body.

From here, you want to start walking for 10 to 15 yards on the balls of your feet. That means that your heels shouldn’t touch the ground at any time.

You might feel slightly off-balance at times, so avoid using the maximum weight you’re aiming for at first.

Also, aim to take smaller steps, which will give you more lower leg muscle activation in each set.

Do this for about 60 seconds and repeat for 3 to 4 sets.

6. Leg Press Machine

I know what you’re thinking, how on earth is a leg press machine going to help your calves, right?

Well, the way I like to look at this is to modify the standard machine into a calf press instead.  Set up the machine with a reasonable weight, and then push your legs out, so your knees are almost straight.

Once you’re in this top position, don’t lower yourself back down.  Instead, do some calf raises, allowing the heavier load to increase the strain on your calves.

The great thing about using the leg press in this way is that you could load it up with heavier weights than you might feel comfortable holding onto with your hands.

I also find it allows me to slow things down without losing my balance.

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7. Box Jumps

woman about to box jump

Box jumps can be a killer on the legs and will give you a great compound exercise compared to the isolation effect of calf raises.

You’ll need a purpose-built exercise or CrossFit box that will withstand a lot of pressure.

That means not heading to your garage and trying to make a DIY box that’ll send you to the ER.

Also, choose a realistic height and don’t become the next YouTube celebrity for all the wrong reasons.

Start on the balls of your feet about a foot away from the box. Jump straight up in the air and land your full feet, including heels on the box.

If you land midfoot or on your toes, you could quickly slip off the box and injure your joints, ligaments, and even calf muscle itself.

8. Straight Calf Stretch

Never underestimate the benefits of some good old fashioned stretching to speed up muscle recovery and ultimately bulking.

All you need for this stretch is a wall that you can lean and push against. Your starting position is with your feet in a staggered position, almost like a runner’s stance. Lean your upper body forward and stretch your arms out towards the wall.

The idea is to keep your back leg completely straight while leaning into the wall and causing a stretch all the way down your hamstring and calf muscles.

Make sure that you avoid your heels lifting off the ground, shifting towards the ball of your foot. That will reduce the desired stretch effect.

You’ll also find that this will improve your ankle mobility over time, which will make both standing and seated calf raises more effective too.

9. Downward Dog

woman in a downward dog position

You don’t have to be a yoga guru to get into the pose [3].

Simply get into a pushup position and then lift your backside towards the ceiling while keeping your arms and legs straight.

With your feet shoulder-width apart, you should immediately feel a stretch in your calves.

And if you can get your hands and feet close towards each other, then you should feel the stretch all the way up to your glutes as well.

One tip I would give you once you’ve done this simple yoga pose a few times is to extend the stretch a bit more by bending one knee at a time.

That way, you’ll increase the pressure and stretch on the other leg, and by alternating every 5 to 10 seconds, you can properly stretch out those calves.

Try to hold this for about 60 seconds.

“When I give my calves the love they deserve, my legs approach the world in an entirely different way. I’m better able to ground my heels, which facilitates a new relationship with standing poses.” - Allison Ray Jeraci, Contributor at YogaInternational.com.

10. Wall Calf Stretch

The wall calf stretch is great to completely isolate your calves during stretching.

Your starting position is to stand close to a wall with your nose only a few inches away. With one foot forward and your toes on the wall, push your heel to the ground to create the stretch at the back of your leg.

This also promotes better ankle mobility, which will make your calf raise training a lot more effective.

And that’s it for my calf exercise routine.

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Why Is It Important To Do Calf Exercises?

Running Legs

I mentioned above that calf strengthening is an important factor in avoiding that lollipop effect where you could end up with a body that is completely out of proportion.

But there’s more to it than looking good.

See, there are many upper body exercises that are reliant on lower body strength.

One simple example I highlight to clients is that lacking leg strength could significantly limit how much you can safely deadlift. 

And then there’s the additional support that bigger leg muscles give to your knee and ankle joints and ligaments to protect them from injury.

Calf Exercises Guidelines

warming up the legs

Here are three tips to keep in mind for your calf workouts.

1. Frequency

You really only need one leg day a week, unless you haven’t been exercising your calf muscles enough. In that case, I would recommend prioritizing your legs for a few weeks until you catch up.

Also, you don’t want to do just calf exercises on your leg days. Add in 2 to 4 exercises for your calves, and you should have a good balance between upper and lower leg muscles.

2. Variation

The reason I’ve listed out so many options above is that you don’t want your muscles to get used to the same routine. Your muscle fibers will react to strain much better if you regularly switch things around.

3. Equipment

You can go a long way without any machines, but you will need some dumbbells or a barbell. And if you don’t have a workout bench, then a chair will work just as well.

So, rather than head off and buy a load of specialized equipment for just a few exercises a week, keep it simple and focus on the work.

Are You Going To Try These Calf Exercises?

By introducing the above best calf exercises, you should see a significant change within about 6 to 8 weeks.

And because they don’t take up a huge amount of time, they shouldn’t disrupt your other workout routines.

If anything, I would say that you’ll find benefits for the rest of your body as your legs grow stronger.

Try these out, and then let us know how they worked out for you.


References:

  1. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Gastrocnemius
  2. https://www.runnersworld.com/health-injuries/a22813018/soleus-muscle-pain/
  3. https://yogainternational.com/article/view/5-ways-to-release-tight-calves

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