This story has been told a few thousand times, but we’ll go again. In his bodybuilding heyday, Arnold Schwarzenegger was so embarrassed by the size of his calves that he cut off all his training pants at the knees (or maybe he just wore shorts) to shame himself into calf training.
History tells us he was successful. And his calves were pretty good, too.
Calf training is one of the many things that get neglected in the weight room. Some are genetically blessed with muscular calves and don’t have to worry about it. Others have to prioritize adding any size and strength down there, and others always wear pants and forget about their puny calves.
In an effort for full disclosure, that’s me. Regardless of size, strength training for calves has many benefits. Here, with the help of Tasha “Iron Wolf” Whelan, we’ll go into benefits and answer the question, is all calf training the same, no matter the sport?
Anatomy of the Calf Muscle
The calf muscles point your toe towards your shin (dorsiflexion) and pull your heel up (plantar flexion), allowing you to walk, run, jump, and assist with all things to do with the lower body. It’s made up primarily of two muscles (Gastrocnemius And Soleus), and because the calves act on the ankle joint, their size and strength result in more stable ankles.
The Gastrocnemius is a two-part visible muscle that, when flexed, creates a diamond shape. It starts at the femur underneath the knee and inserts on the heel via the Achilles tendon. Its primary function is plantarflexion, which is your heel coming off the ground.
The soleus is a smaller, flat muscle that lies directly underneath the gastroc and is not visible but still plays an important role. It starts at the tibia and fibula below the knee and inserts on the heel via the Achilles Tendon. Its primary function is plantarflexion, but because it only crosses one joint, the heel joint, the best way to train this muscle is with the knees bent.
Strong and muscular calves will allow you to run faster, jump higher, and have better stability when performing squats and deadlifts. But they’re hard to strengthen for two reasons.
Why Calves are Hard to Grow and How to Train Them
There are two main reasons calves are so stubborn for those not genetically blessed. First, the soleus muscle is a slow-twitch dominant muscle, meaning it’s more challenging to fatigue and grow. Slow-twitch muscles are hard to grow because they rely on a rich supply of oxygenated blood called Myoglobin. Because of this, they generate less muscle and strength.
The second reason is genetic and has more to do with what your parents gave you. Each muscle, including the calves, has an origin point that doesn’t move during a muscle contraction and an insertion point that does move.
The longer the tendon (insertion) and the shorter muscle make the muscle harder to grow, while the shorter insertion and longer muscle belly make the muscle easier to grow. The long or short insertion points affect how big or small your calf muscles look. Muscles’ origin and insertion points are from your parents, so if you have an issue, take it up with them.
Benefits of Training Calves
Nobody wants to look like SpongeBob SquarePants with all upper and no lower body. Nicely sculpted calves are very appealing, no matter what anyone says.
Ankle strength and stability:
Having a solid base of support for various movements such as running, jumping, loading, lifting, etc., are all affected by the ankle joint as one of its main movements in ankle plantar flexion, which aids in performance movements as mentioned above. Furthermore, they support and stabilize both the foot and ankle.
Lower leg training can help minimize injuries at the ankle joint. As the late weightlifting legend Louie Simmons says, “Weak things break.” you need to ensure you’re STRONG in all areas of the body, including the often-neglected isolation work of the calf muscles. If they’re weak, you may see some issues in someone’s gait, creating deficiencies in strength-based movements or walking, running, jumping, or even standing properly. Strengthening the calves will also help prevent them from being sprained or strained.” explains Whelan.
Is All Calf Training The Same?
It might seem like a silly question because you all have some ankle movements, and most of you want nice-looking calves when it’s skin season. Plus, you’ll use similar exercises to develop them. So, is all calf training the same no matter what the sport?
The difference is in the training emphasis.
For explanation, let’s break it up into locomotion sports (running, football, basketball, etc.) and non-locomotion sports like powerlifting and strongman-type events. In locomotion sports, you’ll need your calf muscle to propel you forward and backward and to jump off the ground. The calf muscles must withstand impact; do it repeatedly and provide ankle stability to keep you on the field longer.
Calves are needed for improved performance, injury prevention, and vanity, so some calf-isolating exercises are required here.
Top Calf Training Exercises
If that sounds like you, use these training guidelines from Iron Wolf Whelan.
- Program calf training at least one or two times a /week, either at the beginning or end of your workout.
- Focus on slow and controlled tempo when performing them, especially if aesthetics or muscular hypertrophy is the goal. Slower eccentrics are optimal.
- Perform both standing and seated variations to hit different angles and musculature.
If your sport is strongman or powerlifting, the emphasis is different. Although bigger and stronger calves are great for improved balance, and if the hamstrings and calves touch together at the bottom of the squat, it can help you spring out of it, you’ll need to take care of them also.
Many powerlifters and strongman already have well-developed calves, and their limited training time might be better spent massaging and mobilizing their calves for improved ankle mobility. This mobility is needed for joint health and performance with squatting and deadlifting movements. Here’s an exercise to consider if you need to take better care of your calves.
There you have it; not all calf training fits all. Ensure whatever the requirements of your sport are to take care of your calf muscles because they will take care of you.