6 Best Soleus Exercises (For Stronger & Defined Calves)

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: February 26, 2024
FACT CHECKED by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
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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.

Quick Summary

  • The best soleus muscle exercises include seated and donkey calf raises, as well as squats and lunges with bent knee calf raises.
  • 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.
  • Research conducted by the National Institutes of Health reveals that the soleus muscle exhibits the highest force production among all muscles in the calf complex.
  • From my experience, focusing on the soleus muscle significantly improves balance and agility, making it a key element in leg workouts.

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?

A close up shot of soleus muscles

The soleus is a key muscle in the calf complex situated behind the gastrocnemius, extending from below the knee to the ankle, connecting to the Achilles tendon.

It's predominantly composed of fatigue-resistant slow-twitch fibers, it's crucial in explosive activities like jumping and sprinting.

In my experience as a health and performance coach, training the soleus has markedly improved clients' performance in these movements.

Its primary function is plantar flexion, which is essential for actions like pointing the toes downward.

Top 6 Soleus Exercises

A person doing soleus exercises

Here are our top picks for the best exercises for your soleus.

1. Seated Calf Raises

As a health and performance coach, I've found the seated calf raise to be a highly favored exercise among clients for isolating the calves, second only to the standing calf raise.

This exercise positions the knees in a bent stance, optimally targeting the soleus muscle.

This not only bolsters strength but also significantly enhances ankle mobility, as evidenced by the noticeable improvements in my clients' performances.

Here's how you do them with perfect form:

  1. Load up a seated calf raise machine with the appropriate amount of weight.
  2. 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.
  3. Lift your knees and pull the lever, which allows you to engage the full range of motion on the machine.
  4. Come down as deep as possible and hold the position for a second (you should feel a stretch in your Achilles tendon).
  5. Explode up while keeping your feet planted on the footrest till you achieve full calf flexion.
  6. 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

A person doing a donkey calf raises

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Position your feet with the balls of your feet at the edge of the step.
  3. Place a plate on your back and above your hips.
  4. Bend your knees slightly and hinge at the hips.
  5. 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).
  6. Explode up (without jumping) till you achieve full calf flexion, and hold that position for a second.
  7. 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:

  1. Under a loaded Smith machine, place a firm and sturdy platform that’s taller than half the height of your foot.
  2. Place both your heels under the platform and load the bar on your traps.
  3. 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).
  4. Slowly let your toes down till your calves are flexed.
  5. 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

A person doing soleus raises

Squats with soleus raises are 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:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing slightly outward.
  2. Engage the core, lift your chest up, and keep your shoulders back.
  3. Squat down and maintain a neutral spine until you reach the bottom of the squat.
  4. At the bottom, lift your heels off the ground while maintaining the squat position, and hold for a second.
  5. Let your heels down and return to the starting position.
  6. 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:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. With your core engaged and your 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Lower your heel, come back up, and repeat for reps.
  5. 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.

Also Read: How To Do Lateral Lunges Properly

6. Resistance Band-Assisted Calf Flexion

A woman doing 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 this calf muscle to strengthen it, improve your posture, and benefit your mental well-being.

To Strengthen It

Training the soleus muscle is crucial, as it's not only the strongest and largest in the calf but also vital for blood circulation to the heart.

Research from the National Institutes of Health demonstrates the soleus's superior force production within the calf complex.[1].

In my experience as a health and performance coach, focusing on the soleus has significantly improved my clients' calf strength.

Corporate Wellness Magazine highlights the soleus's role in pumping venous blood to the heart, acting as a reservoir for unneeded blood, and aiding its circulation when necessary [2].

“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

Proper Posture Benefits

A robust soleus supports proper posture, which is crucial for those sitting for long hours, by stabilizing the lower leg and alleviating back strain.

Mental Well-Being

Additionally, soleus workouts enhance both physical and mental health, helping reduce stress and elevate mood, as I've observed in numerous client transformations.

Tips on Working This Calf Muscles

A woman stretching her 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.

FAQs

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.

References:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23246045/
  2. https://www.corporatewellnessmagazine.com/article/soleus-muscles-secondary-heart-failure
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About The Author

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
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Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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