Building Better Calf Muscles: How the Calf Works and How to Work It
Take a gander at the muscles on the back of your lower leg. Which category applies to you: Are they short and bulky? Long and bulky? Average size? Long and thin? Short and thin? Whatever type of calves you possess, you can alter them, but if they’re short or thin it’s doubtful they’ll ever become bodybuilder-massive. Either you have them or not. If you don’t have them it’s going to take hard and smart work. (Thank you, heredity.)
Most trainees’ quest for well-developed calves zeroes in on heel raises and toe presses. That makes sense because the bulk of your lower leg muscles lie in the gastrocnemius and soleus, two muscles targeted in those exercises. But in addition to these more prominent backside calves, there are other muscles that govern ankle joint movement. They are often neglected because they are obscure. To minimize ankle issues and fortify the lower leg, it is prudent to address these muscles. I know this article is all about developing the backside, but it is important to understand how the lower leg and ankle function to assure you have balanced development.
Note the four different movements that occur at your foot:
- You can rise up on your toes.
- You can pull your toes toward the knees.
- You can rotate the bottom of your foot inward.
- You can attempt to rotate the foot outward.
What are the muscles responsible for each of these four movements?
- Rising up on your toes is called plantarflexion. This involves the gastrocnemius, soleus, plantaris, and tibialis posterior.
- Pulling your toes toward your knees is called dorsiflexion. This involves the tibialis anterior, extensor hallicus longus, extensor gigitorum longus, and peroneus teritus.
- Rotating the bottom of your foot inward is called inversion. This involves the gastrocnemius, soleus, tibialis anterior, tibialis posterior, and plantaris.
- Rotating the bottom of your foot outward is called eversion. This involves the peroneus longus, peroneus brevis, and peroneus tertius.
A lot of funky names, I know. But in your program for optimal calf development via plantar-flexing exercises, don’t neglect the other ankle actions. Similar to other joints of the body, if you perform a pushing exercise, then an opposite pulling movement should be incorporated to emphasize joint stability. The ankle is no different. If you work the backside, work the front side. If you work the inside, work the outside.
To maximally develop your calves and concurrently fortify the ankle to protect against injury, examine the four movements and associated muscles that are most applicable to this goal. The two main plantar-flexors, the gastrocnemius and soleus, are the primary target for bulk. The main dorsiflexor, the tibialis anterior, and the main everter, the peroneus longus, need attention for balanced strength and to augment the injury-prevention factor. Understand the gastrocnemius and soleus are also ankle inverters. They will also assist in joint stability.
Before we move further into this discussion, here is a bit more education relative to the origin and insertion points of these muscles to show the intricacies of the entire lower-leg muscular system.
- Origin - lateral and medial condyles of the femur (thigh) bone.
- Insertion - Calcaneus (Achilles) tendon at the ankle.
- Origin - The head and upper third on the shaft and middle third border of the tibia.
- Insertion - Like the gastrocnemius, the calcaneus tendon at the ankle.
- Origin - Lateral condyle of the tibia and proximal 2/3 point of the tibia.
- Insertion - First metatarsal of the foot.
- Origin - The head and proximal 2/3 surface of the fibula.
- Insertion - Lateral margin of the plantar surface of the first cuneiform and bas of the first metatarsal.
Okay, onward we go in the pursuit of those elusive, well-developed calves.
The gastrocnemius and soleus naturally take up the most space in the lower leg. To grow larger calves, you need to work the crap out of them, especially if you are genetically challenged down there. These are the ankle plantar-flexing and inverting exercises you can employ to accomplish this:
- Standing calf machine heel raise (gastrocnemius and soleus)
- Standing dumbbell or barbell heel raise (gastrocnemius and soleus)
- Toe press on a leg press with the knees extended (gastrocnemius and soleus)
- Seated calf machine (soleus)
- Toe press on a leg press with the knees flexed (soleus)
The tibialis anterior is that crucial front side muscle that provides joint balance, due to the fact most people beat their gastrocnemius and soleus to death like a rental car. Please return the favor to the tibialis anterior with these ankle exercises:
- The D.A.R.D. device
- Band or manual resistance dorsi-flexion of the ankle
The peroneus longus can be trained in its role in ankle eversion. It is a very short range of motion muscle. This training can be accomplished optimally with a resistance band, as depicted here.
Now you now know the exercises for optimal calf and lower leg development. What are the most effective exercise prescriptions to follow? Regarding muscle fiber type composition, heed these averages:
- Gastrocnemius, medial head = comprised of 51% slow and 49% fast fibers
- Gastrocnemius, lateral head = comprised of 46.5% slow and 53.5% fast fibers
- Soleus = comprised of 89% slow and 11% fast fibers
- Tibialis anterior = comprised of 73.4% slow and 26.6% fast fibers
- Peroneus longus = comprised of 62.5% slow and 37.5% fast fibers
Based on this data, use these repetition guidelines for the listed exercises:
- Standing calf machine, dumbbell, and barbell heel raise, and toe press on a leg press with the knees extended to target the gastrocnemius and soleus - use a repetition range of 15 to 25.
- Seated calf machine and toe press on a leg press with the knees flexed to target the soleus only - use a repetition range of 50 to 75.
- The D.A.R.D. device, band, or manual resistance dorsi-flexion of the ankle - use a repetition range of 25 to 50.
- Peroneus Longus resistance band exercises - use a repetition range of 20 to 40.
Exercise Proper Form
All ankle movements have relatively short ranges of motion. Unlike other joints of the body that allow movement over many inches, you're moving a minimal distance at the ankle, especially with inversion and eversion. Because of this, take each repetition performed to its extreme (but safe) point of the range of motion - a safe stretch at one end and a hard static contraction at the other.
To maximize your calf muscle size, work each lower leg muscle as hard as you possibly can in the four basic ranges of motion: ankle plantar-flexion (the largest muscles of the lower leg), dorsi-flexion, inversion, and eversion knowing that each has a limited range of motion.
Photo 2 courtesy of Shutterstock.