How to Get Bigger Calves

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Diamonds that are offered by the best jewelers are developed by millions of pounds of pressure and by a good deal of time. While the calf muscles have the potential to look like huge diamonds, it sometimes feels like great calf development takes a couple of millennium to develop. If your lower leg diamonds are a bit flat, you can build some nice peaks with standing barbell calf raises. This basic barbell exercise is not fancy, and it does not require any special machines, but it will selectively add muscle mass and greatly enhance the appearance and shape of your legs. In addition to looking great, well-developed calf muscles will help you jump higher or run a bit faster for all your activities.

Calf Structure and Function

The gastrocnemius muscle forms most of the diamond-like shape. The upper and middle regions of the medial gastrocnemius form the medial part of the diamond just below the knee. The lateral gastrocnemius forms the outer part of the diamond. The soleus muscle sits just below the gastrocnemius muscle and it is the final component to this diamond. The medial and lateral heads of the gastrocnemius muscle fuse together at a common attachment and attach to the heel bone (calcaneus) via a thick tendon (Achilles tendon).

The soleus muscle fibers create the lowest part of the calf diamond. Training the soleus muscle will also push the gastrocnemius away from the bones of the lower leg, and thereby enhance the shape of the calf. The soleus fibers are visible on either side of the Achilles tendon between the bottom edge of the gastrocnemius and the heel. Thus, to fully complete both upper and lower parts of the diamond, the medial and lateral heads of the gastrocnemius must be symmetrically developed.

The primary function of lateral and medial gastrocnemius muscles and the soleus muscle is to plantar flex the foot at the ankle joint (i.e., they raise the heel). Because both heads of the gastrocnemius muscle cross the knee joint they can assist in movements that flex the knee joint (e.g., lying leg curls for the hamstring muscles). However, these muscles are unable to exert maximal forces at the ankle joint and the knee joint simultaneously. If your wish is to maximally activate the gastrocnemius, your knee must be straight during heel (calf) raises. Straight knees will tighten this muscle and slightly stretched muscles will always contribute to force production more completely than muscles that are not tight and stretched. Standing barbell calf raises are among the oldest calf exercises but it is still among the best back-to-basics calf exercise that exists.

Standing Calf (Heel) Raise

1. Place an Olympic barbell on a squat rack and load it with a weight that is similar to the weight you use for barbell squats.

2. Place a six-inch block near the front of the squat rack. This block should be about 4-6 inches wide to provide an adequate base. Make sure that the surface of the block and the soles of your shoes are not too smooth or slippery.

3. Place the bar across the upper trapezius above your shoulders, as if you were setting up to do a barbell squat. You can wrap the bar with a towel if you wish.

4. Take two steps forward from the rack and step up on the block with both feet.

5. Position the balls of both feet (not your heels) on the foot block about shoulder-width part and straighten your knees. The weight should be transferred directly down your spine, but do not let your buttocks extend backward.

6. Rise up on your toes as high as possible, and hold this position for at least 1 second. The higher you can lift your heels, the better.

7. Lower your heels and make an attempt to touch them to the floor (which should be impossible, otherwise the block is not high enough). You may need to lean a bit forward to keep your balance as you lower your heels, but be careful to control your body so that you don’t lean too far. Make the stretch slow and deliberate and hold the stretch for 2 to 3 seconds at the bottom position.

8. Continue to the next rep and rise as high as possible, but make sure the knees do not bend on the upward movement.

Pointing the toes straight ahead will activate both heads of the gastrocnemius about equally; however, if you tend to roll to one side or the other when you go up on your toes, the side you roll to will achieve the preferential work (because it shortens the most). Try to completely get up on the balls of your feet on each rep at least on the first part of your set.

Once your calves become fatigued and you cannot complete another rep, you can squeeze out a couple of more reps by flexing your knees and then quickly straightening them on the way up. This will help to boost the weight up a little more for these final two “cheat” reps of your last set or two. Another approach to push fatigued calves a bit further is to complete 4-5 partial reps once you are unable to complete a full rep. Simply go up as high as you can, hold this for a second, and then drop as low as you can to get a super stretch.

You will find a huge difference in your calf shape in only a few months, but, just like real diamonds, it will take several more months of hard work to get them to impeccable condition. Even if your calves are not the polished gems at the moment, you will soon be sending your baggy track pants to Goodwill and showing off your lower-legged new diamonds.

References:

Ciolac EG, Garcez-Leme LE and Greve JM. Resistance exercise intensity progression in older men. Int J Sports Med, 31: 433-438, 2010.

Ekblom MM. Improvements in dynamic plantar flexor strength after resistance training are associated with increased voluntary activation and V-to-M ratio. J Appl Physiol, 109: 19-26, 2010.

Hebert-Losier K, Newsham-West RJ, Schneiders AG and Sullivan SJ. Raising the standards of the calf-raise test: a systematic review. J Sci Med Sport, 12: 594-602, 2009.

Hebert-Losier K, Schneiders AG, Newsham-West RJ and Sullivan SJ. Scientific bases and clinical utilisation of the calf-raise test. Phys Ther Sport, 10: 142-149, 2009.

Moore, KL and AF Dalley. Clinically-oriented Anatomy, Fourth edition. Baltimore, Lippincott Williams & Williams, 571-592, 1999.

Riemann BL, Limbaugh GK, Eitner JD and Lefavi RG. Medial and Lateral Gastrocnemius Activation Differences During Heel-Raise Exercise with Three Different Foot Positions. J Strength Cond Res, 24:2309-2314, 2010.

Young W, Elias G and Power J. Effects of static stretching volume and intensity on plantar flexor explosive force production and range of motion. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 46: 403-411, 2006.

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