Your calf muscles are among the largest muscle groups in your body. Located on the back of your lower leg, they are the muscles that are always working when you are on your feet.
For sprints and jumps, your calves are responsible for extending your foot and propelling you forward and upward. For aesthetics, your calf muscles are the finishing touch to your legs, rounding off your leg muscles’ appearance, and always visible when you are wearing shorts or skirts.
In this article, you will learn how to train your calves effectively. From calf muscle anatomy and growth, to the calf exercises that are most effective for making them bigger and stronger. And then we’ll put it all together into one effective calf workout.
Calf Muscle Anatomy
Your calf muscles are called triceps surae, and consists of two muscles:
- Gastrocnemius is the outer, two-headed muscle. It originates from the lower end of your femur (thigh bone).
- Soleus is the inner, one-headed muscle, which originates from the top of your tibia and fibula.
Both muscles come together into the Achilles tendon, which inserts on your heel bone.
Even though the soleus is located below the gastrocnemius, the two muscles are of equal size, and thus both contribute to your calf muscle mass.
The primary function of the calf muscles is to extend your foot. The soleus is one of the postural muscles, which means that it’s always working when you are standing up. Also, both soleus and gastrocnemius are active when you are walking. This means that your calves get a lot of “free” training all day long.
And this shows when you examine the calf muscles closer. Samples from 27 recreationally active females showed that the soleus had 18% larger type I muscle fibers and 19% larger type II muscle fibers than their quad muscles.1
This might mean that your calves are already trained to some extent, just from your everyday living and moving around. In turn, this might mean that your calf muscles require more and harder training than your other muscles.
Calf Muscle Fibre Type
The calf muscles mostly consist of type I fibers, which are slower than type II fibers but don’t tire as quickly.
While the variation between individuals is large, the average calf fiber type distribution in the general population is something like this:
- Gastrocnemius has about 55% type I fibers.
- Soleus has about 80% type I fibers.
While both type I and type II muscle fibers grow from strength training, type II muscle fibers tend to grow slightly more.
There is, however, not any convincing evidence that muscles should be trained differently based on their fiber type. The same principles still apply: do mostly heavy, low-rep training for strength, and mostly moderately heavy, medium rep training for muscle growth (although muscle growth can be attained with a wide range of reps and loads).
With the calf muscle fiber type and their already trained status taken together, we arrive at a conclusion that many gym-goers and bodybuilders have discovered on their own.
Your Calf Muscles Are Notoriously Hard to Grow
It’s not just your hunch. The research confirms that the calves are harder to grow than many other large muscle groups.
- One study had participants perform a hard calf workout consisting of three different calf exercises with 4 sets of 15 reps to failure in each exercise, for 12 sets in total. Afterward, they measured the increase in their rate of muscle protein synthesis (= rate of muscle growth) and found that it was only about a third of what is typically seen in the quads after a workout.6
- Another study had previously untrained participants train seated calf raises three times per week for eight weeks, doing 4 sets x 9–13 reps to failure each workout. While they increased their calf strength by 13% over these eight weeks, their calf muscles barely grew at all: only a 2.5% increase in muscle thickness.7 In comparison, most other muscles typically grow about 10% in a similar time frame when you start training them.
Read more: How Fast Can You Build Muscle?
For calf muscle growth, eccentric overload training seems more promising. Two different studies managed to elicit 9% and 18% muscle growth, respectively, both in 12 weeks.
- The first study had participants doing eccentric heel drops, where they did the concentric portion of the exercise with both legs, but lowered themselves down using only one leg. They did 3 sets x 15 reps each workout, and worked out twice daily during all 12 weeks.8
- The other study had participants train twice per week, doing 3–5 sets x 10 eccentric repetitions of calf raises in a BioDex-machine.9
Interestingly, both studies also saw 9–21% increases in muscle fascicle length (a common result from eccentric training), which is beneficial for power and also reduces the risk of muscle strains.
Calf Exercises: The Best Exercises for Building Your Calves
In this section, we’ll take a look at four calf exercises with slightly different benefits and training effects, that also complement each other in terms of which of the calf muscles they target.
By putting them all together, as we’ll do in the next section, you can create a great calf workout.
1. Standing Calf Raise
The standing calf raise is one of the best calf exercises you can do. By standing on straight legs, you ensure that both your soleus and gastrocnemius muscles are trained.
The calf raise machine makes it easy for you to adjust the resistance, and the foot rest allows for great range of motion. Just make sure you are putting the weight on the balls of your feet, and not on your toes.
2. Seated Calf Raise
The seated calf raise differs from its standing counterpart, in that your knee joint is flexed. This shortens your gastrocnemius (which crosses over the knee joint), making it unable to assist much in the exercise. Instead, your soleus muscle does most of the work, and is therefore somewhat isolated in this exercise.
Since you’re sitting down, this exercise often allows for a little more focus on your working muscles, and you might have an easier time finding good contact with your muscles.
3. Heel Raise
The heel raise is similar to the standing calf raise but done without a machine. Of course, you can substitute them for another, but if you are going to train with high reps, the unloaded heel raise often suffices.
