Calf Raises: Are They Worth It?

The calf raise is an exercise that can be done primarily in two distinct ways. The first targets the soleus and is done with the knee flexed/bent. The other targets the gastrocnemius and is done with an extended knee. Both muscles (soleus and gastrocnemius) contribute to ankle plantarflexion, which is a key joint action for human locomotion, force production, stability, balance, and explosive movements.

In this article we will discuss:

  • Two Types of Calf Raises
  • Benefits of Calf Raises
  • Are Calf Raises Worth It?

Seated Calf Raise

The seated calf raise can be done using a machine or set up manually while seated. The important thing to remember here is that since the knee is bent (knee flexion) the soleus is primarily targeted due to the muscle insertions and attachments occurring below the knee. Below is a video of how to perform the seated calf raise.

Standing Calf Raise

The standing calf raise can be done using a machine, standing with a barbell on the back, or holding a pair of weights to the sides. Since the athlete is standing, the knees are extended (not locked out) which targets primarily the gastrocnemius due the the muscles crossing the back of the knee and attaching both above and below the joint. Below is a video of how to perform the standing calf raise.

5 Benefits of Calf Raises

In an earlier article we discussed the main benefits of performing calf raises within a strength, power, and fitness regiment. While some of these may apply to some athletes more than others, it can be generally said that all lifters and athletes can benefit from enhancing the below physical attributes via calf training.

Ankle Stability

Ankle stabilization is important for weightlifting, powerlifting, functional fitness, and general health and wellness programs. Stable ankles can help to anchor the lifters securely to the floor to allow the above joints (knees and hips) adequate stability to promote force and withstand high amounts of loading.

Explosiveness and Power

The gastrocnemius is primarily made up of fast twitch muscle fibers, which suggests that they have higher rates of force production and power output than slow twitch fibers. This has often linked calf training and performance to increased power output and explosiveness in sprinting, jumping, and other movements that require rapid ankle plantarflexion.

Injury Resilience

Stronger muscles will help to absorb force and loading that would be placed on other tissues and structures (bones, tendons, etc). Many individuals may suffer from achilles tendon injuries or calf strains due to lack of properly developing muscle coordination and eccentric strength to assist in force absorption during higher impact areas.

In addition, collapsing ankles and poor stability at the ankle joint (due to lack of plantarflexion, etc) can result in stability issues at the knee and hip, which over time may cause overuse injury.

Stronger Squats and Deadlifts

The calves actively stabilize the ankle and provide additional downwards force application into the floor during squats and pulls (as well as plyometrics and Olympic lifts). Ankle plantarflexion is part of “triple extension” which refers to the ankles, knees, and hips all going into extension together. It is through these joint actions that most athletic, strength, and power movements occur.

Run Faster and Jump Higher

As briefly discussed above,  stronger and more explosive calves assist in running economy, speed, and jump performance. They also can help aid in force absorption and stabilization for the ankle, knee, and hip joints.

Should You Do Calf Raises?

Despite what many may think about calf training, it can actually be a valuable accessory and/or corrective exercise to include in most power, strength, and fitness programs.

The first step is to determine if there is an immediate need for calf training, such as; (1) recovery from ankle injury, (2) lack of ankle stability and plantar flexion, or (3) general need to increase injury resilience from higher impact exercise like jump ropes, double unders, and running.

If you still are unsure if you need to perform calf raises, you can simply mix calf raises into your training either after sets of squats, during deadlifts (weightlifters actually do them inadvertently during clean and snatch pulls), or simply by adding jump ropes into warm up routines.

At the end of the day, the calves are a muscle group that gets trained a lot during most strength, power, and fitness programs. Much like the forearms during most gripping movements, the calves can sometimes hold a lifters performance back regardless of the abilities of a bigger muscle group (lack of full ankle plantarflexion in snatches and cleans, loss of balance in the bottom of the squat, ankle stress, etc). If this is the case, coaches and athletes can experiment by adding both seated and standing calf raises into current training programs and monitor the outcomes.

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