Category Archives: Calves
Several years back, T Nation contributor Chad Waterbury wrote a cool article about what he believed to be the best exercises for each major muscle group. I really liked the idea because I’m always interested in how different coaches think, so I thought I’d take a stab at it myself.
However, a small catch – I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a ubiquitous “best” exercise, so instead I’ll simply share my favorites for each group.
Narrowing it down to one exercise though is like trying to pick the hottest girl out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. There are just so many good choices. In the end it boils down to basically my opinion, but I’ll also share the why behind my choices to give you a look into my rationale.
I’ve also shared a couple runner-ups in case you can’t do one due to injury, equipment limitations, etc.
When it comes to back development, I could’ve picked any heavy deadlift variation and felt good about my choice – but since I had to narrow it down to one, I chose the snatch grip rack pull from mid-shin height.
The wider grip puts significantly more stress on the upper back, traps, and rear delts, while pulling from the pins with the bar elevated a few inches off the floor allows for heavier loading.
I’m generally a huge proponent of full range of motion lifting and usually advocate increasing the range of motion before increasing the load; however, I’ll make an exception in this case for two reasons:
To that end, a snatch grip deadlift from the floor is really more like a conventional deadlift from a deficit, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, most people just don’t have the requisite hip mobility to do it safely without rounding their lower back something awful.
If you can, more power to you, but if I’m making a general recommendation for the majority, then elevating the bar a couple inches is a much better and safer option.
Deadlift variations aside, my runner-ups for back are chin-ups and inverted rows.
The overwhelming majority of my chest work comes from heavy pressing and push-ups, but if I had to single out the best exercise for chest development, it’d be ring flyes.
I thought long and hard about a good rationale. Sure, I could talk about how the scapulae is free to move, compared to where it’s pinned down during bench press variations, or the fact that it doubles as a hell of a core exercise, but we’re talking more about chest development here.
To that, I’d just ask that you try them for yourself – because I think after just one shot you’ll realize exactly where I’m coming from. These will fry your pecs like no other.
It’s a very advanced exercise though, so don’t just jump right into it without proper preparation or you’ll end up hurting and/or embarrassing yourself. Before you even attempt ring flyes, you should be able to do at least 25 ring push-ups first.
From there, begin with bent-arm flyes with your arms bent to approximately 90 degrees. That may seem easy, but it’s actually a big jump, so you may want to start on your knees. Don’t laugh; I’m dead serious.
Once you can manage those, progress to full flyes, making sure to keep a slight bend in your elbows to protect the shoulders and keep the tension on your chest.
The video below shows all three variations in reverse order: full flyes, bent-arm flyes, and push-ups. Each of these exercises is great in its own right, so take your time and don’t rush the progression. Once you can knock out full flyes though, this makes for one hell of a mechanical drop-set.
If you don’t have access to rings, you can do something similar using Valslides or furniture sliders. These may be even harder due to the increased friction.
My runner-ups for chest are low incline dumbbell presses (both single and double arm) and weighted push-ups.
Let me preface this one by saying that I don’t do a whole lot of curls, and I have the results – or lack thereof – to show for it. Let’s just say that if I started selling tickets to the gun show, my water pistols would draw a smaller crowd than a WNBA game.
It’s not that I’m anti-curls by any means, it’s just that I have a borderline unhealthy obsession with chin-ups and find that when I try to add curls into the mix on top of all the chin-ups I do, my elbows quickly start to hate me.
That brings up an interesting point, though. Many people will tout chin-ups as the best biceps exercise going and tell you curls are a waste of time. To that I’d respectfully disagree. About two and a half years ago I ditched curls altogether and went on a steady diet consisting of approximately a shitload of chin-ups each week.
My lats grew a ton, as did my forearms, but my biceps stayed about the same size.
I’d even argue that if you’re feeling chin-ups a ton in your biceps, you probably aren’t doing them right. My goal is to feel them almost entirely in my upper back and lats – of course the biceps will be working, but I wouldn’t consider it to be a superior biceps exercise when done correctly.
