How to Build Strong and Defined Calf Muscles

Photo of three woman building stronger calf muscles

A listener named Victoria wrote to me the other day and said, “I have really skinny calves. So skinny that I am starting to feel self conscious about wearing leggings without high boots. How can I get my calves to match the rest of my strong physique?”

Well, Victoria, you are not alone. Tons of people have trouble building their calves. Just look at photos of body building competitions and you will likely see that more than half of the competitors have an imbalance or two, and that imbalance is usually centered around their calves. Heck even Arnold himself struggled with puny calves in his early bodybuilding days.

Believe it or not, working your calves is not exactly rocket surgery.

Luckily, believe it or not, working your calves is not exactly rocket surgery. Calves are not a difficult body part to work but they can be a difficult body part to grow. The good news is that calf workouts do not tire you out like squats do (so you won’t need to spend the remainder of the day on the couch) and they don’t burn you out like a shoulder workout does (so you won’t have to get a close friend to wash your hair for you). Calves are also pretty easy to foam roll or self-massage so there is really no excuse to not add some serious calf work into your plan.

Calf anatomy

The calf muscles may look like a complicated set of interlocking and intertwining bands of tissue but in actuality they’re not that wacky. Let’s break them down.

The Gastrocnemius

Gastro is Greek for “belly” and this muscle is what people most commonly refer to when they talk about their “calves.” They’re the most noticeable muscles in the lower leg, and they get the most action during everyday activities.

The gastrocnemius (or gastroc) is most visible when you are standing up. If you want to see them well, try this: stand up and raise your toes off the ground toward your shins. Now look behind you at your lower legs, there you will be able to see your medial and lateral heads of the gastroc contract. Cool, right?

The gastrocnemius may be the most obvious section of the calf muscles but it should not be the only one that you train in the same way that the pecs are not the only chest muscles that should be worked on. We don’t want to look wonky or move weirdly, right? (No, we don’t.)

The Soleus

Soleus is Latin for sole (yes, the flat fish) and it is heavily involved in making your body stand up from a seated position. In bodybuilder terms, the soleus makes the back of your lower leg wider.

To find your soleus, sit down and put your hands around the back of your calf. Raise your leg with your toes, like you would if you were standing on your tippy toes. When you do this in a seated position, the soleus bears almost the entire load while the gastrocnemius is nearly inactive. Which is why the Seated Calf Raise is so effective for working your soleus.

The Tibialis Anterior

Located in the front of your lower leg, the Tibialis Anterior separates the inside calf from the outside calf, and often only makes itself known as the muscle that is involved in shin splints.

The tibialis anterior is used for walking up hills and any movement that puts your toes on a higher plane than your heel.

In bodybuilder terms, a well-developed tibialis anterior will make the lower legs appear larger and less boney, which makes this a bit of a “vanity muscle” although it does also serve as a good stabilizer in certain sports, exercises and daily movements.

Muscle fibers

Before we move on, a few words about types of muscle fibers and why they play an important role in developing your calves.

Type 1 fibers: Also known as “slow twitch” fibers which have a lower potential for growth and force output but are more resistant to fatigue.

Type 2 fibers: Also known as “fast twitch” fibers which have a much higher potential for growth and force output than Type 1 fibers but fatigue sooner.

A research paper on the soleus muscle shows that the composition of the muscle fibers of the gastrocnemius can vary significantly from person to person.

For example, your gastroc might be as high as 50% Fast Twitch fibers (the ones with the higher potential for growth) while mine might only be 20%. So you will find it easy to add mass to your calves while I will have to fight tooth-and-nail for every millimeter of gained girth.

Everyone can build their calves. Some of us just have to work harder than others.

Don’t let that bum you out. Everyone can build their calves. Some of us just have to work harder than others.

How long should a calf workout be?

Like all things, we are looking for quality not quantity. Ultimately, it is not a great idea to work your calves out for more than 20 minutes max. That goes for most body parts. There is a thing called the law of diminishing returns which I am sure you have heard of, outside of weightlifting. It simply means that more is not always better. In fact, more can very frequently result in less.

Let’s break this down. Today’s workout is three sets of seated calf raises (don’t worry, I’ll explain what that is later). Each set takes ~30 seconds of lifting and 90 seconds of resting. So the time to complete that first exercise would be, 3 sets * 30 seconds = 1.5 minutes + (90 seconds of rest * 3 sets) = 6 minutes. There are usually only three calf exercises included in a good day at the gym, so 6 minutes * 3 = 18 minutes of total calf work. Give or take some time for admiring yourself in the mirror or (if you are like me) wiping puddles of sweat off of the equipment.

Should calves be trained in isolation?

The great thing about calves is that they can be trained along with any other muscles in your routine. In fact, some leg exercises work multiple leg muscles so most people suggest working calves along with hamstrings and quads.

While we’re on the subject, some people prefer to skip the specific calf work and simply do deadlifts or squats. Sure, both are superb exercises for the quadriceps but they don’t even come close to using a full range of motion for the calves. I would say that by doing squats to build your calves you are leaving more than half of the benefits on the weight bench. Make sure you hit them specifically—as well as incidentally—on your leg day.

Calf Exercises

It is important to do these exercises safely so always warm up thoroughly first by doing some sun salutations, and walking or jogging slowly for five to ten minutes. During the workout, focus on using proper form and stay focused on what you are doing at all times. It can be helpful to watch yourself in a mirror to make sure you aren’t collapsing or favoring one side over the other.

Standing Calf Raise (with straight legs)

Since the claves (or Triceps Surae) is an extremely powerful muscle group, don’t hesitate to work it with heavy weights using a range of 4-6 reps (to failure).

