Calves Like Diamonds: How to Bring Up Lagging Calves
Let’s face it. Your calves suck and you’re looking for a solution to fix those nagging, lagging calves of yours.
Welcome to your cure.
Step out anywhere, and it’s a widespread sight to see a guy with an impressive physique but lackluster calves. Equally common are women with excellent thighs and glutes but unfortunate needly calf development propping her up like a T-Rex – especially when she whips out the sleek stilletos.
The calves are a cornerstone of an aesthetic physique (as I laid out in my book, Architect of Aesthetics) and anchor the lower body to provide visual balance across the frame through space.
Yet lamentably, the calves are the Achilles heel (pun entirely intended) of many a fine physique…
So how do you bring up those lagging calves?
You’re in the right place. Let’s break this down and turn your lagging calves around.
Lagging Calves: Why?
First off, the obvious.
“Why are my calves lagging?”
When it comes to lagging calves, these are main culprits:
- Genetic Factors
- Subpar Exercise Programming
- Ineffective Technique
- Poor prioritization
- Pitiful Volume/Frequency
In this article, I’ll be addressing these all, building you from the ground up to teach you all about the calves, and showing you what you can do about it to add that extra flair to your physique.
Reason #1: Calf Genetics
It’s gym time, and as you walk on over to the weight room to give your lagging calves some tough love, you see a feeble racquetball warrior pass you by who’s rocking better calves than you despite doing absolutely zero formal weight training for them.
What the hell?
Alas, life isn’t fair, so suck it up and read the rest of the article. However, it is exceedingly evident that there is a tremendous amount of genetic play when it comes to getting rockstar calves.
This can be attributed to 3 main factors:
- Muscle receptivity
- Muscle shape/insertion
Getting fat as all hell is also an effective method for getting thick calves (go to the mall for 5 minutes and you’ll see what I’m talking about), but I’m going to safely assume you actually want to look good everywhere else and have the ability to see those great calves when standing up and looking down, so let’s snatch that option off the table right off the bat.
Let’s now look at those 3 main factors:
Muscle receptivity refers to how a certain muscle responds to a given protocol of training, and this varies from person to person and muscle to muscle.
For example, this 2004 study found that the soleus muscle (the long muscle of the calves that runs beneath the gastrocnemius) had a muscle protein synthetic response that was outright laughable – even after a relatively high volume of 12 sets of calf raises! In fact, the average fractional synthetic rate of the vastus lateralis (the outer quad) is 200% higher than that of the soleus found in this study.
In line with other research, the lower body already appears to respond less than the upper body in terms of muscle growth, so this further demonstrates the calves relative “stubborness” compared to the bulging biceps, for example.
Now, that was one study was for the soleus but it raises several important questions:
Does this apply to the gastrocs as well?
How much does this apply across the board of individuals given the small sample size of only eight males in the study?
Judging by what we see in the real world, there’s much to be said about individual responses, but when it comes to lagging calves, I think there’s two bigger things at play here:
A rookie mistake when reviewing an aesthetic physique is to assume that all bodies are created equally and thus have the same potential for achieving the maximally aesthetic work of art.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Just as the spirals of DNA determine your responsiveness to training, they also code for your anatomical architecture.
For example, calves that insert high make it exceedingly difficult to develop that wide, sweeping set of calves that adds thickness to the lower leg.
Observationally as far as general trends are concerned, black individuals tend to have higher calves, asians tend to have wider calves, and caucasians tend to be somewhere in the middle.
This also interplays with the genetic receptivity aspect as well. Some of the biggest, non-fat calves I’ve ever seen in my life have been from Asians who don’t even lift.
And because aesthetics are all about proportion, ankle and knee circumference will also have an effect on the visual impact your calves make towards your physique.
Your genetic make-up will impact your muscle shapes and insertions, but outside of the visual effect that this has on an aesthetic physique, it also extends its reach to other factors influencing biomechanics.
The calves are arguably the most heavily utilized major skeletal muscles of the body, and to top it all off, they’re tasked with moving your entire bodyweight to the tune of 2500-5000
steps reps per day.
When it comes to getting you from point A to point B:
- Muscular architecture
- Limb length
- Foot dimensions
- and motor patterns
…all play a role, and as with most things, the body is designed to carry this out with world-class efficiency. Imagine if it wasn’t.
For practicality’s sake, we don’t dive too deeply in this discussion, as it won’t influence the training prescription I dish out in the rest of the article.
If you’re curious, test out different speeds and gait patterns of walking in your day to day life. You’ll notice readily how small alterations impact the ‘feel’ in your calves, but I wouldn’t waste much time manipulating this to increase growth for efficiency purposes.