Moral of the story: if you want big biceps, do curls. The majority of your workout should obviously be based around heavy compound movements (such as chin-ups, for example), but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with tacking on a few sets of curls afterwards.
What type of curls you choose is up to you. In my mind, they’re all basically the same. I like barbell curls, incline dumbbell curls, and hammer curls.
As mentioned, I’m not a huge fan of doing tons of direct arm work. It’s not that I’m opposed to it or think it’s detrimental by any means, I just don’t enjoy doing it very much so I look for any excuse I can to skip it. Just being honest.
With that in mind, I generally let all the heavy pressing I’m doing for chest and shoulders take care of the triceps as well, but if I’m looking to really smoke the triceps, my number one go-to exercise is bodyweight triceps extensions using suspension straps.
I like this exercise because it also serves as a great anti-extension core exercise, and since I’m also not a big fan of doing tons of core work either, it allows me to kill two birds with one stone.
If you don’t have suspension straps, it’s not the end of the world and you can get a similar training effect using a bar in a power rack or Smith machine. However, the straps add a nice dimension to the exercise if you’ve got them.
When using a bar, the range of motion is limited because you’re forced to bring your forehead to the bar, much like traditional skullcrushers. With the straps though, you can extend your arms out further away from your body, which increases the demand on the core while also enhancing the stretch on the long head of the triceps and taking stress off the elbows.
It also allows you to rotate your hands as you move through the rep, which I find feels better on the elbows and increases the contraction in the triceps.
Be sure to keep your body straight and avoid piking at the hips. While this is ostensibly a triceps exercise, from a core standpoint, it should feel similar to an ab wheel rollout.
This one also lends itself very well to burnout sets at the end of the workout. Start with the straps adjusted lower and step forward as you start to fatigue. You’ll probably be cursing my name after that.
My runner-ups for triceps are close-grip bench presses and chain bench presses.
I love the overhead press and think it’s the best exercise going for building big shoulders, but it can be tricky for folks with shoulder and/or lower back issues.
If the overhead press doesn’t bother you, definitely do that.
If it does, the staggered stance landmine press can be a great joint-friendly alternative since it allows you to press on an angle and use a neutral grip.
I also really like this band pullapart variation that I picked up from Joe Defranco. It’s much harder than it looks, so don’t knock it until you try it.
This one was a toss-up between Bulgarian split squats and front squats, but in the end, Bulgarian split squats get the nod.
I know this won’t sit well with some of you – and I myself would’ve considered it blasphemy a few years ago before I really tried them – but the more I do them and use them with my athletes, the more I’m convinced that it’s a better way to load the legs for most people.
We’re consistently seeing athletes do Bulgarian split squats with 70-90% of the loads they can front squat, and sometimes more. Here’s a video of a college hockey player doing Bulgarian split squats with 235 pounds for 5 reps like it’s an empty bar.
As a point of reference, he back squats 300 for 5. I think it’s clear the legs are getting more loading in the Bulgarian split squat.
Furthermore, with the front squat, the limiting factor is usually the upper back, whereas with Bulgarian split squats you’re able to hone in more directly on the legs. What’s more, since you aren’t loading the spine as heavily, it doesn’t take as long to recover, meaning you can do them more frequently, which could potentially lead to greater gains.
The big caveat is that you have to take the time up front to get good at Bulgarian split squats before they’re a viable size and strength builder, but that’s true of any exercise. Truth be told, most people get good at Bulgarian split squats much faster than they become good squatters.
If you have a good build for squatting and can squat well, it’s an absolutely phenomenal quad exercise, but if you aren’t built for it, well, you’ll always be fighting an uphill battle. It’s easier to target the quads in a Bulgarian split squat regardless of your anthropometry, making it a good choice when I have to choose one exercise to fit everyone.
I’m often asked if I think you could build absolutely massive quads using Bulgarian split squats; the kind of size you see from elite bodybuilders and Olympic lifters. I’m honestly not sure because I’ve never known anyone to do it, so at this point it’s mere conjecture.
My hunch though is that huge guys may not do as well with it – at least initially – because they tend to struggle more with balance and coordination, so the transition may take longer and it may not end up being the best choice. Again, I’m not sure though because I don’t know many huge guys that use them.
