The Best Way to Train Calves
Calf training is something that gives a lot of us fits! The really cool thing about calf training is that the best way to train the calves is not that complex. As it turns out, optimal calf training is actually pretty simple and after polling dozens of world class athletes with amazing calf development and after pouring over research to try and determine the best approach, all of my time and effort have boiled down to a few key factors and I will share those with you now.
Best Approach #1 – Prioritize calf training
Stop doing your calves as the afterthought every time you train them. The calves can be a stubborn muscle group for some people to build and they require great energy, time and focus. Training your ass off during your quad and hamstring training, then doing a few sets of calves at the end does not prioritize calf development the way it needs to be prioritized. If you struggle to develop quality calf musculature, stop everything and consider revamping your workout structure. As a general approach, if you want bigger, more muscular calves and you are trying to train them hard, train all other muscle groups with the calves, or after you train your calves, as you prioritize the calf development you want to see. On top of all of this, avoid long breaks between calf training workouts. If you are going more than four (4) days between calf workouts, that’s probably too long. As a rule, 3 days of rest is plenty for the calf muscles. And to wrap-up Best Approach #1 prioritize calf training by ensuring your calf workouts incorporate various angles that optimize the different muscles in the calf. Put plenty of standing, seated and single-leg calf training into your regular program and you’ll be off to a good start.
Best Approach #2 – Stop worrying about toe angles
Traditionally gym rats say “point your toes out if you want to hit the inner head of your calves and point your toes in if you want to hit the outer head.” There is a little bit of truth to this approach, but it’s not a completely formed concept. Sure, a slight inward toe/foot angle will shift the load to the outside of your calves to some degree and the opposite will happen if you angle your toes/feet outward slightly. But what is really happening isn’t in the angle of the toes/feet as much as it has to do with the part of your feet that you are placing the weight load upon. All that is happening when you point your toes inward is you are shifting all the weight onto the outside of the balls of your feet…which causes the outer calves to work a little bit harder. And, if you were to point your toes outward, you would be shifting the weight load toward the inside of the balls of your feet and consequently your inner calves would feel more of the stress. If you stand on the calf training platform with your feet straight ahead, the only angle you will ever need to maximize calf training is about 1 inch inward or outward depending on what you are wanting to do. And remember, the only reason for this is to make it easier to put enough load on the part of your foot that you need it on to target the calves as you want. This will be maximized if you practice a component of calf training that actually is important, and that is varying your stance width as you try to accurately target various areas of your calves. Not surprisingly, standing with your feet a bit closer together puts the weight load on the outside of the balls of your feet while standing with a slightly wider stance places much of the load on the inside of the balls of your feet. Try to think more about weight load placement on the balls of your feet and less about foot or toe angles. Where the load is placed on the balls of your feet is what matters most.
Best Approach #3 – Think “toe action” not “weight action”
Calf machines make training the calves much simpler, but they also set us up for a lot of compensation from other muscle groups. No matter how hard we try, the hip flexors, glutes and other muscle groups are going to try to assist the calves in getting the job done so this is what you need to think about as you train your calves in order to maximize their development.
Think only of the perceived action in your toes and nothing else.
If you think “up” when the weight goes up, you’ll compensate with bigger, stronger muscles to get the weight up. If you think “down” when the weight goes down, you’ll lose the strict level of control you need to keep your calves under tension. This is because our bodies were designed to make anything we decide to do as easy for us to accomplish as possible. So, your body loves to use many muscle groups to perform movements and resists us when we try to isolate a single muscle group. To help you find that near-isolation in your calves while minimizing compensation, focus only on the movement as it relates to your toes and you will maximize your calf training sets each and every time. Of course you train calves primarily using the balls of your feet, but for general reasons we tend to use the words toes to explain the area of the foot where the weight is centered.
So…next time you train your calves use these exact terms and say them to yourself mentally as you work through every rep:
- “lift the toes” – as you lower the weight
- “press down with the toes” – as you lift the weight up
This approach to performing each and every rep of calf training you do will ensure maximum control of the weight and maximum contraction of the various muscles of your calves as you train. Remember…think toe action, not weight action.
Best Approach #4 – Default to full range of motion
The calves are a very dynamic muscle group and are best trained through a full range of motion while using great control. So, ensuring that you get a very good stretch at the bottom of the movement followed by a very strong peak contraction at the top of the movement is paramount to attaining quality calf development. This full range of motion ensures that you are covering all of your bases when it comes to training your calves. Once you’ve developed a firm foundation of muscle you may opt to occasionally work with some partial reps or other methods, but as a rule and for optimal results, work your calves using a controlled full range of motion.
Best Approach #5 – Focus on ankle mobility
As a follow-up to Best Approach #4, you will not get a full range of motion in your calf training if your ankles lack quality mobility. In fact, I have found that in many cases this is the biggest reason so many hard training people fail to achieve quality calf development. Ankle mobility is of paramount importance to performing proper squats and dead lifts and it is absolutely essential to training your calves through a full range of motion. Tight fascia and tight muscles limit range of motion and muscular growth. In some cases, tight fascia in the calves literally squeeze your muscles, restricting their ability to grow Consequently, the ankles also become tight and immobile. Overcome all of this by ensuring you have quality ankle mobility practices built into your training program.
Some things your aid with ankle mobility:
- release the tightness in your feet with foot savers
- foam roll your calves each time you train legs
- stretch your calves during and after each workout
- read about the importance of mobility in your overall training program
Best Approach #6 – Lighten the load
Your calf muscles are pretty strong, but they aren’t all that strong if you are using the methods I’ve outlined above. Lighten the load and start over. Go back to square one and slow down, gain the ankle mobility to attain a full range of motion in the ankles, think about toe action as you train instead of the action of the weights and focus less on lifting heavy, and more on increasing lift quality. Lift quality is the most important aspect of all loaded training. To be clear, there is nothing that is more important than movement quality when you train, so get that into your psyche sooner than later and go reteach your body how to move as you work to attain the calf development you want to have.
Best Approach #7 – Vary rep tempo and time under tension
Calves respond to very slow rep tempos (speeds) and they respond to ballistic, or high rep speeds. The key is to incorporate a variety of rep tempos into your training. I typically advise people to stick with a tempo program for about 4 weeks before making small changes to the program. This allows your muscles the time they need to adapt to the stress the new rep tempo schedule is placing on them.
Likewise, the time your calves spend under load is of paramount importance. If you’re a big, heavy person and you go for a 30 minute walk, your calves just spent quite a long time under load and that’s a good thing. Calf muscles have great adaptability to the stresses we place upon them, this is how they’re designed. To take advantage of their unique design and to maximize muscularity gains in the calves, vary your time under tension periods in a similar manner as you do your tempos. Stick to a time under tension plan for about 4 weeks, then alter it slightly to place your calves under new kinds of stress. Remember, stress requires the body to either die or get better. This type of stress is not going to kill you so you’re good to go. Vary the stress placed on your calves by paying close attention to time spent under tension and you will see your calves adapting to the stresses placed on them like never before. Counting reps is pretty straightforward, but the tempo of those reps is what is most important. Set your rep tempos appropriately and then perform the assigned number of reps for each set of calf training and that will add up to the key component of training we call “time under tension.”
These seven (7) approaches are those that have been the most substantial themes throughout my research into calf development training. I hope you take a lot away from this article and I hope you’ll put this information to good use because it will work for you.
Best to you my friends!