Should Powerlifters Train Calves?

It’s interesting to note that there are some generational differences among strength athletes. Older athletes tended to be much more wary of dietary fat, for instance, and younger lifters tend to spend more money on supplements.

According to John Gaglione, a strength coach based in New York state and owner of Gaglione Strength, today’s lifters also tend to shy away from isolation exercises much more than the previous generation. Modern strength athletes are much more enamored with the idea that you only need a select few, “bang for your buck” compound exercises, and have fallen prey to the idea that bicep curls, forearm work, and calf exercises are unnecessary.

Today, we’re taking a harder look at calves. Is it necessary for powerlifters to train them in particular? We asked two coaches, and their answers were mixed.

What Do the Coaches Say?

“I don’t think powerlifters should train calves,” says Paulie Steinman, the head coach and owner of South Brooklyn Weightlifting Club. “But here’s the thing: I think most powerlifters neglect their calves and they neglect caring for their calves. And what I’ve found is that there’s a big carryover to mobility when they increase their range of motion in their calves, and healthier calves affect proprioception, comfort in the squat, and all three of the big lifts.”

But while Steinman strongly emphasizes taking care of your calves by mashing them with kettlebell handles and barbells like in the video above, he feels that the calf is inherently worked in the full range of motion of the squat and the deadlift.

“We have a certain amount of time in the gym, what’s the best use of our time? Training the bigger muscles,” says Steinman. “If we had five hours to spend in the gym, calf exercises might take place in the fifth hour. But we don’t.”

Fair enough. Gaglione both agrees and disagrees.

“If I had to pick one or the other, if you have a finite amount of time, you definitely want to spend it more on the basics like the bench, squat, and deadlift,” he says. “But I do believe that bigger, stronger calves are helpful for balance, and if your hamstrings and calves bunch up together in the hole of the squat, it can help you spring out of it, so it has a mechanical advantage.”

The Most Efficient Calf Exercise for Powerlifters

But Gaglione isn’t saying that powerlifting gyms should start installing machines for calf raises across the country. Instead, he feels that there’s one exercise that works the calves while providing a lot of other, important benefits: the glute ham raise.

“If you’re going to integrate calves into powerlifting training, I would advise exercises that integrate the entire posterior chain,” he says. “For 85 to 90 percent of guys, the glute ham raise would be the best bang for your buck.”

You might be surprised by this recommendation, but the GHR is surprisingly effective. It trains the calves via their role as knee flexors, and it provides them with stimulus while delivering tremendous benefits to the entire posterior chain, particularly — of course — the oft-neglected glutes and hamstrings.

The idea is to focus on the calves throughout the movement, and Gaglione advises that adding a back extension to the movement and to push into the toe plate and drive through the calves, like BarBend’s own Jake Boly is doing below.

“It’s integrating your entire posterior chain,” says Gaglione. “Glutes, hamstrings, your low back as a stabilizer, and your calf is going through some plantar flexion as well, so you’re basically lighting up the entire back side of your lower body, and that’s going to help with hypertrophy in the entire lower leg.”

If you’re unable to use a machine, you can lock your feet under a barbell, as shown in the video below.

It won’t be quite as effective for the calves as having a toe plate to push into, but it’s better than nothing. Put them toward the end of your next few pulling workouts and feel the difference.

Featured image via @gaglionestrength on Instagram.

Nick English

Nick English

Nick is a content producer and journalist with over seven years’ experience reporting on four continents. His first articles about health were on a cholera outbreak in rural Kenya while he was reporting for a French humanitarian organization. His next writing job was covering the nightlife scene in Shanghai. He’s written on a lot of things.

After Shanghai, he went on to produce a radio documentary about bodybuilding in Australia before finishing his Master’s degrees in Journalism and International Relations and heading to New York City. Here, he’s been writing on health full time for more than five years for outlets like BarBend, Men's Health, VICE, and Popular Science.

No fan of writing in the third person, Nick’s passion for health stems from an interest in self improvement: How do we reach our potential?

Questions like these took him through a lot of different areas of health and fitness like gymnastics, vegetarianism, kettlebell training, fasting, CrossFit, Paleo, and so on, until he realized (or decided) that strength training fit best with the ideas of continuous, measurable self improvement.

At BarBend his writing focuses a little more on nutrition and long-form content with a heaping dose of strength training. His underlying belief is in the middle path: you don’t have to count every calorie and complete every workout in order to benefit from a healthy lifestyle and a stronger body. Plus, big traps are cool.

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