Top 5 Best Calf Exercises
This week we are continuing our feature where we provide our view on which are the top 5 exercises for different body parts. Today, our top 5 best calf exercises.
What are the criteria for selecting the ‘best‘ 5 exercises? They are those that build muscle, or tone, and do so in a balanced, aesthetically pleasing way. They should work well for most people and provide maximum stimulation. As a collection they need to provide an all over stimulus that will develop a well-proportioned pleasing shape.
Not all the exercises in this series are going to work for everyone, but I have tried to choose exercises that most people should be able to perform whilst also offering variety.
This week we give our view on the top 5 best calf exercises.
The calf gets its own ‘top 5’ because it’s generally out on show all summer. It’s normally the only leg muscle you see when you wear shorts. So, in some ways, it signposts the state of the rest of your leg musculature and, to some extent, your whole physique.
The two main calf muscles are the soleus and the gastrocnemius. If you follow those two links, you’ll also see a link to this diagram. This shows you that the gastrocnemius (gastroc) sits on top of the soleus. That said, you’ll normally be able to discern the soleus on the lower portion of the lower leg where it comes out from underneath the gastrocnemius. The diagram also shows you there are other muscles deeper to the two main muscles but they are not generally trained for aesthetics.
Both the soleus and the gastrocnemius extend the ankle. The gastroc, because it crosses the knee, also helps to flex the knee. The main exercises for training both of these muscles take some form of heel raise or toe press. That’s more or less it. That means there is less variety in calf training and less distinction between choices of exercise. I’ve tried to add variety in the top 5 by including some more unusual exercises.
So, with the intro done, on to our 5 best calf exercises…
1. Toe press on the leg press
The first exercise in the top 5 best calf exercises is the toe press. For me, this is my main calf builder. You are seated and well planted, so there really is nothing else to focus on other than the muscles being worked. You can give your calves total focus.
If you want maximum development you have to use a full range of motion. That means getting a full stretch and a full extension. Because the knees are extended and the hips are flexed, you’ll get maximum stretch in this exercise compared to other calf exercises. It’s similar in positioning to a donkey calf raise. Get as much of a stretch as you can and point your toes at the top as far as you are able.
I like to keep the tempo slow and deliberate, pausing at both the stretch and the peak squeeze. Go heavy to start with. As the calves fatigue, go for more reps and more volume to really pump them up. You can do this by reducing the weight and getting more reps or by doing partial reps. I like partials on calf exercises. Try doing the bottom half of the movement from stretch to half way using your initial working weight. Keep it slow and deliberate. You should be able to get up to 20 or so reps. If you don’t get an agonising burn from doing this, write to me and tell me this is a rubbish idea! Do that 3 times and you will likely be sore the next day. You can also do partials from half way to peak squeeze. That’s also agonising!
The calves recover quickly and can take a lot of volume. So, do multiple sets and rest for only 30 seconds once you get to higher rep sets.
2. Standing calf raises
Next up in the top 5 best calf exercises – a heel raise. If you go to a well-equipped commercial gym, you’ll find a purpose-built machine for these or, failing that, you can use a smith machine. If you use a smith machine, you’ll need a step to hang your heels off. Although both the knees and the hips are extended, you can still get a decent stretch with this exercise.
The same form pointers apply here: get the stretch, get the squeeze. Keep it slow and deliberate and certainly don’t skip the negative portion of the rep.
Be conscious of your feet. Where is the pressure, is it on your big toes or on the outside of your foot? Are your feet pointing in, out or straight ahead? Although you can’t isolate either head of the gastroc, you can emphasise one over the other. Toes in for the outer head, toes out for the inner head. If you want to see your calves from the front, i.e., looking in the mirror, then point your toes out! Choose different foot positions for maximum calf development.
3. Sled pushes
So, we’ve done a toe press and a heel raise. That’s tradition dispensed with. Time to introduce some variety in to the top 5 best calf exercises. I’m not going to put seated calf raises into the mix as another variation because it is predominantly a soleus exercise. The gastroc gets much less work because when the knee is flexed, the gastroc is shortened and takes a back seat in the lift.
So that means we’re done on standard calf raises and presses. Time for some variety.
Have you ever done a sled push? Give it a go. Not only is it a supreme whole-body exercise that will provide maximum fatigue and hormonal response in a short time, but it is also very demanding on the calves. You have to get low and you have to use your calves to push.
If you’re pushing outdoors then there likely won’t be a limit on distance, but if you’re indoors there will only be so far you can go before you have to turn back. Go heavy enough to fatigue the calves before you run out of track.
I like this exercise because the calves get activated individually, much like they do with any bipedal movement. So, it mimics common movement patterns more closely that the two footed presses and raises. It’s more functional and it will help balance up the two sides.
A great way to really ruin the calves is to superset with a traditional exercises. For example, do your heel raises, fatigue the calves, then get on the sled and finish them off.
4. Sprinting or walking on the toes
The penultimate exercise in the top 5 best calf exercises is not even a gym movement!
Have you ever had a look at the calves of football or rugby players? They’re not shabby. One of the reasons they have decent calves is because they do a lot of short sharp sprints. When you sprint, you push off aggressively, with your calves getting heavily involved.
If you can’t sprint then try walking around on your toes a lot. Walk around the house on your toes. I appreciate this is not the same as sprinting. Sprinting is fast-twitch and will develop your gastroc predominantly. Walking is slow twitch and will develop the soleus predominantly. Nevertheless, walking on your toes a lot is going to help develop overall girth and is a useful addition to the work you do in the gym. I include sprinting and walking together in this choice because of the similarity of movement.
If you can sprint, that would be a better option. Choose to do short shuttle runs between markers so that you are forced to slow, turn and accelerate over and over. The acceleration will really torch your calves.
5. Lying leg curls as a calf exercise?
Last up in the top 5 best calf exercises – leg curls! What? This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, that’s a hamstring exercise! Yes, it is, but it also works the gastroc, which assists with knee flexion. Besides, I’ve run out of interesting variety for calf training!
I discovered this by accident, but once I’d realised what was going it seemed obvious. I’d stopped training my calves for a few months during the off season. Usually I would do lots of deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts for hamstrings in the off season and my calves would wither a little. This year, because my right hip is too arthritic now, I struggled with heavy deadlifts of any kind. Instead I’ve resorted to leg curls for more of my hamstring work and have been doing hip extensions on the glute ham bench. To my surprise my calves did not wither. Ok, so they didn’t stay competition-ready, but they stayed plump.
Just like the hamstrings, the gastroc crosses two joints. And just like the hamstrings, they can be trained by moving either joint. The hams can be trained with knee flexion or hip extension. The gastroc is stimulated either by ankle extension or knee flexion.
It makes sense. You can feel your calf working hard on leg curls. Note that you have to point your toes to your shins to get the gastroc working during leg curls. If you point your toes away, as is often the practice on the negative, they will slacken off.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating leg curls as a primary calf exercise. If you had effectiveness as the main criterion for top 5 best calf exercises, this probably wouldn’t make the cut. But it will complement your existing calf programme, especially if you have limited access to the right equipment for calf training.
So, there you have it, my top 5 best calf exercises. It’s a bit of a funny one as there isn’t that much variety in calf training. The effectiveness comes from range of motion and tempo rather than from lots of different stimuli with different exercises. So, what are you waiting for? Go and beef up your calves – slow the reps down, get a full range of motion and watch them grow.