Why should I train calves?
The calves are made up of two muscles, the gastrocnemius muscle and the soleus muscle. These muscles play a part in many body functions, including walking, running, jumping, standing on your toes, and flexing your feet. The calf muscles also help to pump blood around the body! When your calf muscles contract, it pushes the blood through the legs to heart, against the force of gravity.
Strengthening your calves helps to protect against injuries in the feet, ankles, and knees, and can improve your circulation. While the calves do get worked in many lower body compound exercises like squats and deadlifts, it's very hard to create enough of a training stimulus to encourage significant muscle growth without isolating the calves. Adding calf specific exercises like calf raises into your workouts can help to strengthen the muscles much faster, so you get the benefits of strong calves. Training your calves in isolation also prevents them from lagging behind other muscles, which can increase the risk of injuries during lower body exercises.
Commonly asked questions on calves
Calf raises are one of the best ways to strengthen the muscles and ligaments in your lower legs, ankle and feet. They can improve ankle stability and mobility and reduce the risk of Achilles heel injuries.
Squats do work the calves, but only to a small degree - so if your goal is to have big, strong calves, you'll need to do more than squats to achieve it! Training your calves can actually improve your squat. For example, increasing ankle mobility can help achieve greater squat depth.
Calf exercises do help to build stronger calf muscles. However, many people struggle to build mass in their calves. The calf muscles tend to have a higher proportion of slow twitch muscle fibres compared to other muscles, which can limit growth potential. That said, it is possible to grow your calves, and the reason many people struggle is that they do not train their calves enough!
Calf raise tips
- Standing on a platform or step allows a greater range of motion which encourages greater improvements in strength and mobility.
- Changing your foot position allows you to target different calf muscles. Turning your feet inwards works the inner calf more, turning them outwards works the outer calf more.
- Do dynamic stretches or mobility work before calf raises to improve your mobility, which helps to achieve greater range of motion and reduce the risk of injury.
How to do a calf raise
Level: Beginner to Intermediate
Equipment: Calf raises can be done with no equipment, dumbbells, barbells, or on the Smith machine, and can be done on the floor or on a step
Calf raises require a level of balance and strength. You can start by performing raises using a wall for support if needed.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, either on the floor, or on the edge of a step or platform.
- If doing a dumbbell calf raise, hold a dumbbell in each hand by your sides. If doing a barbell calf raise or Smith machine calf raise, rest the bar on your shoulders how you would with a squat.
- Look straight ahead and engage your core, then slowly lift your heels off the floor until you are on your tiptoes.
- Pause before lowering your heels back to the starting position. If you are on a step, lower your heels below the platform.
How to do a seated calf raise
Level: Beginner to Intermediate
Equipment required: Chair, box or bench, dumbbells
Seated calf raises can be done using bodyweight only if you find using a dumbbell too challenging at first. You can also use a plate to create a step for a greater range of motion.
- Sit on the edge of your chair or bench, feet facing forward slightly less than hip-width apart.
- Rest a dumbbell on each thigh, just above the knee.
- Slowly raise your heels off the floor until you are on your tiptoes.
- Pause before reversing back to starting position in a controlled movement.
How to do a single leg calf raise
Level: Intermediate to Advanced
Equipment required: Single leg calf raises can be performed with weights like dumbbells, but it's best to start off with bodyweight only as it requires a lot of balance
- Stand with feet hip-width distance apart, flat on the floor or on the edge of a step or platform.
- Engage your core and cross your left foot behind your right ankle, then center your balance over your right foot.
- Slowly raise your right heel off the floor, taking care to remain balanced.
- Pause at the top before lowering back to starting position, or taking your heel below the platform if on a step.
- Repeat for desired reps and then switch legs.
How to do a leg press calf raise
Level: Beginner to Advanced
Equipment: Leg press machine
Leg press calf raises can be done on both a seated leg press and 45 degree leg press machine.
- Sit down with your back against the back support and place the balls of your feet on the edge of the footplate around shoulder-width apart.
- If you're on the seated leg press machine, adjust the seat so that your legs are straight with knees slightly bent when the plate is at rest.
- If using the 45 degree leg press, press the plate off the safety bars and extend your legs out, keeping a slight bend to your knees.
- Slowly lift your heels by contracting your calf muscles. This will push the plate.
- Pause at the top before slowly reversing the movement. Lower your heels below the platform to gently stretch your calves before repeating.
How to do a donkey calf raise
Equipment required: Bench, step
- Place the step in front of the bench and then stand on the edge of the step as you would with standing calf raises.
- Hinge forward at the hips and rest your forearms on the bench. Your back should be just below parallel.
- Alternatively, you can set up a squat rack and rest your hands on the barbell if the bench is too low.
- Tuck your chin, engage your core and drop your heel below the step. This is your starting position.
- Squeeze your calves and drive your heel up until you're on tiptoes.
- Pause before lowering back to the starting position.
If you’re not sure if any of the above exercises are suitable for you, please consult your doctor before you start it. Need guidance on how to perform the exercise? Ask a personal trainer at your gym.