A benefit of this exercise (and also the next) is that you can train them anywhere, without equipment. All you need is some kind of elevation to put your feet on, but anything from a stair step to a thick book can be used for that.
4. Eccentric Heel Drop
Last but not least, comes the eccentric heel drop. Based on the previously mentioned studies which saw good muscle growth from eccentric training, you will be training in a similar manner.
Use both legs to extend your feet, but use only one leg in the eccentric portion of the exercise. Repeat for all reps with one side, before you do the same thing with your other leg. Use additional weight, such as a dumbbell, if necessary to reach adequate resistance. Of course, you could use the standing calf raise machine for this purpose as well.
This exercise isn’t only good for training your calves, it is also common for Achilles tendon rehabilitation and strengthening.
Calf Workout for Muscle Growth and Strength
So what does an effective calf workout look like?
Building on the exercises above, let’s construct an example workout, drawing on several principles:
- The exercises target both calf muscles: the gastrocnemius and soleus.
- The load and rep range covers a wide spectrum, ranging from medium reps with moderate weights, all the way up to high reps with light weights.
- Eccentric overload is emerging as an effective calf training technique, and you will be incorporating that into this workout.
This workout is aimed at both strength and muscle growth, and you will be able to get good results of both with it.
Let’s have a look at the workout, and then go through why it looks like it does.
StrengthLog’s Calf Workout
- Standing Calf Raise: 3 sets x 8 reps
- Seated Calf Raise: 3 sets x 15 reps
- Heel Raise: 2 sets x 30 reps
- Eccentric Heel Drop: 3 sets x 10 reps/side
This calf workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
This calf workout begins with three sets of standing calf raises. These sets will serve as the strength-foundation of your calf training, and your primary aim for these sets will be progressive overload. That is a fancy way of saying: ”try to lift more weight for the same number of reps.”
If you hit three sets of eight reps, you increase the weight for the next workout and stick with that until you can once again make 3 x 8.
You will not be able to increase the weight each week, but keep at it, and try to increase by a rep here and there (for example getting 8, 7, 7 instead of 8, 7, 6 last time) until you get all 3 x 8. Use our workout log to keep track of your performance.
After the standing calf raises, you’ll move on to their seated counterpart. Seated calf raises differs from the others in that it isolates the soleus muscle, since gastrocnemius is at a shortened muscle length. You’ll be going for higher rep numbers in this exercise to provide a slightly different kind of training stimulus, and you should try to get good muscle contact with your calves.
Next up, you’ll move on to heel raises and aim for even higher rep numbers. Aim for around 30 reps, and use extra weight (such as a dumbbell) if necessary. Once again, strive for muscle contact and the “squeezing” feeling in your calf muscles.
Lastly, you will be doing eccentrically overloaded training. This can be done either by doing eccentric heel drops or in a standing calf machine. The point is that you use both legs to raise your heels, but then lower yourself using only one. Lower yourself slowly with control, and use a load (if necessary) that lets you do about 10 reps per side and set.
How often can you train this same calf workout?
Well, when it comes to training frequency for the calves, all bets are off. One of the studies mentioned earlier saw good results from eccentric overload training twice a week, while the other had participants train twice per day.
If I’d guess, I’d say that a workout like this could probably be repeated something like 2–4 times per week, with the happy medium being 3 times per week. Try it for some weeks, evaluate, and adapt if necessary.
And that’s it! Hopefully, by now you have a good grasp of your calf muscle anatomy, what some effective calf exercises are, and how you can combine them into one awesome calf workout.
Please feel free to download the StrengthLog workout app to train this workout (and many more!) and track your gains. Remember to try and increase the weight you are using in each exercise to ensure your continued muscle growth and strength gains.
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- Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2008 Nov;295(5):R1593-8. Human vastus lateralis and soleus muscles display divergent cellular contractile properties.
- Pflugers Arch. 1974 Apr 22;348(3):247-55. Human soleus muscle: a comparison of fiber composition and enzyme activities with other leg muscles.
- J Biomech. 2005 Dec;38(12):2451-9. Spatial fiber type distribution in normal human muscle Histochemical and tensiomyographical evaluation.
- J Neurol Sci. 1973 Jan;18(1):111-29. Data on the distribution of fibre types in thirty-six human muscles. An autopsy study.
- Histochem J. 1975 May;7(3):259-66. Muscle fibre type populations of human leg muscles.
- Acta Physiol Scand. 2004 Oct;182(2):189-96. Human soleus muscle protein synthesis following resistance exercise.
- Phys Ther. 1988 Feb;68(2):208-13. Effects of heavy-resistance triceps surae muscle training on strength and muscularity of men and women.
- J Phys Ther Sci. 2020 Apr; 32(4): 277–280. Effect of plyometric training on the fascicle length of the gastrocnemius medialis muscle.
- Front Physiol. 2019; 10: 1456. Triceps Surae Muscle Architecture Adaptations to Eccentric Training.