We have the gym for that.
Kill me now
Slow down, toothpick legs.
Calves without a doubt have a huge genetic component, but that doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to a lifetime of subpar calves hiding in the darkness under the cloth of long pants and dresses that will never see the light of day.
In fact, for males, a properly proportioned set of calves will get to around the same size as your upper arm.
You’ve just got to train them the right way.
Let’s look at how, starting with calf anatomy and proper exercise selection/execution.
Reason #2: Misunderstanding of Anatomy & Exercise Selection
Next in line, most people simply don’t appreciate the function of the calves & how to utilize exercises properly to hammer them effectively.
We’ll fix that.
A quick lesson on the anatomy of the calves:
The calves are the group of muscles of the lower leg comprised of two muscle groups whose main function is plantarflexion (increasing the angle between your foot and leg – “getting up on your tippy toes”). These muscles are the:
Collectively, they are known as the triceps surae, and while there are several muscles in the lower limbs (more than you ever thought), these are the ones that’ll turn your lagging calves into a pair of diamonds.
Understanding the anatomy and function of these muscles will help you understand how best to train them:
The gastrocnemius (gastroc) is the large, bulbous ‘ball’ part of your calf. When you think of great calves, it’s largely because of this guy.
The gastronemius is a biarticular muscle, meaning that it crosses two joints. Indeed, the girthy gastrocs assist in both plantarflexion (tippy toes) and to a small extent, knee flexion (heel to glutes).
Remember this – it’ll be important later.
The soleus, on the other hand, is a bit different from it’s flashy sibling, the gastrocnemius. The soleus is uniarticular (crosses only one joint) and does not cross the knee. It is a long, sheathy muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius. Despite this fact, it does contribute to a pair of great calves and cannot be neglected.
The soleus is also heavily endurance oriented and as such, is often stubborn to training. In fact, it has a muscle fiber composition that is heavily skewed towards type I (slow-twitch) fibers. Most muscles of the human body have a fairly even split between type I and type II fibers (like the gastrocnemius), but the soleus is notoriously slow twitch with a proportion of 80+% type I fibers on average.
This simply makes sense from a structural/functional point of view.
How many reps a day do you do with your calves every day assuming 5,000-10,000 steps per day moving your bodyweight?
That’s a lot of volume. And you expect them to grow with 2-3 pumpy sets after a hard leg day?
Good luck with that.
Exercises for Calves
So then. What exercises do we have to target those lagging calves of yours?
Based on the basic calf anatomy and function we’ve just discussed, you should be doing two types of exercises for them:
- Straight leg calf-raise movement
- Bent-knee calf-raise movement
Yes, it really can be that simple. Plantarflexion. Up and down.
But the devil is in the details.
Let’s look at each and how they will be used to work on bringing up your calves.
Straight Leg Calf Raise
As discussed over calf anatomy, the gastrocnemius crosses two joints, so not only does it put you on your tippy toes, but it also helps the hamstrings out in bringing the heel backwards.
When the knees are straight, the gastric will be stretched at the knee, and it is going to be able to generate more force at the ankle. Therefore, the straight leg calf raise movement is there to let the gastrocs do the work & shine. You can really push some serious weight here and get excellent stimulation of your calves.
There are several ways to do this:
- Standing straight leg calf machine
- Seated straight leg calf machine
- Leg press machine
As a general rule, I tend to prefer closed chain movements for the calves. This means that you are moving, not the weight (such as in a lateral raise, for example.) The calves simply don’t ordinarily biomechanically operate in an open chain fashion, and you’ll find better contractions and stimulation by using closed chain variations.
Rep Ranges and Variations
For straight leg calf raises, stay on the lower end of the rep spectrum. 5-10 reps tend to work best with straight leg calf raises under proper form.
You can certainly bump that higher here or there (15-20) for variety on occasion depending on your programming, but I wouldn’t make it my first choice by a long shot.
The gastrocs are a powerful muscle & your best results will come from utilizing their full potential.
Bent-Knee Calf Raise
As just stated, the gastrocnemius crosses the knee joint and assists in knee flexion (think of a leg curl).
Because of this, it enters what’s known as active insufficiency when the knee is bent and can’t exert force optimally, so its little brother, the soleus has to pick up the slack.
That’s where a bent-knee calf raise variation comes in.
By performing bent-knee calf raises, you’ll be giving the spotlight to the soleus which will allow you to give it proper attention without its big brother stealing the show.
Most gyms worth their salt have a bent-knee calf raise machine, but if it doesn’t, you can use a barbell with a pad underneath to spare your thighs to mimic the movement.
