2 Bodybuilder Calf Workouts (+ Tips You Need to Know)

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: December 28, 2023
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If you want a well-rounded and aesthetically-pleasing appearance, hit every muscle group in your body, including your calves.

Despite their small size, well-developed calves can significantly impact your physical performance. However, the location and function of the calf muscles make them particularly challenging to bulk up.

As a certified personal trainer, I decided to team up with an experienced exercise physiologist to develop two specialized calf workouts to help you sculpt your calf muscles and complete a proportional physique.

Quick Summary

  • To develop well-rounded and aesthetically pleasing calves, bodybuilders should engage in specialized workouts that target the unique structure and function of calf muscles.
  • The article emphasizes the importance of incorporating a variety of calf exercises, such as seated and standing calf raises and using techniques like progressive overload and mind-muscle connection for optimal growth.
  • A systematic review on PubMed reveals that isometric training at longer muscle lengths results in greater muscular hypertrophy, with an increase of 0.86%-1.69% per week, compared to shorter muscle length training, which shows a growth of 0.08%-0.83% per week.
  • Drawing from a wealth of practical applications, it's evident that understanding one's body and mentality, as well as incorporating scientific methods like macro calculations, is crucial for effective calf muscle development in bodybuilding.

The Best Bodybuilding Calf Workout

Do one of your preferred workouts two to three times per week for six months, then take a reload week before switching up your movements to avoid plateaus and promote recovery.

Workout #1

Performing different calf workout

1. Warm-Up

Hop on the elliptical machine for a ten minutes warm-up.

The repetitive motions and resistance associated with elliptical workouts help tone your leg muscles. I've found that incorporating elliptical sessions into my routine not only warmed up my muscles but also set a strong foundation for more intense calf exercises.

2. Seated Calf Raise

How to do it:

  1. Find a calf-raise machine and add the loads you want to use.
  2. Sit on the bench with feet slightly narrower than hip-width apart and place the balls of your feet on the footrest.
  3. Drop the thigh pads into position.
  4. Push onto your tiptoes to raise your heels off the footrest until you feel a stretching sensation in your calves.
  5. Squeeze at the top of this movement for three seconds, then lower your heels to return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat until you finish three sets of fifteen reps.

Tips:

  • Adjust the machine to your body by setting the seat height so that your knees form a 90-degree angle. In my early days, I overlooked this and ended up with less effective workouts. Once I started paying attention to these details, the effectiveness of my seated calf raises improved dramatically.
  • Keep a neutral spine straight and engaged core throughout the movement.
  • Shift your focus to slow and controlled movements rather than bouncing your feet up and down.

3. Standing Calf Raise Machine

Doing standing calf raise machine

How to do it:

  1. Adjust the machine to your height.
  2. Place your feet shoulder-width apart on the footrest.
  3. Place the balls of your feet on the edge to keep your heels off the platform.
  4. Position your shoulders under the pads.
  5. Lift your heels off the footplate.
  6. Hold for three seconds, squeezing your calf muscles, and then lower your heels to return to the starting position.
  7. Repeat until you finish three sets of fifteen reps.

Tips:

  • Keep your core braced to avoid rounding your back to avoid potential pain, especially with heavier weights. I learned this the hard way when I experienced lower back discomfort due to poor form. Correcting this not only alleviated the pain but also enhanced the efficiency of my workouts.
  • Resist the urge to bounce out of the bottom of your reps - as it could lead to a torn Achilles tendon.

"Control the tempo of the exercise to see the full benefits of standing calf raises. Performing the movement too quickly isn't as effective–at least in the beginning. It's best to raise and lower your heels slowly to see increased strength and aesthetic improvement."

- Chelsea Evers, Corrective Exercise Specialist

4. Donkey Calf Raise

How to do it:

  1. Find a waist-height bench or chair.
  2. Place the step or weight plate a few inches in front of the bench/chair.
  3. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart on the step/weight plate, with your toes planted firmly on the edge.
  4. Hinge your hips to hold onto the bench/chair. Your back should be parallel to the floor.
  5. Lower your heels.
  6. Hold for three seconds before raising your heels.
  7. Repeat this motion for a total of three sets of fifteen repetitions.

