Well-developed calves are one of the key components to a balanced lower body. However, the calves tend to be known as one of the more challenging muscle groups for many people to build and grow. Unless genetically blessed with developed calf muscles, most clients must work to build them.
But it doesn't have to be that complicated. As a personal trainer, if you understand anatomy, exercises that activate the calves, and how to take an individualized approach to each client's body and goals, you can help them create the definition and shape they desire in their lower legs.
The calf is located on the posterior (back) of the lower leg. It consists of two muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
The gastrocnemius is the bulkier portion of the calf and the larger of the two muscles. It has two origins that attach to the femur. The medial head originates on the medial condyle of the femur and lateral head originates on the lateral condyle of the femur. The insertion point is the posterior calcaneus via the Achilles tendon. The gastrocnemius plays a role in plantar flexion of the foot and knee flexion.
The soleus is the smaller of the two calf muscles and originates along the soleal line and the upper portion of the posterior portion of the fibula. Just like the gastrocnemius, it inserts at the posterior calcaneus via the Achilles tendon. It also plays a role in plantar flexion.
Along with several other leg muscles, the calf muscles play an important role in how an individual stands, walks, runs, and jumps, making them essential muscles for both daily living and performance-based activities.
Assign the following six exercises to your clients with or without added weight depending on their ability. Weighed vests, kettlebells, dumbbells, or a weighted barbell on the shoulders are all excellent ways to add weight to the movement.
One of the most basic moves for calf development is the standing calf raise. With hands at the side, toes pointed forward and a straight knee, your client will raise their heels off the ground while pushing through the balls of their feet. Ensure your client uses control throughout the movement with a slight pause at the top of the contraction.
These calf raises place the resistance on the quadriceps, just above the knee in a seated position. A seated calf machine can typically be found in any gym. Your client will add the appropriate weight and sit with the pads of the machine on top of their thighs. Feet should be shoulder-width apart with toes pointed forward. Heels should be hanging with the balls of the feet pressing into the foot platform on the machine. Your client will press the balls of their feet into the foot platform to slowly raise their heels, squeeze at the top, and then slowly lower back down.
The movement is very similar to the standing calf raises. However, a raised box or step platform allows for greater range of motion throughout the exercise. Your client will stand on the platform with the heels of both feet hanging off the edge of the platform. Toes point forward with feet shoulder-width apart. Pressing the balls of the foot into the platform, the client will slowly raise their heels, pause at the top, and slowly lower back down until the heels are slightly below the raised platform.
Jumping rope is an excellent exercise to challenge the calf muscles. Trainers can help clients select the proper jump rope size as well as the appropriate jumping surface. The jumps should be small and controlled with slightly bent knees to help prevent injury. Your client should jump and land on the balls of their feet for each repetition. Although a weighted vest is an option, consider using just body weight for plyometric movements.
The bent-knee calf raise is a good way to shift the focus from the gastrocnemius to the soleus. Your client will stand with their toes pointed forward and feet shoulder-width apart. They will slightly bend their knees so they are in a partial squat position. While pressing the balls of the feet into the floor, they will slowly raise their heels as high as possible, pause at the top, and slowly lower back down. The knees should remain bent throughout the entire movement.
Building balance on both right and left side of the body is the reason we love this exercise. Depending on the client's abilities, this exercise can be done with or without weight, on a flat surface or an elevated platform, and even on the calf raise machine. The idea is to complete the movement properly with one calf so that the opposite leg doesn't take over for any part of the movement.
Every client's body, muscle fibers, muscle fiber recruitment, and starting point are different. It's important to customize their workout using some of the basic concepts for muscle growth.
For muscle growth to occur, you must overload the muscles in some way. Because most people use their calf muscles throughout most of the day, the muscles may require some additional focus to overload them to the point of damage for growth purposes. This can mean increasing the reps, weight, speed, or frequency of training.
Sleep plays an essential role in muscle repair and growth. It is important to encourage clients to get adequate sleep during training (1).
The mind-muscle connection can be an important component for any lifter. Quality form while visualizing the muscle contraction can help support increased muscle activation (2) (3). Unless an individual is completing explosive plyometric exercises, the movements should be slow and controlled with a pause/squeeze at the top of the movement.
Explosive movements are another way to challenge the muscle. Studies have shown that plyometric training can have a positive impact on muscle hypertrophy (4) (5).
Although both calf muscles are working during plantar flexion, a bent knee helps activate the soleus. The gastrocnemius is where the bulk of the size of the calf is but the soleus shouldn't be ignored.
Proper nutrition is essential for muscle growth. For more information on nutrition for hypertrophy check out ISSA's article on eating to gain muscle.
Although the calves can be a stubborn muscle, a little patience, individualization, and the right exercises will help you coach your clients to the lower legs they desire.
Interested in learning more about helping your clients build muscle mass? Take your knowledge to the next level—check out ISSA's Body Building Specialist Course.
Sleep and muscles: Chen Y, Cui Y, Chen S, Wu Z. Relationship between sleep and muscle strength among Chinese university students: a cross-sectional study. J Musculoskelet Neuronal Interact. 2017;17(4):327-333.
Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M.D. et al. Mind-muscle connection training principle: influence of muscle strength and training experience during a pushing movement. Eur J Appl Physiol 117, 1445-1452 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-017-3637-6
Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M.D. et al. Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. Eur J Appl Physiol 116, 527-533 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-015-3305-7
Vissing, K., Brink, M., Lønbro, S. et al. Muscle Adaptations to Plyometric vs. Resistance Training in Untrained Young Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: November 2008 - Volume 22 - Issue 6 - p 1799-1810
Kirkpatrick, J. and Russo, A., Plyometrics, Resistance Training and Hypertrophy. Temple University Sep 07, 2017. https://renaissanceperiodization.com/expert-advice/plyometrics-resistance-training-hypertrophy
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