Nobody has a perfect physique. Even the famous cover model has some area of his or her body that they are working to improve. For me personally one of those areas has been my calves. I am naturally a tall, thin guy with skinny legs. It’s taken years of hard work to build some respectable muscle on my lower body. While my legs have developed nicely over the years my calves will always be an area that needs extra attention. Initial calf size is largely genetic. We all know that one individual who doesn’t workout at all, but has huge, developed calves. Others, like myself, have to put in years of hard work just so the lower leg doesn’t look unbalanced and skinny. I would like to share some of my best tips on how I turned a former weakness into a highlight.
1. Prioritize: Don’t always save calves for the end of a leg workout. How much energy and focus do you really have after working thighs and hamstrings? Frequently start your leg workout with calves. I typically work legs twice a week. The earlier workout of the week I mainly concentrate on thighs, but finish with some hamstrings and calf work. The second leg workout of the week I start with calves, bomb the hamstrings, and finish with a squat mobility work. I call it working legs in reverse. Work personal weak areas first so you can give it 100% focus.
2. Increase the volume: Just doing 4-6 sets of a calf movement after a long leg workout is not going to get the job done. The calves are accustomed to holding your body weight every single day for countless ‘repetitions’ of walking, running, and stepping. Assault calves with more sets and reps (volume) to make them grow. Volume can be increase in several ways including working them 2-3 times a week, doing more exercises and sets, and ‘supersetting’ (doing two exercises back to back without rest each set). My second leg workout of the week starting with calves will typically have 15+ working sets.
3. Stretch: It’s not only a good habit to stretch the calves between sets, but getting a full stretch on each rep can make a big difference with development. On your next calf workout try starting each rep from a full bottom stretch and holding that stretch for several counts before lifting. It’s a game changer. I work to get that deep stretch on every rep I do from now on.
4. Vary the tempo: There are three points in any lift where we can manipulate the tempo- the contraction, eccentric (lowering), and concentric (lifting). I will often times change the tempo to increase the intensity of my calf work. An example of this might be holding the bottom stretch for 3 seconds, powering up to the contraction which I hold for 3 seconds, then take a slow 5 second negative. I may change those tempos to be shorter or longer. I’ve done up to 10 second hold in the past.
5. Increase the intensity: While still observing the previous tips mentioned we can further increase intensity by using ‘beyond failure’ techniques such as the pause-rest, drop sets, supersets, and more.
Pause-rest: Lifting to absolute failure with strict form then resting for a quick 5-10 seconds and continuing on to failure again. This can be repeated more than once per set.
Drop sets: Once muscular failure is achieved quickly reducing weight and continuing on with reps. Weight can be dropped multiple times. A very intense variation of the drop set are ‘strip sets’ where you start with a very heavy weight only do 2-4 reps, then just slightly reducing reps for 1-2 reps, and doing this until 10-15 total reps are completed.
Supersets: Doing two exercises back to back without rest. This is a very common technique, but is not applied to calves enough.
Sample Calf Workout: This workout is lower volume, but has very intense methods involved. Calves recover quicker than bigger muscle groups and typically rest periods should be shorter. Because this workout is so intense keep rest periods longer at 2 minutes. This workout is from my upcoming 8-week muscle building program “Four Deep”, lower volume but four times the intensity.
1. Standing Calf Raise: Warm up, then 2 sets of 6-8 reps +4 drop sets.
(Note: Drop sets are ‘strip set’ style one pin at a time each set. Do a four count pause at the bottom stretch of every rep.)
2. Seated Calf Raise: 2 sets of 6-8 reps plus 4 ‘pause rest’ rounds.
(Note: Keep pause rest times to only four deep breathes. No bottom pauses like above, but still get a full deep stretch on every rep.)
3. Uni-lateral Calf Raise: 2 sets of 10-12 reps +4 negatives each side.
(Note: Do these one leg at a time. Hold a dumbbell on the working legs side if possible, but keep reps strict or drop the weight. Upon failure use both legs, or hop, to get back to the top and take slow negatives. Match reps on the other side. When doing uni-lateral work always start with your weaker side if you have one.)
While one cannot completely alter their natural body structure we can dramatically improve our weak areas with a plan, consistency, and hard work. A lot of these ‘calf’ tips can be applied to other muscle groups as well. Incorporate these methods into your calf work over the next few weeks and let me know how it goes.
-Wittig, ISSA CPT
IPE Natural Pro 3x Champ
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