Magazine Articles

Muscle & Fitness / July 2009
The Calf-Time Show

Of all the muscle groups, none generate the controversy, misinformation and confusion that the calves do. They're alternately ignored and abused, overworked and underemployed. But that should come as no surprise. After all, calves are unique: The biggest muscle is barely visible and the visible muscle is barely pronounceable. For every guy who works his calves daily with no returns, there's another who has never even heard of a calf raise yet is walking around on Herculean pins.

Some will blame their small calves on bad genes, throw their hands in the air and resign themselves to a lifetime of boot-cut jeans. But genes aren't entirely at fault because anyone can improve with the right training program. Yet most people don't work their calves correctly, notes Eric Sternlicht, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a trainer for 30 years at Simply Fit in Orange, California. His celebrity clientele has included the Incredible Hulk himself, Lou Ferrigno. "There seems to be a misconception that muscle fibers in the calves, forearms and abs are fundamentally different from the rest of the body," he says. "They aren't. People who don't get a response from calf training are usually over- training or using light weights."

When people think of the calves, they generally focus on the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The former, commonly called the gastroc, is the most visible. It has a medial and a lateral head and tends to have a somewhat diamond shape when fully developed. The soleus is partially visible from the front, but it lies underneath the gastrocnemius on the back of the leg. Yet the soleus is the bigger muscle and makes up about 75% of your calf musculature. "People typically train with their legs extended, which ignores the soleus entirely," Sternlicht says. "If you really want to increase the size of your calves, the best way is to work the soleus."

Both the gastroc and the soleus raise the heel, but each operates at a different time. The gastrocnemius comes into play when the leg is straight; the soleus activates when the knee is bent. The Achilles tendon helps pull the heel up and the foot forward with each step. These muscles and tendons work in conjunction while absorbing the force of thousands of steps each day. "The calves are used to high reps but low force," Sternlicht explains. "One way to look at it is to compare a sprinter's calves to a marathon runner's calves. The sprinter does far fewer reps, but his intensity is higher. So we want to increase the intensity."


Training calves twice a week is plenty, Sternlicht says. "You have to give them time to recover. I've been doing this for 30 years, and I've watched people train them four days a week. That's like 20-25 sets. They overtrain to the point where their calves don't grow."

Similarly, exercise that involves the legs and calves, such as the work done on most cardio machines, is best done before a calf workout. "A lot of people train calves hard and then do cardio, which ends up working their calves again," Sternlicht points out.

"You have to decide what your main goal is. If you want hypertrophy in your calves, do cardio first."

If overtraining isn't your problem, you might not be using enough weight to stress the tendons and force growth. Your calves are conditioned for high reps with relatively low weight (as in walking), so that won't make them bigger. Yet most people work their calves that way in the gym. "Calves need training like every other muscle group," Sternlicht says. "I always see guys using weights they can easily handle. To make your calves grow, use heavy weights in the 3-8-rep range and do negatives with a partner."


Unlike chest and back - which benefit from being hit from a variety of angles - calves are limited to two positions: straight- and bent-legged. Period. "You don't need a wide variety of exercises," Sternlicht explains. "You might switch for psychological reasons or just to have some variety. But physically, there's no difference between seated calf raises and training calves on the leg press with your knees bent 90 degrees. Each move activates the soleus." While much has been made of toe position - turning them out works the medial head and turning them in stresses the lateral head - in the end it's a matter of splitting hairs because going hard and heavy takes priority. "1 believe it's better to keep your toes neutral," Sternlicht says. "If someone has a deficiency in the medial or lateral head, then he might change toe position. Otherwise, keep them straight." Choosing which exercises to do can be a personal preference or may simply be based on what equipment is available. But remember: Whether it's the latest piece of Cybex equipment in a state-of-the-art gym or piling the kids on your back for a homemade donkey press, focus on using the heaviest load possible. M&F