As for Olympic lifters, I think their massive legs are more a result of their loading parameters than their exercise selection. If they did Bulgarian split squats extremely heavy on a daily basis like they do their squats, I bet their legs would be just as big, if not bigger.
For the average-sized guy reading this article though, I think Bulgarian split squats are an awesome choice for building up the quads. Even if you think I’m completely off base, at least give them an honest try before calling for my head. I think you might be singing a different tune once you do.
My runner-ups are front squats and reverse sled drags.
While quads were my toughest choice, hamstrings may be my easiest. It’s hard to argue against RDLs.
The biggest drawback of RDLs is that they can be tough on the lower back. If that’s the case, try doing them with a trap bar, or if that’s not possible, from a dead stop in the power rack.
You can also try doing them for higher reps at the end of your workout so you don’t need as much weight, which even with lighter loads serves as one hell of a brutal finishing exercise.
I make no bones about it; glutes are my favorite body part. As such, I feel they warrant their own section.
You may feel the glutes get more than enough work from your quad and hamstring exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges, but I believe that if you aren’t doing specific glute exercises like bridges and hip thrusts, you’re leaving a lot on the table as far as glute development is concerned.
My personal favorite is single-leg barbell hip thrusts.
I like the single-leg version because even though the loads pale in comparison to what you can handle in the bilateral version, I feel an even bigger contraction in my glutes when I do them, all without feeling any stress in the lower back.
Moreover, because the loads are lighter, it’s more comfortable on the hips and you don’t have to bother with loading and unloading such a heavy bar.
The bodyweight-only version is a great exercise in its own right, so start there and add weight slowly as you improve.
My runner-up is the single-leg shoulder and foot elevated hip lift. It can be tricky to add weight to these, so if you’re looking for a way to make them tougher, try using “1.5” reps, like this:
If these two exercises don’t have your booty begging for mercy, I don’t know what to tell you.
I’ve never been able to crack the code to get my calves to grow much. I’ve tried a slew of different exercises and techniques, but to no avail.
I think the next thing I’ll try is getting some new parents.
(Don’t worry mom, I’m totally kidding.)
Seriously though, don’t go to a guy with puny calves for advice on how to get huge calves.
That rules me out.
And I’m Done
These are some of my favorites. Give some of them a try if you aren’t already and see how you like them.
I believe in rotating exercises from time to time though, so I’m always on the market for new choices to keep in the ol’ toolbox. So I now turn it over to you. What are some of your favorites?
by the World’s Most Dangerous Editors
Admit it. Calves are an afterthought in your program, aren’t they? Yeah, you just toss in some machine calf raises at the end of your training session and call it a day, right?
You know what? We’re not going to sit here trying to convince you that calves are worth training hard and training smart. You either want a complete physique or you don’t.
But we will say this: If you’re the guy doing nothing but three sets of ten on the standing calf machine at the ass-end of leg day when you’re already exhausted, then we don’t want to hear you bitch about “bad genetics.” Ever.
Sadly, that’s exactly how most people train calves. Even experienced lifters give up on their calf training, blame genetics, and barely hit them. It’s an easy trap to fall into because the calves are tough to hypertrophy, unless you picked the right parents.
It’s true, genetics do play a big role in calf development. “Calves are tricky,” notes Chad Waterbury. “If they’re small, no problem, they can get bigger. But if those calves have a very high insertion point (long tendon, short muscle belly) you’re relegated to building calves that will, at best, look like half a grapefruit on a Popsicle stick. There’s no way around it. But hey, that’s better than looking like a strawberry on a Popsicle stick!”
So yes, there’s a genetic “ceiling.” But you, in all likelihood, aren’t anywhere near yours, especially if you train calves as an afterthought. That’s why we’ve put together this collection of our favorite calf training exercises and routines. But first, let’s set some goals and have a quick review of “calfology.”
Calf Development and the “Perfect” Physique
Do your calves stack up? Let’s find out using bodybuilder Steve Reeves’s pre-drugged era physique guidelines for aesthetic-minded lifters.
