Unless you’re genetically gifted, most people have a stubborn muscle group that refuses to grow — and there are legitimate reasons for that (which we’ll get into below). But you also don’t want to throw in the towel when it comes to calf training. Bigger, stronger calves not only balance out large quads but can help you jump higher, run faster, and provide ankle support.
Like training your biceps or triceps, calf training is rather straight forward. You get on your toes and flex your feet, so you go up and down, up and down. It’s boring (which is probably another reason why some people skip calf training). That said, we’ve sourced eight functional, unique, and fun moves to bring you the best calf exercises. We’ll also dive into the benefits of training the calves, how they function, and provide a list of the five best calf muscle exercises. These include:
Best Calf Exercises
- Donkey Calf Raise
- Seated Calf Raise
- Single-Leg Calf Raise
- Farmer’s Walk on Toes
- Sled Drag
- Jump Rope
- Captain Morgan Calf Raise
- Clean Pull
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To develop the calves, you need exercises that provide a stretch — achieved with a longer range of motion (ROM) — and the ability to add lots of weight. The donkey calf raise fits the bill. (If you don’t have a donkey calf raise machine, there are various ways to set it up, as demonstrated in the video below.) There are two key aspects of this move that make it particularly effective. First, by angling the body forward and resting your arms on a support, you create a more stable base from which you can load heavy weight. This weight will create more stimulation. Second, standing on a box allows you to increase the move’s ROM for a greater overall stretch.
Benefits of the Donkey Calf Raise
- The ability to add load fast to strengthen and develop the calves.
- The loaded stretch at the bottom helps calf flexibility and ankle mobility.
How to Perform the Donkey Calf Raise
Using your set up of choice (refer to the video above), secure your hands and hinge back at the hips and place the balls of your feet at the far edge of the step. Slowly lower your heels as far as possible to the floor, pausing for three to four seconds. Lift your heels as far as possible, squeezing your calves at the top of the movement. Slowly lower down and repeat.
The soleus muscle makes up one half of the calf, and it sits under the Gastrocnemius, which is the round, visible calf muscle. Although the gastrocnemius looks impressive, the soleus is what creates calf thickness and girth. The soleus is also resilient, so you need to work it with a lot of volume and weight. The seated calf raise is perfect for this. By sitting with your knees bent, you’re able to isolate the calves fully. Also, the machine is easily racked and unracked, making it perfect for rest-pause sets, tempo training, and generally going to failure.
Benefits of the Seated Calf Raise
- Strengthens and adds size to the largest muscle in the calves
- Easy to load and perform.
How to Do the Seated Calf Raise
Sit up straight with your legs bent at 90 degrees with the balls of your feet on the step and the load above the knee on the thigh. Unrack the machine and slowly lower your heels as far as possible to the floor, pausing for three seconds. Then lift your heels as far as possible, squeezing your calves at the top of the movement. Slowly lower down and repeat. You can also try and of the techniques outlined in the video above.
The single-leg calf raise is a tried-and-true basic exercise for recruiting more lower leg muscle. The main benefit of this move is that you’re able to focus on one leg at a time, helping you even out on any muscular imbalances that may be developed over time. Also, because you’re essentially doing double the sets than you would with two-legged calf variation, you’ll get more overall work and in therefore burn more calories — a win-win.
Benefits of the Single-leg Calf Raise
- Strengthens imbalances between calf muscles.
- Provides a loaded stretch and a bigger range of motion to add size and strength to the calf.
- More overall work is being done for more calorie burn.
How to Do the Single-leg Calf Raise
Hold a dumbbell in one hand, secure the other hand, and put the ball of your foot on the raised surface. Cross your other foot behind the working leg and slowly lower it towards the floor. Then lift your heel as high as you can and pause and squeeze at the top of the movement. Slowly lower down and repeat.
You probably already know the benefits of farmer’s walks for grip strength and physical conditioning but walking on your toes turns this move into a serious calf-builder. Keeping your calves contracted under load while walking improves your calves’ strength and definition and, because of the reduced base of support, and improves your balance, too.
Benefits of the Farmers Carry on Toes
- The increased time under tension of walking under load helps enhance hypertrophy.
- Improves your balance, gait, grip strength, and mental toughness. These aren’t easy.
