Today we really are going to talk about calves unlike last week where I just used them as an example to point out the possible advantage that machines may have over free weights when building muscle. Yes, I really mean that machines may offer more advantages to building muscle than traditional free weight exercises. I’m not getting into that again, although I have every intention of expanding on last weeks article in the near future as there is so much more to discuss that I couldn’t possibly fit into one post. Having said that, today we’re going to talk about calves: standing vs seated calf raise.
Calves are somewhat of an obsession to me, and I have a feeling to about 99.9 percent of the serious bodybuilding community. What body part is more impressive when built to the proportions they are capable of reaching and yet is so difficult to effectively train? There is no muscle group, in my opinion that is more painful to work. You walk on them all day long and have done so since a very young age, so naturally they are going to be resistant to any form of stimulus as they get so much work anyway. This means that if you want serious calf mass you need to be working in the pain zone on a regular basis. I mean the pain zone where you are involuntarily shedding tears. I don’t mean you are blubbering like a baby, but trust me, if you have never finished a set of calf raises and noticed that your cheek is wet, you haven’t ever trained calves hard enough.
Of this there is no doubt: pain is part of the calf training equation. What exercises are the most effective though? Really there are only two: the seated and standing calf raise. You can do them on a leg press or Smith machine but really those are just variations of the standing calf raise. The seated calf raise stands alone as the only seated calf exercise.
In order to understand which exercise is the superior of the two options a small anatomy lesson is in order. Your calves are made up of two different muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the larger of the two muscles and makes up the majority of what is visible as far as calf mass is concerned. There is both a medial and lateral head and both of these heads are made up largely of explosive fast twitch fibers. This makes sense as they are called upon almost exclusively to jump, sprint or dunk a basketball. Yes, there is a lot of leg-drive in all of the above but without the explosive calves to initiate the movements mentioned, you aren’t even getting off of the ground let alone running or jumping. The gastrocnemius crosses the knee-joint so it is involved somewhat in knee flexion but only minorly. This also means that when the knee is bent that the gastrocnemius is completely deactivated.
The soleus is the smaller of the two calf muscles and is located under the gastrocnemius on the lateral side of the calf. The soleus is made up mainly of slow twitch fibers that will not help you jump or sprint but which will be heavily called upon to do any type of walking, jogging or long distance running. For those of us who are dedicated gym junkies, the gastrocnemius is the sprinting muscle and the soleus is the cardio muscle. The soleus also has the important task of stabilizing the ankle.
Continuing on with the soleus muscle, the seated calf raise will work only this smaller muscle and none of the gastrocnemius. Why? As I said before, when the knee is bent the gastrocnemius is disengaged. It is still a vital exercise, however, as a well-developed soleus is what will set the stage for the gastrocnemius to shine upon.
Although I think this is almost unnecessary to mention at this point as it is fairly obvious, but the superior calf training exercise is hands down the standing calf raise. The standing calf raise engages both the gastrocnemius and the soleus. This exercise allows for the maximum in calf mass to be built and also allows for heavy soleus training in the process. When your soleus is powerful, exercises such as squats and deadlifts will be more effective, from both a stabilization and explosiveness standpoint.
The standing calf raise is also the much more functional of the two movements. This again is obvious as we do everything with our calves while standing. If you can think of something we do on a daily basis that involves our calves from the seated position then please let me know.
Of course do both exercises, and do both exercises with strict form. As awesome as I think you are as I walk by and see you doing calf raise/squats with the whole stack, I’d be even more impressed if you cut that weight in half or less and did the movement as it is supposed to be done. You know, with your calf muscles. When it comes to the seated calf raise, that bouncing thing I see most doing also allows for a lot of weight to be used but it’s the gastrocnemius that we want to be training for power, not the soleus. Lighten up and go all the way down and up in a controlled motion to build a solid soleus. When developed to their potential the pair of muscles to me make up the single most impressive muscle group on the human body. Maybe it’s because I understand the blood, sweat and tears involved in getting those big calves. Until next time my friends,