Tips:

  • Make sure you pause at the fifth step for a few seconds, as research from the PubMed website shows that training your muscles in a stretched position can lead to more muscle growth [1].
  • Keep your core engaged during this exercise.
  • Maintaining balance during calf raises is critical, so keep your torso up and stand tall.

Workout #2

Performing calf workout routine

1. Single Leg Calf Raise

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and raise your left foot off the ground.
  2. Raise your right heel.
  3. Pause at the top of the movement, then slowly lower your right heel.
  4. Repeat eight to twelve repetitions on your right leg before switching to your left.

Tips:

  • Grab a light dumbbell in each hand to make this exercise more challenging.
  • Try to keep the tempo slow and steady, and ensure you have your weight under control as you descend.

"Avoid the temptation to crank out reps quickly. When you do, your Achilles tendon does the bulk of the work. Maintaining a slow, controlled tempo ensures that you target your calves."

- Nicole Dorsey, Exercise Physiologist

2. Smith Machine Calf Raise

Doing Smith Machine Calf Raises

How to do it:

  1. Place a step platform on the floor at the center of a Smith machine.
  2. Set the bar at about your neck height.
  3. Grab the bar and step on the platform across your upper traps.
  4. Step under the bar and place it on top of your traps with your toes on the platform's edge.
  5. Raise your heels to lift the weights while keeping your legs extended and back straight.
  6. Slowly lower the weights by lowering your heels towards the ground to return to the starting position.
  7. Repeat this motion for three sets of ten to twelve repetitions.

Tips:

  • Do not let your heels touch the ground because doing so can place excessive stress on your Achilles tendon and cause injury.
  • Focus on slow and controlled movements.
  • Avoid leaning backward or forward throughout this exercise.
  • Keep your back straight, shoulder back, and core engaged.

3. Half Squat Jump

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Lower your body into a half squat position while keeping your torso up and your weight in your heels.
  3. Jump as high as you can with your arms extended above your head.
  4. Land softly in a half-squat position bringing your arms next to your sides.
  5. Repeat until you reach five sets of five reps.

Tips:

  • Ensure you land softly to avoid joint pain.
  • Keep your back straight when you bend your knees to go into a half-squat position, as not doing so can cause lower back pain.

"When performing half squats, don't crane the neck up or bend it too far forward. Keep your chest up and forward, not allowing it to collapse or hunching your back. Also, looking up or down can put your neck in an unsafe position."

- Rachel MacPherson, Fitness Writer

Why Should You Train Calves?

Training leg calves

You should train calves to add mass to your lower legs, jump higher, sprint faster, boost stability, and prevent injuries.

  • Boost strength - Training your calves will help you strengthen the Achilles tendon, around the ankle, and knee joint.
  • Stretch your plantar muscles - Calf exercises can help stretch the plantar muscles located on the sole of the foot and are crucial for supporting the foot's arch and enabling effortless movements.
  • Jump higher - Calf training can help you improve your ability to jump higher, as the calves are responsible for extending the ankle joint.
  • Sprint faster - By training your calves, you can increase running speed as calves generate propulsion to push your body forward.
  • Boost stability and balance - By working to stabilize the ankle, the calf muscles can increase balance and decrease the risk of injury.
  • Prevent injuries - Since the calf muscles are relied upon for multiple everyday movements, they are prone to strains and injuries. Calf exercises can not only aid in recovery from existing damages but can also prevent further harm to your lower legs [2].
  • Enhance your physical appearance - Well-defined calf muscles can give your lower body a more proportionate look.
  • Improve functional ability - Calf exercises can improve physical activity and quality of life.
  • Rehabilitation of lower leg injuries - Calf muscle exercises can treat various issues, including calf strain, Achilles tendonitis, ankle or foot structures, ankle sprains, knee pain, and plantar fasciitis [3].

"If you are an athlete, strong calves may improve your performance, especially during explosive bursts of power and speed due to the fast-twitch muscle fibers in the calves."