How to Do Farmers Carry on Toes
Pick up 25-50% of your body weight in each hand, rise on your toes and take small steps forward, staying as high on your toes as possible. Squeeze both calf muscles as you walk, keeping as high on your toes throughout the entire movement.
Many calf raise variations have you isolating the calf muscles to build and strengthen them. However, this sled drag variation trains the calves in unison with your quads, hamstring. This is a functional way to train your calves as you force them to work in a way that mimics more realistically the movements you engage in daily. Seated calf raises are great, which is why they’re on this list, but when are you ever doing that movement outside of the gym? Probably never.
Benefits Of the Sled Drag
- The sled drag works your calves more functionally.
- Sled drag improves your conditioning without the impact on your joints.
- Ability to add serious load to improve total body strength.
How to Do the Sled Drag
With the sled behind you, take the straps underneath each arm and grip tight. Take a big step forward, taking three to four seconds to go from pushing through your toes to stepping through and rolling down to your heel while really focusing on the calf muscles to create a mind-body connection with them. Take 20-40 steps with each foot.
A million boxers can’t be wrong. Jump rope may not be the first exercise you think of for building calf muscles, but it’s a great one. Jumping rope is an excellent exercise to challenge the calf muscles while improving coordination and conditioning.
Being on your toes with the repeated plantar flexion of the calves puts the gastrocnemius — the largest calf muscle — under constant tension for better hypertrophy potential and endurance. A weighted vest is an option here, but be careful if you’re not very experienced with this kind of repetitive stress on your feet.
Benefits of the Jump Rope
- Puts the calf muscles under constant tension for better hypertrophy potential.
- Improves conditioning, lower body power, and coordination.
How to Jump Rope
First, pick a rope that fits you correctly. When you stand in the middle of the rope, both handles need to reach your armpits. Adjust accordingly. Hold a handle in each hand with rope behind you. To move the rope, rotate your forearms forward. Then use your wrists to swing the rope overhead.
When the rope is overhead, bend your knees. When the rope is at shin height, spring up from the balls of your feet to jump over the rope. Start slowly until you get the hang of it. Make sure to stay on the balls of your feet the entire time.
This Captain Morgan calf raise variation is the brainchild of strength coach Nick Tumminello. The beauty of this variation is that it gives you a pre-stretch and takes one calf muscle through a large range of motion. It helps to improve ankle mobility while building strength and muscle in your largest calf muscle, the gastrocnemius. Plus, better ankle mobility has direct carryover to your squats and deadlifts.
Benefits of The Captain Morgan Calf Raise
- Combats strength asymmetries between sides.
- Improves ankle dorsiflexion.
- Provides a large range of motion for better muscle-building stimulus.
How to Do the Captain Morgan Calf Raise
Hold two dumbbells at arm’s length. Put your front foot on a box or step at around knee height. Move your back foot behind your hips. Keep the front knee bent at 90 degrees and point both toes forward. Then, lean forward into the front foot and maintain that position. Perform a calf raise on the back foot, lifting your heel as high as you can. Slowly lower down, reset, and repeat.
The clean pull is a full-body explosive exercise that also trains the calf muscles at the end of the movement. This is called triple extension, which is an extension at the hips, knees, and ankles. The calf muscles work as part of a unit to pull the loaded barbell to hip height. The beauty of this exercise is that the calf muscles are under more load and the powerful nature of the clean pull trains the fast-twitch muscles of the calves for better strength and muscle potential.
Benefits of the Clean Pull
- Trains explosive full-body power.
- Calf muscles are trained with more weight than usual calf exercise variations.
- Improves athleticism and coordination.
How to Do the Clean Pull
Start with your feet hip-width apart and the barbell over the laces of your shoes. Hinge down and grip the bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Then lower your hips until your shins touch the bar. Your hips should be slightly above your knees. Pull your chest up and shoulders down. Explosively pull the bar from the floor, keeping the bar close to your body. When the bar passes your knees, extend your knees and ankles to perform a calf raise. Reset and repeat.
All About the Calf Muscles
Your calf muscles pull your heel up, creating forward momentum for walking, running, and jumping. The calf, which is made up primarily of two muscles, also manipulates your ankle joint. So, stronger calf muscles will result in more stable ankles. Increasing your calf strength and size will help you jump higher, absorb force better, run faster, and provide more ankle stability for squats or deadlifts or when you’re going on a walk or run. But the hidden benefit of calf training is it will strengthen and help protect your Achilles tendon against possible injury.
