Muscle Building

Calves – Muscle Building Tips


Suggestions for Building Bigger Calf Muscles

Calves can be one of the most frustrating muscle groups to build. It seems that either you were born with genetically monstrous calf muscles, or you have twigs for lower legs and nothing you do seems to make a darn bit of difference.

I have spoken with or interviewed many advanced bodybuilders who have poor calves. One common thread seems to run amongst them: no matter how hard they try, no matter what they do, their puny calf muscles remain small.

It is safe to say that convention muscle building approaches might only help 20% or fewer of those who were born with poor calf genetics. With that said, I still believe there is a glimmer of hope. Before I present a couple of unique methods that may work for you, let’s look at the standard bodybuilding method.

Typical Calves Muscle Building Approach

The typical calves muscle building approach involves:

  • 12-20 reps per set
  • 1-2 exercises per training day
  • 1-2 calf workouts per week
  • 3-5 sets per exercise

Rarely do you see bodybuilders obsessing about progression of weight on calves. Most of the focus is upon higher rep work. While some progression might be taking place, it is rarely aggressive or impressive.

Another thing you rarely see is low rep calf work. Why? Because the notion exists that the calves will only respond to a high rep stimulus. I have seen many seasoned bodybuilders fail to add muscle with high rep calf sets, so let me propose 2 different approaches to building bigger calves.

2 Unique Calf Building Approaches

Let it first be said that I cannot guarantee these approaches will work. They are merely suggestions compiled based on personal experience and research. If you do try either (or both) of these approaches, please give them due time to work. Rome was not built in a day, and neither of these methods will build beefy calf muscles in 2-4 weeks.

Method #1 – Low Rep, Heavy Weight. Pick a weight that is approximately your 10RM (10 rep max) for a given calf exercise. Now, perform 10 sets x 3 reps with only 30 seconds of rest between sets.

The next time you perform this exercise make it a goal to perform 10 sets x 4 reps using the same rest period. A week later try for 10 sets x 5 reps, and the following week 10 x 6. At this point add more weight.

Keep in mind this is merely one example of low rep, heavy weight calf training. The main points to remember are:

  1. Reps. Keep reps between 3-8 per set.
  2. Sets. Don’t fear a higher volume of heavy sets.
  3. Progression. Add weight, and be aggressive about it. Don’t baby your calves.

It may also be beneficial to use barbell calf raises as one of your calf building exercises. These are performed standing up, holding a barbell in front of you as if you were about to perform shrugs. Don’t forget to use straps; we are training calves here and not forearms.

I also recommend performing the reps off the ground and not standing on a wooden block. Explode up, leaning slightly back as your calves work. This will help with balance.

The standing barbell calf raise will allow you to use heavy weight without the aid of machines. You may also try this with dumbbells, if your gym has access to weights that are challenging enough.

Note: Do not perform barbell calf raises with a weight on your back, as if you were sqautting. This can be too unbalancing

Method #2 – High Volume Step Ups or Hill Climbs. During my teen years I would perform step ups for hours each week. As an adult, my calves have always been exceptionally large, and I rarely train them.

One might say that I was born with gifted calves, but that is up for debate. I am a small boned individual and had very little natural muscle before I started lifting. As a teen my forearms were extremely small, and from memory I can’t recall anything exceptional about my calves either.

It is my belief that the endless hours of step ups helped my calf development, and that this approach may benefit you. If you are willing to give it a try use the following guidelines:

  1. Frequency. Perform step ups 3-5 times per week for 20 to 30 minutes.
  2. Height. Step height must be at least 6 inches and probably no higher than 8-12 inches. The focus here is on pushing up and letting one’s self down, and not on building big quads.

If you do not have access to an step, or if you merely want to get outdoors and enjoy some fresh air, high climbs are a great alternative.

You do not need a high hill for this option to work. Walk up the hill and then back down. Both of these actions will tax your calf muscles.

If you want to train outdoors you may also use a curb as a “step.”

Steve Shaw

Steve Shaw is the founder of Muscle and Brawn, and a powerlifter with 30+ years of experience. Steve's recorded a 600lb squat, 672lb deadlift and a 382lb bench press.
Steve Shaw

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1 Comment
  • Emma Jul 12,2015 at 7:33 am

    I think that the best thing you can do is to include donkey calf raise into your calf workout. There is no reason to limit your calf work to standing and seated raises. This calf building exercise is superior to both of these movements. It is so effective because the resistance is located directly over the hips rather than on the shoulders. This leads to a greater stretch of the calf muscles and a more direct contraction. I hope you agree with me?

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