According to Reeves, the neck, upper arm, and calf should be approximately the same measurement. Reeves, being 6’1″ and weighing 215 pounds, met these ideals by measuring 18 1/2 inches at the neck and 18 1/4 inches at the upper arms and calves.
Just for fun, take your measurements. How do you compare?
A quick review:
1) Without boring you to death by sounding like an anatomy textbook, the calves are composed of two main muscles: the soleus and the gastrocneimus, which has a lateral and medial head.
Your soleus is worked mainly when your knees are bent (seated calf raise) and your gastrocs are worked mostly when your knees are locked (standing calf raise.)
So as you can see, if you’ve only been doing one of those you’re essentially “missing” half your calf. No wonder they suck!
2) The soleus is mostly slow-twitch dominant, while the gastrocnemius is fast-twitch dominant. What that basically means is that you must primarily train your gastrocs with lower reps (3 to 6) and your soleus with higher reps (12 to 15). So, most of the time you’ll want to perform low reps for standing stuff and higher reps for seated stuff. Just a rule of thumb, but also remember that rules of thumb are broken all the time to shock things up.
3) Unless otherwise specified, you’ll want to come all the way up on the concentric or lifting portion of the exercise (visualize coming up on your big toes) and go all the way down on the eccentric or lowering portion of the movement.
For maximal benefits, take a good pause at the bottom when you’re in the stretched position. Waterbury explains: “Bodybuilders can benefit from dissipating the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) in order to recruit more motor units. Once the stored elastic energy has dissipated, the muscles must work harder to lift the load.
“Stubborn muscle groups such as calves are extremely efficient at storing potential energy during the reversal contraction phase. So, if you want to build bigger calves, you must force them to work harder and not ‘cheat’ with this stored energy. Therefore, hold a calf stretch for several seconds before performing a concentric contraction.”
In other words, no partial-range, bouncy bullshit!
Enough review. Let’s get to some routines that will — as Christian Thibaudeau says — put some cut in your strut!
#1: The Two-Minute Calf Raise
We’re not against the good ol’ standing calf raise machine; we just think most people overuse it or don’t use it in a way to maximize its benefits. So here’s a routine we learned from trainer and kinesiologist Tim Henriques that’ll put some bang back into the standing calf machine.
1. Select a weight that’s 50 to 75% lighter than what you’d normally use for a set of 15.
2. Perform a rep with a good squeeze at the top of the movement, then lower your heels all the way down until you’re in a fully stretched position. (Note: You’re still supporting the weight; it’ll be pushing the calves down hard.) Hold that position for 10 full seconds. Keep an eye on a clock if you have to.
3. Now do another rep, another 10 second stretch, and repeat for a total of 12 to 15 reps. If you time it right, this should be at least two minutes of constant tension.
4. Repeat twice more for three sets total.
5. Avoid taking the stairs for several days. (You’ve been warned.)
#2: Poliquin’s Quick & Dirty Calf Solution
Talk to trainers and bodybuilders about calves and you’ll the hear the word “stubborn” come up often. The calves just don’t seem to want to grow, even if you persuade them with standard resistance training.
That’s why many strength coaches employ “shock” techniques to force breakdown and subsequent muscle growth. Here’s one of those techniques from Charles Poliquin.
1. Start at the standing calf-raise machine. Perform eight reps with a two-second pause at the bottom of each rep.
2. Rest 10 seconds.
3. Load a barbell with about 25% of your body weight. Hold it in a squat position and, with minimal knee bend, jump up and down, bounding with the calves on each rep. Do this for 30 reps. “The eccentric damage caused by the landing will favor hypertrophy,” notes Poliquin.
4. Repeat the superset four more times.
“If that doesn’t make your calves grow, nothing will!” says Charles.
#3: DeFranco’s One-Minute Seated Calf Raise
For those who still like to train calves at the end of their workouts, Joe DeFranco has a tip: do seated calf raises for time.
“I do seated calf raises because my legs are so burned out at the end of my leg training that I can barely stand,” admits DeFranco.
Instead of counting reps, DeFranco concentrates on doing as many as he can with good form and a controlled eccentric (negative), moving continuously for a full minute. Perform at least two sets.