Why Calves Are so Stubborn to Grow
First and foremost, your genetics dictate whether you’ll have an easy or hard time growing bigger calves. Here are the two main reasons why folks either struggle or have it easy for calf training.
The muscle is slow-twitch dominant.
The soleus muscle (underneath the gastrocnemius) has a muscle fiber composition that can be up to 90% slow-twitch dominant. However, the gastrocnemius, a fast-twitch muscle, is easily fatigued compared to the soleus.
This means you need to attack your calf training differently depending on which calf muscle you’re targeting. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are difficult to grow because they rely on a rich supply of oxygenated blood called Myoglobin. Because of this, they generate less power and strength than fast-twitch fibers but are slower to fatigue, meaning they can sustain activity for longer.
Muscle origins and insertions points.
The origin of a muscle is the attachment site that doesn’t move during a contraction, while the insertion is the attachment site that moves during muscle contraction.
The insertion is usually distal (far away), and the origin is proximal (or close), relative to the insertion. For example, the gastrocnemius muscle originates underneath the kneecap on the femur, and it inserts underneath the heel via the Achilles tendon.
Generally speaking, a longer insertion (tendon) and shorter muscle belly make the muscle harder to grow, while the shorter insertion and longer muscle belly make it easier. The long or short insertion points affect how big or small your calf muscles look. So, if you’re blessed with short insertion points, take advantage of them. Again, this isn’t something you can control. So, if your calves grow easily, then you probably hit the genetic jackpot (at least where calves are concerned.)
Anatomy of the Calf Muscles
The calf contains a few muscles, some that are not seen and sometimes neglected. Understanding what the calf muscles are and how they work is important in obtaining stronger, better-looking calves. Here’s the breakdown of the major calf muscles.
This is the larger, more visible calf muscle, forming the bulge beneath the skin. The gastrocnemius is a two-part muscle that together creates its diamond shape. It originates from the femur underneath the knee and inserts on the heel via the Achilles tendon. Its main function is foot plantarflexion (heel coming off the ground), but it also assists in knee flexion.
The soleus is a smaller, flat muscle that lies directly underneath the gastrocnemius muscle, and it’s not really visible to the naked eye. It originates from the tibia and fibula below the knee and inserts on the heel via the Achilles Tendon. Its function is foot plantar flexion, but because it only crosses at the heel joint, the best way to train the muscle is with the knees bent.
This long, thin muscle extends behind the knee, forming together with the gastrocnemius and soleus. It originates from the lateral femur and inserts of the posterior of the hell via the Achilles tendon. Its function is foot plantar flexion, but because it crosses two joints, it assists in knee flexion.
The Benefits of Training Your Calves
Although it’s not as attractive a muscle to train as your quads, glutes, and hamstrings, spending a little time a few times per week building up your calf strength and hypertrophy does have huge benefits. Like these:
Ankle stabilization is important for weightlifting, powerlifting, and general health. Strong and stable ankles allow the knee and hip joints above to do their job and help promote force and withstand high amounts of loading.
Explosiveness and Power
The gastrocnemius is fast-twitch muscle fiber dominant, which means they generate higher rates of force than slow-twitch fibers. A bigger and stronger gastrocnemius helps you run fast, jump, and increase power and explosiveness with other movements that need rapid ankle plantarflexion.
One good way to look after your Achilles tendon and help prevent calf strains is by using the exercises above. Stronger muscles and tendons are better able to absorb and produce force. Plus, the Achilles tendon is subject to the highest loads in the body, with tensile loads up to 10 times the body’s weight. So, looking after the whole region is key.
How to Warm-up Your Calves Before Training
Although static stretching might feel good for your calf muscles, it’s not the best way to warm them up. Using some ankle mobilizations like the video below will not only get your ankles ready to squat or deadlift by improving ankle dorsiflexion but provide an active stretch for your calf muscles.
Another great couple of warm-up exercises that focus on the ankles, shoulders, hamstrings, and core are the inchworm and downward dog. Both provide an active stretch for the calf muscles and get your whole body ready for action.
More Calf Muscle Training Tips
Now that you have a handle on the best calf exercises to strengthen your calves, you can also check out these other helpful calf training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.
Featured image: Jasminko Ibrakovic/Shutterstock