In my experience as a fitness trainer, I’ve learned that calves are much more misunderstood and poorly worked out compared to other leg muscles.
They comprise three muscles: the gastrocnemius (gastroc), soleus, and plantaris.
Many people tend to train the gastrocnemius while neglecting the soleus, not realizing that building the latter pushes out the meat of your calves, giving them a bigger look.
After over a decade of training clients, I’ve found seven highly-effective soleus exercises that I’ll be sharing with you today.
- The best soleus muscle exercises include seated and donkey calf raises, as well as squats and lunges with bent knee calf raises.
- You can target the soleus muscle more effectively in knee flexion (knees bent) than in knee extension (knees straight).
- The soleus muscle plays a major role in running, walking, and dancing; it also prevents your body from falling forward at the ankle when squatting.
Best Soleus Muscle Exercises
Before diving into our top soleus muscle exercises, let’s quickly go over what exactly this muscle is.
What Is the Soleus Muscle?
The soleus is one of three muscles in the calf complex; it’s the flat and broad muscle located behind your gastrocnemius muscles (the meaty upper part of the calves).
The soleus runs from just below your knee joint down to the ankle joint and inserts at the Achilles tendon.
The soleus comprises predominantly slow twitch muscles, so they’re pretty resistant to fatigue.
However, they still play an integral role in explosive movements like jumping and sprinting.
The primary function of the soleus is plantar flexion, the movement that points your toes downwards.
Top 6 Soleus Exercises
Here are our top picks for the best exercises for your soleus.
1. Seated Calf Raises
The seated calf raise (or seated soleus raise) is one of the most popular calf isolation exercises, perhaps only second to the standing calf raise.
It puts your knees in a bent position, allowing you to heavily target the soleus muscle effectively for strength and better ankle mobility.
Here's how you do them with perfect form:
- Load up a seated calf raise machine with the appropriate amount of weight.
- Set yourself into the machine by getting into a comfortable seating position, and place the top half of your feet on the footrest and your knees under the padding.
- Lift your knees and pull the lever (which allows you to engage the full range of motion on the machine).
- Come down as deep as possible and hold the position for a second (you should feel a stretch in your Achilles tendon).
- Explode up while keeping your feet planted on the footrest till you achieve full calf flexion.
- Once at the top, hold the position for a second or two, and slowly repeat for more reps.
If you don’t have access to a seated machine, you can always perform this exercise with a platform, bench, and two dumbbells on your knees.
2. Donkey Calf Raise
Based on our experience with training calves, this exercise seemed to be the most effective in targeting both the soleus and gastroc calf muscles.
While it doesn’t isolate the soleus, it effectively targets it by allowing you to add more weight to the exercise.
Here’s how to perform the donkey calf raise with a weight plate:
- Find a step or study platform that won’t topple if you stand on the edge. It should have enough space to rest the balls of your feet and allow a full range of motion for your heels without touching the floor.
- Position your feet with the balls of the feet at the edge of the step.
- Place a plate on your back and above the hips.
- Bend your knees slightly and hinge at the hips.
- While holding onto a stable surface, lower your heels as far as they can go. Hold at the bottom for a second (you should feel a stretch in your Achilles tendon).
- Explode up (without jumping) till you achieve full calf flexion, and hold that position for a second.
- Repeat for reps.
You can also do this exercise on a Smith machine squat rack. Make sure there’s someone there to help you unrack and rack the bar.
3. Inverse Standing Calf Raise
Inverse calf raises are calf raises performed on your heels instead of the balls of your feet.
They work the tibialis (muscles on the shin) and the eccentric motion of the soleus.
To do this exercise, you will need a Smith machine.
Here’s how to do it correctly:
- Under a loaded Smith machine, place a firm and sturdy platform that’s taller than half the height of your foot.
- Place both your heels under the platform and load the bar on your traps.
- Keeping the knee straight, drive your heels down and raise the top half of your feet as high as you can (your tibialis should be flexed).
- Slowly let your toes down till your calves are flexed.
- Raise your toes up again and repeat for reps.
You can also do the seated variation of this exercise with weight plates, called seated heel raises.
4. Squat with Soleus Raise
Squats with soleus raise is a compound exercise that combines a deep squat with a calf raise at the bottom to engage the soleus.