  • Stand at the machine or in the rack with your back straight, place your shoulders under the pads (or the barbell across your back), and place the balls of your feet on the foot plate.
  • Rise up by extending the feet, while keeping the knees straight, and hold the contraction for one to two seconds.
  • Return to the starting position, and try to get a full stretch when you lower your heels.
  • Repeat to failure.

Donkey Calf Raise (with straight legs)

This exercise will increases the width of the calf muscles. Reps in the 12-15 range provide best results.

  • Lean over (forming an L shape with your torso and lower body).
  • Stand on a small ledge or platform, allowing enough room for your heels to hang off the edge.
  • Hold on to something stable for support so that your torso is parallel with the ground.
  • Flex your calves, raising yourself up as high as possible.
  • Return to the starting position where your calves are fully stretched and your heels are hanging off the edge.

Seated Calf Raise (with bent knees)

This is great for increasing the size of the soleus. 12-15 rep range provides best results.

  • Sit at the machine with your knees positioned under the pads, and the balls of your feet placed on the foot plate.
  • Extend your feet, and hold the contraction for one to two seconds.
  • Return to the starting position, and try to get a full stretch when you lower your heels.

Leg Press Machine Toe Press (with straight legs)

This exercise benefits the entire calf muscle. Be certain to go through full range of motion so you get full development of the muscle.

  • Sit at the leg press machine, and place the balls of your feet on the foot plate.
  • Push up on the balls of your feet, and hold the contraction for one or two seconds.
  • Return to the starting position, and try to get a full stretch when you lower your heels.

Standing Reverse Calf Raise (with straight legs)

This one really targets the Tibialis Anterior. Training this one will add width to the front of the lower leg.

    • Stand under the smith machine bar, and place your heels on the platform.
    • Position your toes facing forward with a shoulder width stance.
    • Push the barbell up by extending your hips and knees until your torso is standing erect. The knees should be kept with a slight bend; never locked.
    • Raise the balls of your feet as you breathe out by extending your toes as high as possible and flexing your calf.
    • Hold the contracted position for a second before you start to go back down.
    • Slowly go back down to the starting position as you breathe in by lowering the balls of your feet and toes.

Jump Rope

This one is usually thought of as a cardio exercise but it can also build your calf muscles. You will need to perform it for 30-40 minutes to get the best calf building results.

  • Grab the jump rope with each hand.
  • Jump with both feet with each turn of the rope.
  • Vary which foot takes the most weight and how quickly you move the rope to keep it interesting.

Stretching the calves

Stretching along with your calf workouts will prime your legs for stronger movement and fewer injuries in your calves as well as hips and hamstrings. Do each of these for a minimum of 30 seconds.

Calf Stretch Hands Against Wall

  • Stand a few feet from the wall, and place your hands flat on the wall.
  • Keep your back straight, and press your heel(s) against the ground.
  • Don’t use brute force but rather relax into the stretch.
  • Don’t forget to breathe!

Standing Gastroc Calf Stretch

  • Place your right heel on the step or bench, extend your knee.
  • Grab your right toe with your right hand.
  • Pull your right toes toward your knee until you feel a stretch in your calf.
  • Release and repeat the movement on the left side.

The Stair Stretch

  • Stand on the stair with your right heel over the edge.
  • Lower your heel as far as you can by relaxing the calf and ankle.
  • Repeat with left heel.
  • Again, don’t use brute force, just breathe into the stretch.

Calf Strengthening Tips

Avoid thick and rigid footwear, to ensure full range of motion and that your calves are doing all of the work (not the foam in your shoe).

To finish off, here are a few rapid fire tips to keep in mind while you develop your enviably tree-trunk-like calves.

  • Warm up for 5-10 minutes before each workout to fill your target muscles with blood and prepare them for the load.
  • Avoid thick and rigid footwear, to ensure full range of motion and that your calves are doing all of the work (not the foam in your shoe).
  • Change your workouts frequently, to avoid reaching a plateau or getting bored.
  • Although we are focusing on calves today, always train your entire body to maintain balance and symmetry.
  • Remember to take a week off of training every two to three months to ensure your muscles fully recover. You can do other physical activities during that time, you don’t have to just lay on the couch.
  • You may need to join a gym to get access to more equipment and heavier and heavier weights as you grow.
  • Rest at least one day in between each calf workout.
  • Rotate through different foot positions: toes straight, toes slightly in and tow slightly out since each position activates your calves differently.
  • Don’t save your calf workout for when you’re exhausted.
  • At the bottom, get your heels as low as they’ll comfortably go. At the top, make sure you’re on your tippy-toes with your calves fully contracted.
  • Once you hit the top of your rep range then add ten pounds. If you’re doing a standing calf raise in the four to six rep range and get 100 pounds for six reps, move up to 110 pounds for your next set and work with it until you can raise it for six reps, and so on.
  • It’s important to take in the proper amount of nutrients and protein to sustain your exercises. The Nutrition Diva has some great info on how much protein you should eat.
  • As with any bodybuilding protocol, make sure you give your body the appropriate time to rest and recover between each workout session. Train like a beast, recover like a champ.

Aside from solving Victoria’s problem of needing to wear boots with her leggings, our calf muscles are important in all our fitness and lifestyle endeavours. They act as both the gas and the brake when we run. When you are climbing a steep hill, that is your calf muscle in action. Coming down the other side of the hill, your calf makes sure you don’t wipe out.

According to a Runner’s World survey of 14,000 injured runners, calf pulls were the second most common injury reported. If you don’t strengthen and stretch the lower leg, you are at risk.

Plus shapely calves are aesthetically pleasing. Toned calves compliment pretty much any body type especially one with bulging muscles elsewhere. Strengthening and developing the thighs and glutes while ignoring the calves can compromise your muscular symmetry and make you look like a balloon animal that is slowly deflating. And no one wants that.