Each and every one of us wants to be the best person we can be and have the best body that we can have. We spend a lot of time working on sculpting our bodies into something that we can be proud of and trying to set new personal records for lifting and benching. We take pride in our rock-hard abs and our sexy biceps. That said, we need to spend an equal amount of time on the less exciting parts of our body. Skipping leg day is probably the worst thing we can do, but the most tempting bit of our gym schedule to miss out on. Do you want to look like an upside down pyramid with flip flops when you head to the beach or pool this summer? Didn’t think so.
The calves are often the most neglected muscle of our extremities. Why? It’s quite silly when you think about it. Consider your calves as the forearm muscles of your legs. They are what make you faster, dictate your balance, and have a direct relationship with all of the joints, muscles, and tendons from your ankle down to your toes!
What Are Calves? Understanding the Calf Anatomy
Before going in to too much detail about the best ways to work out your calves, we need to first understand what they’re made up of. Believe it or not, calf muscles are not just one giant muscle on each leg. Your calves are technically a complex network of 6 muscles on each leg that work in tandem, and they all have interesting scientific-sounding names. These muscles are all essential for mobility and stability:
- Gastrocnemius – This is the longest and most dense of the networked muscles we have on the back of our leg. It runs from above your knee all the way down to your heel with two separate joints. The gastrocnemius is one half of the duo that forms the Achilles tendon. Should you “pull” a muscle in your calf area, it’s almost always this one. And the pain from that is no joke, so take care to perform your calf exercises properly to avoid pulling the muscle.
- Soleus – This bugger is an extremely powerful piece of calve muscle. It starts below your knee and stretches down to your heel and is essential when you plan on standing and walking somewhere. Together with the gastrocnemius, it forms the Achilles tendon. The only mammals that have the soleus muscle are those who stand and walk on two legs at any given time.
- Popliteus – A short bit of muscle that wraps behind the knees to lock and unlock your knees as you walk. Without the popliteus to rotate the tibia to a locking point when your foot is on the ground, you’d just topple over and your legs would cave under you.
- Tibialis posterior – Often considered to be the most symmetrical and centralized muscle of the calve muscles. Think of this as the popliteus for your ankles. It will give you stability and support your equilibrium. The tibialis keeps us from falling side to side while walking or standing.
- Flexor digitorum longus – This long and thin muscle lays on top of the Gastrocnemius, similar in look but shortened on both ends. The flexor digitorum longus is what allows us to flex and invert our feet. Without it, our feet wouldn’t move up and down. Though we could probably still walk or run, it would be difficult and not look very fluid at all.
- Flexor halluces longus – You can probably guess that it’s similar to the flexor digitorum longus. You’re correct. Our flexor halluces is what allows us to move our feet from side to side with ease. Again, without it, we could probably walk and run but it would be ugly. The flexor digitorum and the flexor longus work together, almost always.
Why Exercise My Calves?
Well, we know that we have them and we know that calves are crucial for humans and other mammals to be able to walk… but are we supposed to exercise them otherwise? It’s hard to believe that we need to worry about strengthening muscles that we use literally thousands of times per day, but if you want to get bigger, better, or look more cut, you don’t have a choice. Walking alone is not enough to sculpt, lengthen, or build up the muscles in your calves.
There are four main benefits you can realize from exercising your calf muscles in addition to the aesthetically pleasing physique that you’re building and these benefits of calf exercises include:
- Your calves give you the power needed to push off from the ground when you walk and run. If athletes intend on working to get faster and shave seconds off of their sprint times, calf training is essential. By working out the calves, you’re giving those six muscles the ability to work together in a more strong and unified way. This allows us to use them in faster and more frequent repetitions, resulting in an increase in overall speed. Need to run away from someone? Calf exercises are key to making it happen! Want to run in and win a race? Calf exercises to strengthen your muscles and build speed.
- There is often a need for athletes to be able to jump higher. Wide receivers need to jump higher than the defense backs they’re up against to ensure a higher rate of catch completions. Basketball players will increase their rebounds if they can jump higher. Volleyball players are able to get blocks or have more downward power on a spike if they can increase their leap height. Much like with speed, jumping power is a direct result of working out your calves.
- Reduce injury risk. Just like the rest of the muscles in your body, your calves need to be adequately stretched and worked out to reduce the chances of injury while you’re playing a sport, running, or working out some other area of the body. When you’re hitting the gym hard, you want your muscles to be able to support your efforts and work together to help avoid painful injuries. Exercising your calves is part of that equation.
- Improve other workouts. If you’re going to be hitting the weights every day with a focus on your arms, you’re going to be doing more harm than good. It’s good to hit the arms every other day and the legs on the alternate days. This will give all of the muscles plenty of time to heal and improve the individual workouts for each day. In addition, enhancing your calve muscles will result in more impressive hamstring and quad workouts. Like your arm muscles, your leg muscles are all related and rely on each other in some way, so don’t forget to work the full muscles from your ankles to your hips when focusing on your leg workouts.