Try it yourself: Point your toes with both your leg straight and bent. Where do you feel it? Where do you see the contraction? You’ll notice that the gastrocnemius still has a bunch of ‘slack’ in it when you bend your knees.
Rep Ranges and Variations
As I also stated earlier, the soleus is heavily slow-twitch dominant. If it wasn’t, you’d hate your life and crawl everywhere.
Because of this fibrous factoid, typically it’s going to do best with high reps and higher volumes for the majority of the work.
For these, I like to see 12-15 reps up to 20 reps+ with clean, solid form (see below). Slight shorter rest times (60-90 secs) may be beneficial here as well.
Reason #3: Poor Calf Exercise Technique
The exercises for calves aren’t surprising. You’re probably doing those already. Any monkey can figure that out.
But are you doing them the right way?
Look at any pitiful plantarflexing plebian working out their calves at the gym, and you’ll get a migraine from all the damn bouncing going on.
They might even have that machine loaded up to the sky like the Tower of Babbel with stacks galore of weight plates.
“Damn,” you think. “He’s doing all that weight and his calves aren’t even that great. I really have to load up the calf machine and pump out hella reps, too!”
You see, the Achilles tendon – the tendon that connects the calves – is extremely efficient at transferring elastic energy, so Mr. and Mrs. Bounce are wasting their time.
Named after the glorified Greek warrior from the Iliad, Achilles may be gifted with the spear, but if spear-headed calves are what you’re after, you’ll be wise to limit its assistance with the lift.
To get around this elastic effort minimizer, you must ensure that you have a controlled eccentric (the negative or descent portion of the lift) and incorporate a slight pause at the bottom of the movement to allow that momentum and elastic energy to dissipate.
You don’t need to camp out at the bottom like a hipster waiting for the next iPhone release, but go all the way down until you feel a nice stretch on your calves and make a clear STOP like the cops are scoping out the stop sign intersection.
That’ll ensure your calves are doing the work – not it’s workaholic warrior, Achilles.
Maximal stimulation of your muscles for optimal hypertrophy is going to come from taking a multiplanar, multi angled approach.
There is evidence suggesting that switching up your foot positioning by altering the angle of your foot when performing calf raises can preferentially target different heads of the gastrocnemius.
Therefore, if your lagging calves are leaning to one side, turn your feet slightly inside or out to give a little more focus to one side or the other. This should be done through hip internal/external rotation primarily, as the ankles do not have that ROM ability.
- With your feet turned inwards (pigeon toed), you’ll be activating more of the lateral (outer) head of the gastrocnemius
- With your feet turned outwards (duck toed), you’ll be activating more of the medial (inner) head of the gastrocnemius
Additionally, if you find your calves lagging in one side alone, start performing your calf raises unilaterally, or one leg at a time. This will ensure you get proportional development by forcing each side to work independently.
Before wrapping up our section on technique for bringing up your lagging calves development, it’s worth mentioning footwear.
In order for you to execute the movements properly, you’ll walk a flat, flexible shoe that enables you to get full range of motion throughout the movement. High tops are a no-no, and so are stiff soled shoes that don’t enable you to arch your foot properly.
Performing them with socks only can be another viable option if it doesn’t interfere with your traction on the step of the calf raise machine.
Reason #4: Not Prioritizing Properly
Technique is certainly a huge reason why people have lagging calves, but perhaps a bigger contributor to lagging calves is this:
I’m not here to pull up a chair and give you a daddy lecture, but you need to get your priorities in order. Think for a moment about where most people perform their calf work in the context of their training program:
At the end of a leg workout tucked into the corner like a red-headed problem child in timeout.
Now think for a moment about how much effort and energy is given to them:
Enough to say “I did it” so you can kangaroo hop on home to whine on social media about how calves are “all genetics”.
That’s not gonna cut it.
You’ve got to start viewing your calves as your precious little babies who get priority attention.
If you want diamonds, you need to start viewing them as such.*
Therefore, if calves are your goal, you need to give them PRIORITY. How? Got you.
*take this gem (pun intended) of wisdom to heart and apply it across your entire life.
Option #1: Put them first in your workouts
The muscle group you train first is going to tend to progress the best, all else equal. You’re fresh, energetic, and can give the exercise your full focus and intensity.
How often do you see someone do calves first? Well, you’re about to.
Stop leaving calves for the end of the workout when you’re already drained, and instead move them forward in the waiting line – first, if and where practical and not a limiter for the following exercises.
Option #2: Give Calves Their Own Day
“Madness!” you say. But hey,
Common ideas lead to common results.
If you find that putting your lagging calves first interferes too much with the proper execution of your other exercises (on leg day), give calves their own day at least 1x/week.
