There’s no room for error on the bodybuilding stage. Every angle of one’s physique must be pristine to capture gold; no muscle can be left untouched and neglected in the training room. The chest, arms, and quads matter dearly, but smaller muscles like traps, forearms, and calves do.
And when you’re talking about the top level of bodybuilding, shows can and have come down to muscles like the calves — a body part that is notoriously hard to grow. And what’s hard to gain is typically appreciated the most, which is why hardcore fans and athletes adorn a perfect pair of calves on stage.
What follows is a list of 10 Men’s Open competitors who have been and are regarded for owning uniquely impressive calf muscles.
Early in his bodybuilding career, Arnold Schwarzenegger was criticized for his lack of calf development. Instead of avoiding the issue, the Austrian competitor tackled the issue head-on. According to his book, The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger made it a point to expose his calves by training in shorts and cutting the bottom of his pants off. This motivated him to train them harder.
One of his favorite exercises was the standing calf raise, which he would train with upwards of 1,000 pounds multiple times a week. He would also sneak more calf training into his routine by performing stagger sets — where you follow a set of one exercise with a completely different one. Arnold would supposedly complete one set of calf raises after every chest movement, sneakily accumulating 20 extra volume sets. After seven Mr. Olympia wins, it’s hard to argue against his methods.
Dorian Yates took the title of Mr. Olympia for himself in 1992 after the retirement of Lee Haney. His training methods were very different from those of his predecessors. He followed a form of high-intensity training (HIT) that required only one working set, but that set was performed to total failure (and usually beyond).
Yates applied this philosophy to every major body part, including his calves. During his reign atop the sport, no one could match his lower body condition and size. Yates’ calves looked enormous, even when he was standing in a relaxed position. His attention to detail and training every muscle to total failure is what he credits for his success throughout his career.
Matarazzo was the 1991 NPC Heavyweight and Overall Champion before entering the IFBB Pro League. Unfortunately, he never tasted victory as a professional. The highlight of his career came when he placed ninth at the 1998 Mr. Olympia contest, which Ronnie Coleman won. However, he did garner attention from fans because of his look and unique training philosophies.
“Mad Mazz” was most famous for his superior calf development, and he credited three things for his freaky steers — training with heavy weights, using a full range of motion, and stretching after every set. He also wasn’t afraid of doing cheat reps on some occasions.
In 2001, Matarazzo got fifth at the Night of Champions competition and then retired after a 21st-place finish at the Olympia. He died in 2014 at the age of 48.
Jay Cutler had similar motivation to bring up his calves as Schwarzenegger did. He has told the story that his sister knocked him for his lack of calf size, and he became obsessed ever since. By the time he retired in 2013, his calves were among the biggest in bodybuilding.
One trick that Cutler implemented was the one-and-a-half rep method. He would perform a complete repetition on any calf raise, come down halfway, then flex the calves again before lowering the weight back down completely. This method yielded two contractions for every rep, allowing Cutler to accumulate more muscle-building tension.
View this post on Instagram
The strategy paid off for the four-time Mr. Olympia and three-time Arnold Classic winner. The results can be seen for themselves even now at age 48 when he trains them on his YouTube channel.
Canadian bodybuilder Ben Pakulski competed from 2009 to 2016. Even though his competitive career was only eight years long, Pakulski competed 19 times (according to musclememory.com), with his lone victory coming at the 2016 Vancouver Pro.
He finished as the runner-up in the 2013 Arnold Classic to champion Dexter Jackson and competed in the Mr. Olympia twice. He placed 11th in 2012 and 14th in 2016.
Two of his biggest assets were below his knees. Pakulski’s calves were the subject of many training features in the magazines of that era. He could stand in any position, and the calves were prominent.
Nowadays, Pakulski runs MI40 University on YouTube and owns MI40 Gym in Tampa, FL.
Erik Fankhouser was one of the more popular bodybuilders in the early 2010’s. Fankhouser was the 2007 North American Champion and is the only man from the state of West Virginia to compete on the Olympia stage (2010). He finished in a tie for 16th place.
Google Fankhouser and “calves,” “calves workout,” and “calves measurement” are the top entries that appear next to his name. Supposedly, his calves measured between 23-24 inches around.
View this post on Instagram
“The House’s” favorite calf exercise was the calf raise on the leg press machine because it allowed him to load up more weight compared to other calf exercises. Fankhouser was also an advocate for high reps, doing as many as 20 reps per set. Fankhouser retired from competition in 2012.
When Dallas McCarver hit the scene at the 2012 North American Championships, many fans and experts saw him as the second coming of Ronnie Coleman. Every muscle group on his physique was huge and round. Many people marveled at his arms, but his calves were just as striking. The development of his gastrocnemius muscles (the visible portion of the calves) was so wide that they stood out in his front poses.
McCarver tragically passed away in 2017 at the age of 26. Many felt as though McCarver had serious potential to be an Olympia winner.
When Kai Greene started competing as a teenager, he learned early on that the entire body has to look superior to the opponents onstage. The judges look at everything, including below the knees.
Greene likes using a lot of volume in his calf training. He employed up to five exercises, including the classic donkey calf raise, which he considered a favorite. He occasionally would go heavier with a rep range of 10, but he stuck with sets of 20 to 30 reps more often than not.
Greene also alternated his heel position on the movements. Sometimes, the heels would face outward, and other times they would be close together. Very few men can claim the honor of being a three-time Arnold Classic Champion and a three-time Olympia runner-up. He can.
The one word that many people associate with Branch Warren is intensity. He gives all he has to the gym. However, he was genetically gifted with significant calf development. So, he didn’t have to train them as often as other champions of his era.
When Branch did focus on his calves, he would do one heavy set emphasizing complete stretches and contractions. Warren won two Arnold Classics and finished as high as second (2009) in the Olympia before retiring in 2016.
It isn’t only the heavyweights sporting huge calves; one man that has incredible lower leg development is James “Flex” Lewis. Lewis followed the example set by Yates and made calf training a priority. A client of former pro bodybuilder Neil Hill, the Welsh Dragon, trains them with every rep scheme imaginable. Some days he will go as low as six reps with the heaviest weight possible. Other times, he could do as many as 50 in a set. The belief is that changing the routine often helps minimize hitting a plateau.
View this post on Instagram
The 38-year-old, seven-time 212 Olympia champ hopes to make them even bigger and better as he potentially plans to step onstage at the 2022 Mr. Olympia as a part of the Men’s Open lineup.
Featured Image (left to right): @jaycutler, @fankhouse, @flex_lewis on Instagram