Best Calf Muscle Exercises
Now that we understand exactly what our calves are made up of and what it is that they actually do for us, we can better improve their performance through a series of important calf exercises. Remember that before you start any of these crucial exercises, it’s a really good idea to fuel up with your pre workout supplements just like you would on a day that you intend on working out your upper body. The muscles in your legs will react to the supplements in the exact same fashion, giving you better results. Here is a list of MUST-DO calf workouts to be done immediately after stretching…
- 1. The calf raise – Stand near a wall and put your hands on it for balance purposes. Keep your back and legs as straight as possible and go up on your tip-toes. Do this repeatedly at a relatively fast rate for the set amount of reps until you feel that familiar burn. Arguably the most effect calf exercise, these can be done individually or with both legs at the same time. We suggest trying to do it with both legs together for beginners but once you’ve got the hang of the exercise, you should probably start to do one leg at a time so that you’re not favoring your strong side and reducing the effectiveness for the weak side. If you want to up the ante even more, find a flight of stairs and do it on the bottom step, allowing your heel to drop below the bottom step before going back up on to your toes.
NOTE – This is an exercise that can be modified so you can easily do anywhere that you sit down. Feel free to do it a few times a day at work or in your car while waiting in traffic! All you need to do is keep your feet flat to the floor with your knees as directly over your feet as you can. Keep your legs straight, don’t let your legs bow in or out at all, then put your hands on your knees and push down to add some pounds of force as resistance. Lift up on to your tip toes and raise those heels up as high as they’ll go. Drop back down to the floor, wash, rinse and repeat!
- Uphill Walk – Find a relatively steep hill and walk up it repeatedly. Start at a slow speed but increase the speed throughout the workout. This is an excellent way to work out all of your leg muscles, not just the calves. If you’d like to add an extra bit of focus on those calf muscles, increase your speed and/or try to do the hill walk on your tip-toes. You should feel the burn in no time.
- Pool Run – Similar to the uphill walk, the pool run is an ideal exercise to get a good workout in for all of your leg muscles. It’s common for people who are starting to recover from a pulled muscle or maybe somebody with joint pain to do the pool run rather than other leg exercises as it allows our bodies to not be so violently impacted like they are when exercising outside the water. All you have to do for the low impact pool run is literally try to sprint while you’re in water that is up to your chest. If you want a bigger focus on your calves, try to stay on your toes while running. If you want a larger focus on your hamstrings and quads, try to lean forward and run from a flat foot position.
- Calf presses – These are a slight alteration from the calf raises. It’s basically the same thing except you press against an object that has resistance. These are typically done in a weight room or gym with one of the various different leg-resistance machines.
Tools, Tips, and Tricks for Working Out Your Calves
Working out your calves, and any other leg muscles for that matter, is going to be crucial if you want that cut and lean body to bring to the poolside or the beach. If you’re not familiar with “leg day” exercises, it’s best to take a good look at these tools and tips to help you get through what is likely going to be one of the more boring and painful workouts you’ve had.
- Go slow. Your calf muscles are definitely not used to this type of work out. The hardest thing they’ve ever had to do up to this point is get your body out of a chair, walk, run, and on the rarest of occasions, allow you to gain a couple of inches to see over a wall or crowd of people! Take your time and complete thorough stretches before jumping right in. Make sure your intensity isn’t too high and the resistance isn’t too strong. Your best bet is to try the workouts in a pool to help avoid the risk of injury.
- Understand what exercises seem to help you the most. All of us are slightly different, especially when it comes to our anatomy. Though we all share the same parts and pieces, the way they fit together isn’t always alike. Some people tend to feel the burn and notice the positive effects more in the hill walks than they do the resistance exercises like the calf presses and raises. In the end, a calf workout is a calf workout. It’s best to do whatever suits you.
- Increase your load, length, or resistance by 10% or so every couple of weeks. This might need to be scaled back a bit for the true beginner, but the idea is to not keep working out with the same low level of intensity, low number of reps, or low weight. The idea is to enhance your workouts and get more out of your calves to ensure you’re strengthening them and building that muscle mass over time.
- Keep a journal. You may find that you are getting discouraged by the lack of results. You’d be surprised at how far you’ve actually come. A log or journal will help you track the amount of weight, reps, and how you felt after the workouts over time. These wind up being a great motivator since leg day kind of stinks!
- Continue with your supplements as usual. Just because you’re working out your leg muscles doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from the same awesome treatments as the rest of your body!
- If you’ve had a previous foot, ankle, or calf injury in the past, do NOT do these exercises without consulting with your doctor. These workouts could cause serious strain, stress, or further injury to already weakened spots in your lower body.