No more tacking them on out of pity.
Give your calves proper attention just as you would the other muscles of your physique. Second-class treatment is a surefire way to be headed towards a second class physique.
Aesthetics are all about balance and proportion. Leave no zone neglected.
If practical, you can perform your calf training in a morning or evening session separated from your other training.
You can also see benefits from supersetting calves with another muscle group where the two exercises won’t interfere with each other. Arms and calves, for example. Not all gyms or gym times make this feasible, but if you can swing it, it’s an easy way to get your calf training in without wrecking your schedule.
Reason #5: Poor Training Frequency & Volume
Besides and even with the 4 above points, most people simply aren’t hitting their calves enough – both in terms of frequency and volume. We’ll touch on both:
Training Frequency for Lagging Calves
Training frequency is another one of those topics of debate, but it’s pretty clear by now in the scientific literature that if you want to make the best gains, you’ve got to hit a muscle group more than 1x/week.
There is also evidence suggesting the more advanced a muscle gets, the more frequently it can be hit (while factoring in total volume).
This is especially true for the calves which are smaller, recover quickly, and are already relatively ‘trained’ from walking.
If you’re only hitting calves 1x/week, you only have yourself to blame for lagging calves.
Bump that up to at least 2x/week with sufficient intensity.
In practice, the best results are going to come from hitting them 3-4x/week.
Training Volume for Lagging Calves
Now what about the training volume you’re performing for your calves?
Volume is the #1 determinant of growth, and the benefit you get from that volume follows a modified inverted U curve where the more you do, the better – so long as you’re not overdoing it.
See the chart below for a graphical representation:
As I’ve stated, research already shows differences between muscle groups with regards to volume, and research, practical, and personal experience all collide to suggest that the calves are going to require more than other body parts to get an optimal growth response.
If you’re only 2 or 3 sets for calves because “they’re small” or just to get it over with, you’re only shooting yourself in the foot (pun intended) with regards to your lagging calves.
So where should you set your calf training volume? In my experience:
- 12 sets/week should be the practical minimum
- 18-24 sets per week on average tends to yield the best results for most people
You can also periodize your volume to ramp it up over the course of your training cycle before deloading. That’s a post for another day.
Now I’ll show you how to about scheduling that in a simple, effective way:
Practical Calf Building Routine
We’ve gone over quite a bit so far as to why your calves are lagging and the elements that you’re going to use to fix that. So now let’s wrap all of that together & give you a routine to crank up your calf development.
With these protocols, start off with the generic routine on the low end of the volume requirements and only increase the sets and progress into the advanced routine after you’ve given it time and see how you respond.
As always, ensure that you are performing it with proper form like we’ve discussed and are focusing on progression.
Generic Calf Building Routine
The following should be done 2x/week:
- Straight Leg Calf Raises: 3-5 sets x 5-8 repetitions
- Bent-knee Calf Raises: 3-5 sets x 12-20 repetitions
Start at 3 and increase as needed. Remember that volume follows a dose-response relationship.
Advanced Calf Building Routine
If you’ve given it some time (2-3 months) and can handle more volume & frequency, consider moving into this setup. Here, there is a lighter day for extra volume without the additional wear and tear.
If your calves are particularly stubborn or you are ramping up volume as part of your periodization approach, you may add a 4th day by repeating what you did on day 2.
If necessary, blood flow restriction training can be a good viable option to get extra stimulation with even lighter weights and less muscle damage on this day.
- Straight Leg Calf Raises: 3-5 sets x 5-8 repetitions
- Bent-knee Calf Raises: 3-5 sets x 12-15 repetitions
- Straight Leg Calf Raises: 3-5 sets x 12-15 repetitions
- Bent-knee Calf Raises: 3-5 sets x 20-30 repetitions
Lagging Calves: Conclusion
And there you have it. Why your calves suck & what to do about it.
- Calves are famously stubborn & a “lagging body part”. This is due to several reasons, including receptivity, muscle shape, & biomechanics.
- Major calf muscles are the gastrocnemius & soleus. Straight legs calf raises target the gastrocs more, and bent knee calf raises target the soleus more.
- The gastrocnemius may do better in more traditional rep ranges whereas the soleus may benefit from higher rep ranges
- Ensure a full stretch at the bottom of the calf raise and pause for a small count to let the elastic energy of the Achilles tendon dissipate so that your muscles are performing the work
- Prioritize your calves by hitting them first or on their own day
- Hit calves at least 2x/week moving up to as high as 3 or 4x/week if needed. Varying rep ranges may be beneficial here.
Put these principles into play, work hard, be patient, and soon those lagging calves will be a thing of the past.
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