Sick Of Having Stubborn Calves?
Big calves is one body part that some guys are just genetically blessed with, others bang away at their calves down in day out and fail to grow them to half the size of those who have won the proverbial genetic lottery. That said genetics is never and should never be an excuse, regardless of how stubborn or small your calves currently are IF you train them correctly they will grow.
After reading this article you'll know the common mistakes guys make in the gym when training calves as well as how to apply the 5 key principles required to actually get those suckers to grow.
Even Arnold Schwarzengger himself, arguably the greatest physique ever built struggled to get his calves to grow. Arnold flew around the world in order to learn the 'secret' to building big calves and trained them relentlessly until they came up to scratch. Luckily enough we live in a time where the internet eliminates the need to circumnavigate the world to learn the key training principles, but the determination and action that Arnold applied are what you're going to need to front in order to get those stubborn muscles to grow.
The 5 Key Principles and 5 Common Mistakes Of Building Big Calves
DO: Focus On The Full Contraction
This principle is not exclusive to calves, in order to isolate and train any muscle group effectively, be it calves or your rear deltoids the contraction and range of motion (which apply tension to the muscle) are key. When training calves your calve raises should have your pushing through the balls of your feet and squeezing your calves as hard as you possibly can at the top of each repetition before lowering yourself down until the heel of your foot drops well below the ball of your foot (increasing your ankle mobility will allow you to increase the depth of your calf raise, we'll discuss that a bit later in this article).
DONT: Poor Range Of Motion
Poor range of motion is the biggest calf training mistake I see being made in the gym.
Lowering yourself until your foot is horizontal is not enough - in order to grow your calves it's paramount you work the full range of motion, you may need to drop the weight if you're struggling to practise good form with the weight you've been half repping, but as always - strict form comes first, additional weight comes later.
I stress the importance of checking your ego at the door as you enter the gym as it won't help you get the results you want, this rings particularly true for small muscle groups that require the utmost importance when it comes to form, range of motion and tempo to isolate.
DO: Work In Some Explosive Movements
Jumping movements such as jump rope, vertical leaps, pistol squat box jumps and the like all require explosive power as your calves launch your body upwards.
Adding in some explosive plyometric style moves into training your calves is not only fantastic mentally for mixing things up, but the explosive movements assist in building both size and strength for your calves. There are many different disciplines of athlete out there that probably never even touch the seated calf raise machine, however the constant leaping, jumping and bounding they do builds both size and strength in their calves.
DONT: Only Do The Basics
I'm not a believer in attempting to 'confuse the muscle' by training it on different days of the weeks or with a barrage of different exercises in an attempt to trick it into growing, but unless you're blessed with fantastic calve genetics (which, if you're reading this article is probably not the case) sticking to a few sets of one exercise once per week is the text book way to hit a plateau and see little to no growth at all. If a certain exercise, rep range of volume protocol isn't working instead of blindly carrying on with it, expecting different results (which is the definition of insanity) we need to take things outside the box and work in variations of the calf raise that allow us to place more tension on the muscle to apply progressive overload AND mix in some explosive work.
DO: Mix Up The Rep Range
From my experience in order to big build calves you need to work in both heavy weight low rep exercises as well as slightly higher repetition lighter exercises as well, remember your calves are used to supporting your bodyweight as you walk, run and jump every single day of the week... Our body is in a state of homeostatis, it doesn't want to change... like the average citizen of society that's content with remaining the same forever it takes a flurry of action and events to get shit happening - especially after a prolonged period.
In order to make the calves grow you must create the demand for your calves to grow through a mixture of heavy weight, explosive movements and endurance work. Create the demand and your body will adapt, this adaptation is growth.
DON'T: Bounce Your Way Through The Set
Bouncing will allow you to get through your repetitions quicker, with less pain while lifting more weight. Seems like an ideal outcome right?
Bouncing, or using momentum in any form while training your calves will take the tension off your calves, in order to build big calves, particularly when they're so stubborn we need to place as much tension on the muscle as possible to overload it.
Bouncing reduces tension.
No tension means no growth.
DO: Frequency & Consistency Is Key (The 48 Hour Rule)
Hit 'em hard and hit 'em often.
If your calves are struggling to grow and are noticeably lagging behind the rest of your physique it's time to implement the priority training principle.
Rest your calves for 48 hours, then hit them again, volume and frequency baby.
You don't need to dedicate an entire workout to your calves, as they fatigue relatively quickly when trained correctly there's no way you can endure 3o - 45 minutes of solely training calves if you're hitting them with the right weight and intensity.
Instead, following the priority principle and train your calves FIRST.
Been 48 hours since your last calves workout? Hit your calf raises, jump rope and box jumps prior to training the targeted muscle group for the day - e.g. chest.
DONT: Be Inconsistent Training Your Calves
Inconsistency is the killer of progress. In the gym, in your business, in relationships.
Training your calves twice per week consistently, if that is all you can manage is going to be far more effective than hitting your calves four times per week, skipping them for a week then training them three times the week after. Volume and frequency are key as I've stressed however the volume and frequency must be at a level that you're able to maintain - don't overdo it and yo-yo up and down in terms of your consistency.
DO: Place Your Body In A Caloric Surplus
Building muscle is all about that supply and demand.
First we create the demand for our muscles to grow and our strength to increase via intense workouts in the gym, in this case we apply progressive overload by increasing the tension on our calves, often.
If you're neglecting the supply, which is 110% required for growth you're going to be wasting your time.
You must be eating a caloric deficit, i.e. more calories than your body requires to maintain its current weight.
Check out my guide here to calculate your caloric intake and determine how many calories you need to be eating per day to stack on slabs of mass to those stubborn calves of yours.
DONT: Being In A Caloric Deficit & Expecting To Build Big Calves
If you're consuming less calories on a 24 hour basis than your body needs to maintain its current weight you're in a caloric deficit.
A caloric deficit is fantastic for losing fat, however as far as muscle is concerned you're now in maintenance mode.
You cannot build muscle when you're in a caloric deficit, at best you're maintaining the muscle you've got... if the caloric deficit you're in is too aggressive you'll find the longer you're in the deficit the more muscle mass and strength you're losing.
Want to add mass to those calves? You need the caloric surplus we discussed above.
Ankle Mobility - The Often Forgotten Accomplice Of Training Calves
In order to prevent injury and ensure you're getting a full range of motion on your calf raises, as well as the big mass builders of the legs in general such as the squat I recommend spending a few minutes performing some ankle mobility drills (particularly to increase your ankle dorsiflexion) and foam roll your calves to loosen them up, increase recovery time and mobility.
Explaining ankle mobility drills and proper form for foam rolling can be hard to interpret when reading so the two short video clips below will show you exactly how I do it.