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Well-developed, strong 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. The calf muscle actually 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 muscle 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. 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.
Feeling calf tightness? Try these strategies for a proper calf stretch.
Here are some of the best calf strengthening exercises to assign your personal training clients to build bigger, stronger calves. Select 2-3 calf exercises to add to their workout each week. For muscle growth, aim for a minimum of 6-12 reps for 4-5 sets twice a week.
Adjust exercise selections, rep ranges, and sets as needed to continue progressing. Weighed vests, kettlebells, dumbbells, or a weighted barbell on the shoulders are all excellent ways to add weight to the movement, depending on their ability.
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 each heel 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.
The seated calf raise places the resistance on the quadriceps, just above the knee in a seated position. A seated calf raise machine can typically be found in any gym.
Your client will add the appropriate weight and sit with the machine’s pads 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 a 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 the right and left sides of the body is the reason we love this calf exercise. Depending on the client's abilities, single leg calf raise 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.
While the farmer's carry is often thought of for building grip strength, it can also help with calf strength. Start out standing up straight holding dumbbells or kettlebells in each hand. Take small, quick steps forward for a certain distance or number of steps. For another challenge, try walking on tiptoes.
Every client's body, muscle fibers, muscle fiber recruitment, and starting point are different. It's important to customize their calf workouts 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 rep range, weight, speed, or frequency of training. Consider the following for your next calf training session:
Volume: Volume refers to the amount of work done during a workout, including the number of sets, reps, and exercises performed. Increasing the volume of your workouts can also help overload the muscles and promote muscle growth.
Tempo: Tempo refers to the speed at which exercises are performed. Slowing down the tempo of exercises can help increase the time under tension and overload the muscles, promoting muscle growth.
Range of motion: Increasing the range of motion during exercises can help overload the muscles and promote muscle growth. For example, performing a full range of motion during a squat can engage more muscle fibers and stimulate muscle growth.
Rest periods: The length of rest periods between sets can also impact muscle growth. Shortening rest periods can help increase the intensity of workouts and overload the muscles, promoting muscle growth.
Sleep plays an essential role in muscle repair and growth. It is important to encourage clients to get adequate sleep during training (1). Here are some ways sleep supports muscle growth:
Hormone regulation: During sleep, the body produces hormones such as growth hormone and testosterone that are essential for muscle growth and recovery. These hormones help repair damaged tissues, stimulate protein synthesis, and promote muscle growth.
Muscle recovery: Adequate sleep helps the body recover from the physical stress of exercise. During sleep, blood flow increases to the muscles, delivering oxygen and nutrients that help repair and rebuild muscle fibers.
Energy restoration: Sleep helps restore energy levels, which can help improve workout performance and increase the intensity of workouts. When energy levels are low, workouts may not be as effective, and muscle growth may be compromised.
Mental and emotional restoration: Sleep helps reduce stress and anxiety, which can also impact muscle growth. Stress can increase the production of cortisol, a hormone that can break down muscle tissue and inhibit muscle growth.
Protein synthesis: Sleep helps stimulate protein synthesis, which is essential for muscle growth. During sleep, the body breaks down protein and uses it to repair and rebuild muscle tissue.
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.
Visualization can be a powerful tool to enhance your overall workout performance and general fitness. Here are some ways that visualization can help during a workout:
Technique improvement: Visualization can help improve your exercise technique by allowing you to mentally rehearse the correct movements before actually performing them. This can help you perform exercises more effectively and safely.
Goal setting: Visualization can help you set and achieve specific fitness goals. By visualizing yourself achieving your desired outcome, you can increase your motivation and focus during your workout.
Mental preparation: Visualization can help you mentally prepare for your workout by reducing anxiety and increasing confidence. By imagining yourself performing exercises correctly and with ease, you can build your self-confidence and feel more prepared for your workout.
Focus and concentration: Visualization can help you stay focused and concentrate during your workout. By imagining yourself fully engaged in your workout and performing exercises with intention, you can reduce distractions and stay present in the moment.
Recovery and injury prevention: Visualization can also help with injury prevention and recovery. By visualizing yourself recovering from an injury or performing exercises safely and effectively, you can help strengthen your mind-body connection and reduce the risk of injury.
Here are a few plyometric exercises that can help build bigger calf muscles:
Box jumps: This exercise involves jumping onto and off a box or platform. It targets the calf muscles, as well as the glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
Jump squats: Jump squats involve jumping up from a squat position. They target your calf muscles, glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
Single-leg jumping: This exercise involves jumping on one leg at a time. It helps improve balance and stability while also working on your calf muscles.
Although both calf muscles work during plantar flexion, a bent knee helps activate the soleus. When the knee is straight, the gastrocnemius muscle is the primary muscle activated during calf exercises and the soleus is not as involved. However, when the knee is bent, the gastrocnemius muscle is partially relaxed, and the soleus muscle is able to contract more forcefully.
For example, performing seated calf raises with your knees bent can help isolate the soleus muscle and target it more effectively than if your knees were straight. Similarly, when performing calf raises on a leg press machine, bending your knees and positioning your feet lower on the platform can increase the activation of the soleus muscle.
It's important to note that while bending your knees during calf exercises can help activate the soleus muscle more effectively, it's still important to perform a variety of exercises that target both the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles for balanced lower leg development.
Proper nutrition is essential for muscle growth. For more information on nutrition for hypertrophy, check out ISSA's article on eating to gain muscle.
Here are some types of nutrition that support hypertrophy:
Protein: Protein is essential for building muscle. Consuming protein-rich foods such as lean meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and plant-based sources such as beans, lentils, and tofu, can provide the necessary building blocks for muscle growth.
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are a vital source of energy for high-intensity workouts. Eating complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can provide the necessary fuel for muscle growth.
Healthy fats: Healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats are essential for muscle recovery and overall health. Foods such as nuts, seeds, avocados, and fatty fish are great sources of healthy fats.
Water: Proper hydration is crucial for muscle growth and recovery. Drinking enough water throughout the day can help transport nutrients to the muscles and remove waste products from the body.
Micronutrients: Vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium are essential for bone health and muscle function. Consuming a balanced diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables can help provide these important micronutrients.
A balanced and varied diet is key to supporting hypertrophy. It's important to consume enough calories to support muscle growth, but not so many that you gain excess body fat. Consult with a registered dietitian or healthcare professional to create a nutrition plan that works for you.
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.
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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