Build killer calves

Mark Coles is a physique coach and owner of M10, a private personal training and performance gym based in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire.

Calves must almost certainly top of the list of the muscle groups trained the least frequently by most people, if they bother to train them at all. They are also the body part which everyone says won’t grow no matter what they do. In my experience if someone complains that a muscle or muscle group refuses to grow or is slow to respond, the chances are they aren’t doing everything right.

Everyone can develop a good set of calves to be proud of, but we are all different so it may require a little bit of trial and error to discover what works best for you. As always, the more information you have at your disposal. the better your chances of success.

Tension comes first
Walk into a gym and watch someone training their calves – that’s if you can find anyone – and the one thing you’ll notice is that they’ve usually got a stack of weight on that they are bouncing up and down.
It’s because people think that the more you lift with calves the better they’ll grow. This means that it’s very rare to see people lifting the load in a controlled fashion with appropriate tension loaded on the muscle, which as you know is one of the key pillars of achieving hypertrophy. The person who thinks they can train their calves without any thought, control or tension is the person who’s never seen calf growth.

Exploit all rep ranges
The first thing you need to know about calf training is that you’re up and on your feet all day every day, so your calves are used to handling quite a bit of work. This means you need to work your calves in a variety of ways to stimulate growth.

The second point is that all rep ranges need to be deployed – it’s no good sticking to eight to ten reps per set and expecting to see results. Why? Because you calves comprise two muscles, the gastrocnemius and the soleus, and they need to be trained differently to achieve a balanced result.

Unlike most muscle groups, for which there are many different exercises that you can use to hit the target muscle from multiple angles, the same isn’t true for calves. You’re limited to the standing calf raise, seated calf raise, donkey calf raise and leg press calf raise. That’s about it. With this amount of limited movements, the real trick lies in the planning of the reps, sets and tempos that you use.

Up the frequency
There are very few people who can get away with either never training their calves or training them only once per week. Most of us need to train calves about three times a week to make any real progress. But that doesn’t mean three full calf sessions, but instead splitting the total workout volume across three workouts. You could do standing calf raises on Monday, seated calf raises on Wednesday, and then donkey calf raises on Fridays.

The point I’m making is that training frequency is key for developing your calves. Using this format, you can then manipulate the rep ranges. Mondays you would go heavy (eight to ten reps per set), Wednesday medium reps (12 to 15), and then Friday I would target upwards of 20 reps per set.

The following week I would suggest switching the rep ranges around so Monday is the lighter weight, higher rep day, Wednesday you do eight to 10 reps per set, and Friday are sets of 12 to 15 reps. Change it around again in week three and you ensure you are testing all parts of the calves group with different weights and reps to coax out growth.

Manipulate tempo
The other big problem is that almost everyone performs calf reps way too quickly. With each of the rep ranges I’ve listed above, I also manipulate the tempo. For optimal development, you must respect the full range of movement through each exercise. There is a stretch component and there is a peak contraction component. For one of the rep ranges I might overload and pause in the stretch position, for other rep ranges I might pause in the peak contracted position.

Often people fail to reach the peak contraction position, so I often work this portion first (it’s also where people are at their weakest). You could start with a lighter weight, which will allow you to get right up onto your toes. Once you can’t do that anymore, you could then focus on the lower portion of the exercise (or the stretch position). Calves don’t take long to recover between sets, I often give no more than 45 to 60 seconds of rest in between sets. Don’t ever leave a calf workout unless you’ve done a minimum of 100 reps, and hopefully you’ll do more.

Give it time
Just like any other body part, calves take time to develop. I wasn’t blessed with the biggest of calves, but I didn’t let that stand in my way. I use many variations for training my calves, and I always hit them at least three times a week as detailed above. They will take longer than most body parts to respond, but don’t give up. I’m yet to work with someone who hasn’t seen growth from using my methods. Don’t be that guy who has skinny calves and a big upper body.