#4: The Infamous Luke Sauder Calf Routine
The story goes like this: Luke Sauder, the alpine skier, walked into training camp one day with a new pair of calves. They were huge. So huge that he had to rush to get a new pair of ski boots molded.
Turns out that Poliquin had designed Sauder a calf program to help him avoid injuries (big strong calves result in fewer knee injuries for elite skiers).
Bet you want that program, don’t ya, pencil-legs? Well here it is!
The Luke Sauder Calf Routine
This is a two-day routine, with 48 hours between sessions. In other words, you’re going to train calves twice in a five-day cycle. One session is very high volume, the other is heavy with a lower volume. But don’t you worry — they both hurt like hell.
Day 1: High-Volume
A1) Seated Calf Raises*
3 x 10-5-5 (one set of 10 reps, followed by two of 5 reps) at a 101 tempo (1 second to lower the weight, no pause, and 1 second to raise the weight)
A2) Donkey Calf Raises
3 x 30-50 at a 101 tempo
* After finishing a set of the A1 exercise, proceed immediately to exercise A2. Then rest two minutes before repeating the super set.
B1) Standing Calf Raises
10 x 10-30 at a 111 tempo, ten seconds**
** In other words, you’ll be doing one, long, extended set, resting ten seconds between each mini-set and lowering the weight in between.
“After day one, you’ll probably have to call the fire department to extinguish the fire in your calves,” says Poliquin (encouragingly?).
Day 2: Low-Volume (48 hours after Day 1)
A1) Triple Drop Standing Calf Raises
3 x 10-10-10 (in other words, three drop sets) at a 121 tempo,*** resting 90 seconds between sets.
*** The pause is taken in the bottom stretch position, and be sure to take the full two seconds.
“This routine provides freaky size increases,” Poliquin notes. “I’ve known people to gain in between 5/8ths of an inch to a full inch with this routine in as little as 30 days.”
#5: The Less-Gay Donkey Calf Raise
Arnold did it by piling multiple sweaty men onto his back. But he’s Arnold, and Arnold could get away with that shit. We prefer to do our donkey calf raise this way:
Strap on a loaded dipping belt and stand on a block, toes on the edge. Bend at the waist and do calf raises. You can perform them bilaterally or unilaterally. TC can perform them tri-laterally, the gifted bastard.
“The donkey calf raise places your gastrocnemius in a superior stretched position,” notes Poliquin. If you haven’t tried this one in a while, get ready for some intense soreness, regardless of how many standing and seated calf raises you’ve been doing!
#6: In Case of Emergency…
Stalled calf development is usually caused by weenie-boy training, bad genetics, or a combination of both. But let’s assume your genetics are fine, you’ve tried every calf training trick in the book, and still have stork calves. The answer could be Active Release Technique or ART.
Basically, one of the regrettable side effects of years and years of weight training is the build-up of adhesions in soft tissues. Tight fascia is also believed to restrict muscle growth, and some pro-bodybuilders have reported near-instant size gains after treating these issues with Active Release.
Waterbury adds, “I can’t count how many clients I’ve worked with who’ve benefited by fascial work. This is especially true with the calves.”
For the whole scoop on Active Release, check out our interview with its creator, Dr. Mike Leahy, HERE.
A Final Tip
As we surveyed our strength coaches and hypertrophy experts, we noticed a common programming theme. Due to the mule-stubborn nature of calves, most all recommend high frequency training, hitting calves hard 3 to 6 times per week.
If you choose the extreme end of that range, don’t forget to take a deloading/recovery week. “If you annihilate your calves, then every fourth week cut back to training them just once to allow supercompensation to occur,” notes Chad Waterbury, who has recommended calf training up to six times per week for those in desperate need.
Remember, give these exercises and routines a try before you blame mom and dad. “Sweat often cures bad genetics,” adds editor Chris Shugart.
Now go to it.
Models: Andrew Barker, Tim Smith
Location: Gold’s Gym, Abilene, Texas
Muscles of the Calf
Standing Calf Raise
Seated Calf Raise
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