This compound movement works the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calf muscles. The balance required for this exercise can help you build ankle stability.
Here’s how you can do them:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with toes pointing slightly outwards.
- Engage the core, lift your chest up, and keep your shoulders back.
- Squat down and maintain a neutral spine until you reach the bottom of the squat.
- At the bottom, lift your heels off the ground while maintaining the squat position and hold for a second.
- Let your heels down and return to the starting position.
- Repeat for reps.
You can make this exercise more challenging by holding a dumbbell or barbell.
5. Lunge With Soleus Raise
The lunge with soleus raise combines the lunge (which works the quads, hamstrings, and glutes) with a soleus raise.
Here’s how to do them:
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- With your core engaged and chest lifted, step forward to a lunge (keep the front knee directly above the ankle and lower your back knee to the ground without touching it). Maintain a neutral spine throughout the motion.
- At the bottom of the lunge, raise the heel of your front leg all the way up, keeping the ball of the same foot down.
- Lower your heel, come back up, and repeat for reps.
- Do the same number of reps with the opposite leg.
Like the squat with soleus raise, you can make this exercise more challenging with a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand.
6. Resistance Band-Assisted Calf Flexion
The resistance band-assisted calf flexion targets both the soleus and gastroc. This workout helps increase calf strength, balance, and stability.
Here’s how to do it:
- Pick a band with the appropriate resistance level.
- Sit on the floor with your legs extended and loop the resistance band around the ball of one foot; hold the end of the band with your hands.
- Adjust your back until you feel the band reach the right tension.
- Slowly point your toe away from your body, flexing the calf.
- Pull your toes back to the starting position and repeat for reps.
- Repeat with the other calf muscle.
Why Should You Work This Calf Muscle?
You should work the soleus muscle because it is the strongest and biggest calf muscle and assists with blood flow to your heart.
Research shows that the soleus muscle produces the most amount of force among all the muscles in the calf complex .
So, training them means strengthening the strongest part of your calves.
The soleus is also crucial in pumping venous blood (blood without oxygen) to the heart .
It stores blood that your body doesn’t require at a given time and pumps it to the heart when needed.
“The soleus muscles are so critical in returning blood to the heart that they have come to be called the ‘secondary hearts’ of the body.”
- Dr. Kenneth McLeod, MIT Scholar
Tips on Working This Calf Muscles
Here are some friendly tips to keep in mind when working the soleus muscle.
- Foam roll tight calves: If your calves feel tight, we recommend doing some myofascial work to loosen them up to prevent calf injuries.
- Static stretch after lifting: Do a static soleus stretch only after your workout to avoid calf strains. Never stretch before your lifts.
- Mix compound and isolation movements: In addition to compound movements like different squat variations and deadlifts, you should incorporate calf-strengthening exercises into your routine to build stronger leg muscles.
- Progressive overload: The calf should be treated like any other muscle. To make it grow, you need to incorporate heavy weights with progressive overload to see noticeable growth over time.
Also Read: Seated Soleus Stretch
Is It Worth Training the Soleus?
Yes, it’s worth training the soleus because it plays a major role in important movements like sprinting, jumping, and long-distance running. It also pushes out the gastrocnemius muscle, making your calves look larger.
Do Squats Work the Soleus?
Yes, squats work the soleus. It contracts eccentrically (flexed with lengthening) during the descent of the squat and concentrically (flexed when shortening) during the ascent.
How Do You Isolate a Soleus?
You can isolate the soleus by working your calves in a knee-bent position. A bent knee prevents the gastrocnemius muscle from being activated during a calf raise and puts more focus on the soleus.
Does Jump Rope Work the Soleus?
Yes, jump rope works the soleus muscle. The calves work to extend your ankles with every jump.
Is the Gastroc or Soleus Stronger?
The soleus is stronger than the gastroc. It’s also the larger of the two calf muscles.
Why Is Soleus So Strong?
The soleus is so strong because it pulls against gravity to keep your body upright. Unlike the gastroc, the soleus sits under the knee, which makes it generate more power.
Improve Soleus Muscle Gains By Adding Protein
As the largest and strongest part of the calves, your soleus requires the right training and recovery for optimal growth and strength.
We recommend taking a high-quality protein powder to increase your soleus gains after a grueling calf workout.
Check out the list of products we extensively tested to find one that best suits your fitness goals.
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