Seated vs. Standing Calf Raise… Do You Need Both?

No, and you don’t need seated calf raises whatsoever! Standing calf raises are complete, working both the gastrocnemius & soleus. However, thoughtless experience can mislead us here…

Bodybuilding has long endorsed both standing & seated calf raises as necessary.

When your knee is extended while performing a heel raise, you’ll feel tension in the gastrocnemius, hence the need for standing calf raises.

When your knee flexes, you feel tension shift to the soleus, hence the need for seated calf raises.

I figured some neural reason accounted for the difference, perhaps to allow efficient locomotion?

I even pondered if a “bent-to-straight” heel raise may combine them, with each half of the range of motion emphasizing a muscle. (Due to concurrent movement, this would focus on the single-joint soleus anyway.)

When trainees feel the contrast between knee angles though, I suspect they aren’t using enough weight & range of motion to have both muscles activating intensely.

When the knee is straight, passive tension from the gastrocnemius bears most of the load, so the soleus goes nearly silent with light resistance.

Research, and careful experimentation, tell a different story…

Why You Don’t Need Seated Calf Raises

As the gastroc length is reduced, the soleus must compensate to continue moving or fail to do so.

What happens is that muscle fiber bundles called fascicles overshorten for the gastrocnemius to severely limit active tension, so the neural system disables it.

The gastrocnemius therefore needs to be stretched enough, with an extended knee, to achieve a maximal voluntary contraction (MVC).

However, the science makes clear that soleus activity is unchanged between extended & flexed knee joint conditions during a MVC.

The MVC is what matters! Both contribute greatly when either the weight is increased, or the effort is high, on standing calf raises.

For the same weight, it makes sense that your gastrocnemius would have an inverse relationship with soleus activation since additional muscle becomes involved. They each work less hard for a given load.

An extended knee also prevents the gastrocnemius from cramping due to overshortening, an uncomfortable & distracting sensation that you may have felt during seated calf raises.

Most seated heel raises are done at a 90° angle for the knee. However, similar fatigue may occur for both muscles even as flexed as 45 degrees. Some other studies show a difference, though very slight.

This isn’t much different from the biceps failing to activate on reverse curls due to a pronated grip, since its tendon wraps around the radius bone. This leads to higher brachioradialis & brachialis activity to handle the weight. You’ll curl far less here.

Yet on a near-full supinated EZ-bar curl (to reduce wrist & elbow stress), all the elbow flexors contribute! The brachioradialis is just stretched less during supination.

This highlights a big flaw of traditional bodybuilding advice: why isolate a muscle by disabling larger ones unless you have some (rare) weakness?

Doing both seated & standing heel raises only increases work for the soleus. The soleus also gets plenty of work from exercises like dead-lifts too, while the gastrocnemius has poor leverage on leg curls.

Overdeveloping it could ruin that diamond shape from the gastrocnemius that looks so impressive, instead forming an unshapely bulk.

How to Do a Standing Calf Raise

With limited equipment at home, you can do a single-leg calf raise off the ledge of a stair with your bodyweight, holding a dumbbell with one arm and the other grabbing something like a rail for balance. Machines are only more convenient!

Keep a slight bend in the knee to get enough range of motion at the ankle, stretching both the gastrocnemius & soleus. Keep your knee angle fairly stable to avoid drastically changing the gastrocnemius’s length.

Donkey heel raises are famed for their uncomfortable stretch, as the hamstrings may pull on the calf tendon for an even deeper stretch.

You could also lean forward such as on a Howorth calf raise, advocated by Vince Gironda, so that the hardest part of the range of motion causes the greatest stretch too.

This mindset applies to standing versus seated calf raises themselves as well, which stretch the gastrocnemius & soleus better respectively.

In the long run though, I don’t feel these stretches are needed.

The passive tension may lead to a small burst of growth at the distal end of the muscle, but this doesn’t seem lasting versus progressive overload developing sarcomeres in-parallel, facilitated by overloading stretched-to-medium positions.

Any extreme or unusual form of plantarflexion could also irritate the Achilles tendon.

Other techniques like pushing through the big toe or pointing the feet out & in, encouraging inversion or eversion, or anything else is unlikely to make a difference, just slightly elongating the medial or lateral gastroc head.

If anything, you’d want to emphasize the gastroc over the soleus. Maybe doing knee flexion with plantarflexion similar to supinating on curls to emphasize the biceps through countercurrent movement. This isn’t practical though and almost surely unnecessary.

I recommend equal sets & reps to other exercises, though I like sets of 10 versus my preferred 8-rep count due to the shorter range of motion.

It’s possible the calves may tolerate more work due to a lower proportion of fast-twitch fibers compared to other muscles, but they may just have less growth potential however done.

Focus on Standing Calf Raises

Bodybuilders rightfully consider the calves as stubborn muscles, influenced especially by heredity.

For the utmost size, instead of seated calf raises, you could try dorsiflexion (toe raises) to work the tibialis anterior in the front.

You can also experiment with more volume & frequency… but stick exclusively to standing calf raises either way!

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