- Rachel MacPherson, Fitness Expert

Calf Training Tips

Showing calf muscles and doing seated calf raises

There are a few tips to keep in mind to get the best results from your calf training:

  1. Plan to train your calves first after your warm-up to avoid pushing through the set and increase the intensity of your workout.
  2. Train your calves at least twice a week with heavy weights to get accurate results as we use them daily by walking, so lifting light weights and including half-hearted sets will take a lot of work.
  3. Challenge yourself by increasing your weight or adding additional reps as you progress to get the most out of the calf workouts above.
  4. Pause for a few seconds at the top and bottom of each repetition to maximize muscle activation and muscle tension, which are essential for muscle growth, according to one of the studies from the National Center for Biotechnology Information website [4].
  5. Maintain proper form and keep a neutral spine to engage the core muscles and improve your stability and balance.
  6. Feel free to experiment with different foot angles during calf workouts to find the most effective position. Research suggests modifying your foot angle while performing calf raises can boost muscular activation [5]. Begin with your feet facing forward and adjust until you reach maximum contraction.
  7. It's vital to keep slow and controlled motion. You can target the right muscles without engaging the elasticity in your Achilles tendon by taking time during your exercises. While some think using moderate weights at an average rep speed is adequate, research suggests a slower tempo may be even more beneficial. However, heavy loading at any speed is better than both options [6].
  8. One of the best ways to ensure your calves grow is to work them every time you train your lower body.
  9. Do not wear shoes while performing calf exercises, as it provides a great range of mobility.

FAQs

What Are the Best Exercises Bodybuilders Use to Train Calves?

The best exercises bodybuilders use to train calves are the seated calf raise machine, leg press calf raise, standing barbell calf raise, standing calf raise machine, standing dumbbell single-leg calf raise, seated dumbbell calf raise, donkey calf raise, bodyweight single-leg calf raise, smith machine calf raise, calf press, and farmer's walk.

How Often Should I Train My Calves?

You should train your calves two to three times per week. However, if you do not see the desired results, add a workout each week. It's important to note that overtraining can lead to injury and slow your progress. So wait 48 hours before training the same muscles again.

How Do Anatomical Variations in Calf Muscle Structure Affect Workout Effectiveness?

Anatomical variations in calf muscle structure significantly affect the effectiveness of workouts, as individual differences in muscle fiber composition and tendon insertion points can influence how muscles respond to training. Understanding these variations is crucial for tailoring calf workouts to maximize muscle growth and strength gains.

What Impact Does Footwear Have on Calf Workout Efficiency?

The impact of footwear on calf workout efficiency is notable, with different types of shoes, especially those with varying heel elevations, affecting the mechanics and intensity of exercises like calf raises. Choosing the right footwear can enhance the effectiveness of calf workouts by altering muscle activation patterns.

How Can Nutritional Strategies Optimize Calf Muscle Growth?

Nutritional strategies can optimize calf muscle growth by providing the necessary nutrients for muscle repair and growth, with a focus on adequate protein intake, balanced macronutrients, and proper nutrient timing. These dietary adjustments are essential for supporting the muscle-building process and enhancing workout results.

What Role Do Plyometric Exercises Play in Developing Calf Muscles?

Plyometric exercises play a significant role in developing calf muscles by improving explosive strength and muscle size, as movements like box jumps and skipping engage the calves dynamically. Incorporating plyometrics into a calf workout regimen can lead to improved muscle performance and growth.

What Are the Psychological Challenges of Training Calves for Bodybuilders?

The psychological challenges of training calves for bodybuilders often include maintaining motivation and overcoming frustration due to slower visible progress, as calf muscles can be stubborn to develop. Persistence and a well-structured training approach are key to overcoming these challenges and achieving desired calf development.


References:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30580468/
  2. https://www.verywellfit.com/the-12-best-exercises-to-strengthen-your-calves-5184522
  3. https://www.verywellhealth.com/calf-muscle-strengthening-2696606
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3285070/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20581696/
  6. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00421-012-2339-3
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