Calves are honestly one of the few muscles that are highly genetic-dependent much like the forearms. In other words, some people have them and some people just don’t and never will. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t build muscle and gain some extra size.
Although, you’d likely be better off focusing on improving strength and power. Then if size comes, so be it. But either way, we’ll show you the best calves exercises in existence so that you can ensure you’re getting the most benefit possible.
First, let’s talk about the calf muscles so that you can understand why you need certain exercises to develop them.
Calf Muscles Anatomy
The calves are located on the posterior of the lower leg which consists of two muscles, the gastrocnemius, and the soleus. The Gastrocnemius is what most people think of when referring to the calf muscles. It’s the most superficial of the calf muscles and it has two heads (medial and lateral). These heads merge and join up to form the bulge that appears on the lower leg.
Then you have the soleus which is located deep to the gastrocnemius and is a large, flat muscle. It’s actually a larger muscle than the gastrocnemius.
One thing to note is that the gastrocnemius crosses both the ankle and knee joint while the soleus only crosses the ankle joint.
Therefore, the best exercises for the gastrocnemius are going to involve keeping the leg completely straight while bent-leg exercises are more effective for the soleus. Although, both muscles will be involved during any calf exercise.
The calf muscles are responsible for plantar flexion (bending the toes down and away from the shinbone) of the foot and ankle and are highly involved in running and jumping. They also help with stabilization when standing.
9 Best Calves Exercises
We’ve chosen the best calves exercises that make the most sense for developing them to the max.
1. Standing calf raise
The standing calf raise is one of the best exercises to really emphasize the gastrocnemius muscles. That’s because it’s done with straight legs and therefore activates the calf muscle at the knee joint.
If you can, use a dedicated standing calf raise machine. If you don’t have access to one, no worries. Use a dumbbell and perform it while standing on an elevated platform so that you can do the exercise using a full range of ankle motion.
Another very popular variation is the standing Smith machine calf raise where you place two weight plates under your feet to allow for a fuller range of motion.
2. Seated calf raise
The seated calf raise is another must-have exercise. It emphasizes the soleus muscle which is the larger of the two and therefore, you should hit it hard and consistently.
The soleus is also a more important full-body stabilizer when standing erect, so you want to include enough variety to ensure you stimulate it sufficiently. Not to mention, strengthening the soleus can contribute greatly to athletic performance.
Now, if you don’t have a seated calf raise machine, there are alternatives methods that you can use instead. For example, you can place the balls of your feet on a block or elevated platform and hold a dumbbell on your thigh for resistance.
You can also use a Smith machine or utilize the squat calf raise where you squat down into a deep position and do calf raises this way.
3. Donkey calf raise
Donkey calf raises are always a top choice when talking about the best calves exercises. It was popular back in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s day and would involve doing calf raises with someone sitting on your back as if riding a donkey.
However, doing it that way isn’t really as acceptable these days unless you don’t care about how you’ll look to others while doing it.
Instead, you can do the leg press calf raise or Smith machine version which mimics the movement. For the Leg press variation, place the balls of your feet on the bottom of the platform so that your heels are moving freely.
Then for the Smith machine option, bend over so that the bar sits on your lower back and place your feet on some plates or something similar to get a nice range of motion.
4. Bodyweight anchored calf exercise
A very unique calf exercise, this one only requires your own body weight and a stable object to secure your feet under. Now, it’ll work both the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles because it involves knee flexion and extension. So, you kind of get the best of both worlds.
It’s a very challenging movement but we absolutely recommend it for maximizing your calves.
You’re basically maximizing plantarflexion because if you don’t, you’ll fall forward. It also makes a great isometric exercise where you hold the position for several seconds.
Note: You can use a bench, dresser, couch, or anything that’ll allow you to be secure. If the basic variation is too difficult, use an exercise ball in front of you for a little support.
Here’s a video that’ll explain exactly how to do the exercise correctly…
5. Farmer’s walk
The Farmer’s walk is a total-body exercise. However, it’s very effective for working the muscles of the lower body. It’s a common movement for Strongman and CrossFit athletes as it tests pure grit and mental fortitude.
But why we’ve included it as one of the best calves exercises is because you’re walking for distance while holding weights in your hands. Well, it’s much more difficult to walk when you have heavy weights slowing you down, and therefore, your calves are really working to keep you going forward.
Plus, have you ever noticed how heavier individuals tend to have bigger calves? Well, the same thing sort of applies here.
Use progressively heavy weights and really challenge yourself each. You’ll also benefit from a stronger core, more grip strength, and improved posterior chain development.
6. Partials and/or 1.5 reps
One very effective training technique when working any muscle group is to utilize partial repetitions. But with calves, it can actually allow you to better feel the contraction in the soleus. Try it out for yourself. Another benefit is that you can train using heavy loads and place stress on the calves.
1.5 reps simply means you’ll do a partial rep followed by a full repetition. You can do these with any calf exercise to take your training intensity a bit further.
7. Incline walking/treadmill
Walking uphill is a very underrated activity for building the calf muscles. It provides resistance against plantarflexion and can be seriously challenging as it’s not easy walking in an upward direction. For most people, the easiest way to accomplish this would be to set a treadmill at an incline and get to work!
You’ll feel your calves burning afterward and the pump will be incredible.
Sprinters have some very impressive lower bodies. Of course, they also incorporate weight training but the impact and force generation during sprints is sure to elicit muscle gains. Not to mention, you’ll develop lots of power and explosiveness consequently.
During sprints, the calves store up mechanical energy when in the stretched, eccentric position on the ground. Then, as you lunge forward, that energy quickly propels you forward. But it’s important to note, that building stronger calves through calf raise training directly transfers to sprint performance. (1)
So as you can see, the benefits go beyond any physical development.
Most of your leg development is going to come from doing multi-joint, compound exercises that allow you to use the most amount of weight possible. That means your calves are heavily assisting.
So, focus on the squats, deadlifts, and leg presses. You can, of course, opt to do variations of these exercises if it works better for you. But just make sure that the bulk of your lower body training utilizes these essential movements.
Important Calf Training Tips
Here are some useful tips to ensure you get the most from your calf training.
- Always warm up with a few progressive sets using a full range of motion. Do a set using your own bodyweight then use a little more weight for the next set and then jump into your heavier sets.
- There’s no need to vary foot position. Keep it neutral which will also allow you to train with the most amount of weight.
- Use a variety of rep ranges and weights. For example, you can do 8-12 reps one session and 15-25 the next. This is an effective way to train the calves as they vary in muscle fiber type. The soleus has more slow-twitch fibers making it better for endurance. The gastrocnemius has fewer slow-twitch fibers which makes this muscle better for quick movements. (2)
- Make sure to use a combination of straight and bent-leg movements to target both muscles according to their anatomy.
That’s all we have for you today and we truly think this information is all you need to train your calves most effectively. We chose among the best calves exercises with a few wild cards thrown in there as well.
Remember, don’t get frustrated because you aren’t seeing the results you want. Calves are a bit different than other muscles and that’s something we have to just accept. But that doesn’t mean you should skip training them either.