Bodybuilding for Great Calves: Overcoming Genetics?
More than several classic bodybuilders including Frank Zane, Larry Scott, and Steve Reeves have intimated that a lean midsection, broad shoulders, and great calves most define an impressive physique.
Achieving this shape forms a dramatic yet balanced silhouette, or how your body looks when focused on the outline.
Unfortunately, the calves are known as a muscle group where bad genetics really limit us, making this aspect of the vision hard to attain.
There’s an oft-repeated, likely apocryphal story that Chris Dickerson, a Golden Age bodybuilder known for having the best calves of his era, had a twin brother with even better calves… that never trained!
Failure to develop the calves has even been suggested through research as due to low protein synthesis, perhaps since these muscles have mostly slow-twitch fibers.
Nonetheless, we can pursue a thoughtful calf training approach, applying successful bodybuilding principles standing the test of time. We’ll incorporate the latest science, with concepts like neural inhibition, too.
The diamond shape of the calves, as seen from the front, is essential versus big calves alone. Many trainees only perform a standing heel raise with somewhat-bent knees, developing mostly the deep soleus responsible for slightly more than half the total leg size.
We must develop the whole triceps surae for both size and shape, largely by the soleus and gastrocnemius respectively, and maybe even additional lower leg muscles. Consider these proven ideas for larger, diamond-shaped calves.
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Calf Development Ideas
For calves, my favorite as everyone knows is the donkey calf raise. No other exercise gave me the results that donkeys do. Really brings out that diamond shape. Lots of bodybuilders have big calves but lack the diamond look.
– Steve Reeves
Choose an exercise targeting the gastrocnemius.
The key for targeting the gastrocnemius is to keep the knee straight or at least mostly extended.
Inhibition is when the nervous system excludes muscles from activating to facilitate smooth movement and to focus on muscles capable of greater force potential.
Reciprocal inhibition happens often with the usual antagonists, like the biceps and triceps, but inhibition also occurs with muscles performing the same function, like the biceps versus the brachioradialis & brachialis depending on the grip.
For the calves, the nervous system innervates the gastrocnemius with mostly straight knees and the soleus with bent knees, inhibiting the other muscle in each case for most of the range of motion.
The gastrocnemius shortens greatly at the knee due to its short length, which the nervous system senses, preventing enough tension to make innervation worthwhile. This may also ensure ideal mechanics behind functional movements like running and jumping.
We have two options: a standing heel raise or a donkey heel raise. The donkey heel raise is similarly performed on a leg press, essentially an open-chain or reverse donkey heel raise.
The donkey heel raise has a legendary reputation for developing the calves. Many feel this works so well because the hamstrings stretch in the bent-over position when flexing the hip, which then pulls on the gastrocnemius tendon for more tension.
My opinion though is that this may be false, depending on your anatomy, but nonetheless is effective for other reasons.
The donkey heel raise keeps your knees straighter versus a standing heel raise where they are likely to buckle, so helping here.
Most importantly, the unusual position allows you to lean forward. (View the image above.) This elevates the heels so that the strength curve feels hardest precisely where the gastrocnemius stretches almost maximally.
This deep, active stretch creates distal growth via additional sarcomeres in-series via overstretch exactly where the inner gastrocnemius converges with the visible portion of the soleus. This draws out the sharp obtuse angle of the gastrocnemius at the midline of the lower leg for an aesthetic look.
The Howorth standing heel raise position, mentioned in Vince Gironda’s The Wild Physique, has the trainee angled forward so that the knees lie well in front of the feet, which achieves this effect too.
Try performing heel raises on a high 4 inch block or a step, leaning an arm on something ahead of you, like a post or higher step, while the other arm holds a dumbbell to apply the Howorth position without a machine. You can also try a weight belt then use both arms for improved balance
On a final note, doing one-leg at a time allows not only greater concentration but less weight as well. This works great when training at home while reducing the load on the back.
Choose an exercise targeting the soleus.
As mentioned, bent knees emphasize the soleus, with less and less contribution from the gastrocnemius with greater knee flexion. 90° at the knee works well as it also overloads the soleus at the midrange of the movement for overall growth.
A seated heel raise can be performed by using a barbell and a high block, even one-leg at a time while seated on a bench, with the barbell resting above your active knee. A reverse vertical leg press heel raise, used by Steve Reeves, is an unusual yet viable option too.
The same logic for donkey or Howorth standing heel raises, by having the knees ahead of the heels, can induce a great stretch on the soleus, though you must bend the knees enough.
Targeting the soleus defines the lower calf while increasing the overall circumference underlying the gastrocnemius, contributing to calf size in this region.
Point the toes in various directions on heel raises.
This slight shift in emphasis induces variety, overloading different muscle lengths, and is useful to bring balance to the calves by developing a lagging head.
It’s still unknown how this occurs. It’s speculated that pressure on the foot may affect neural activation. Perhaps the moment arms change enough based on external or internal hip rotation and foot eversion or inversion.
Like the biceps, the medial and lateral heads of the gastrocnemius operate as a unit. Therefore, pointing toes forward leads to a fairly even distribution across both heads of the gastrocnemius, making this stance preferred.
Though usually overlooked, stance also likely affects the different heads of the soleus.
In his book Target Bodybuilding, Per Tesch find no difference pointing the toes, with toes in actually harming activation of the outer head. The outer head of the gastrocnemius may be less influenced by foot position.
Practically, Larry Scott, Steve Reeves, and Reg Park all state that toe orientation is unnecessary to consider.
Both Reg Park and Steve Reeves suggest placing weight on the big toe, so rolling in at the top and out at the bottom. This could maximize the range of motion and perhaps focus a tad more on the inner head to form that diamond shape.
Consider a toe raise.
Arnold’s The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding mentions that a well-developed tibialis anterior, worked through front calf raises, creates a wide look when viewed from the front, making the calves seem much bigger.
By placing your heels on a high block or step, with ~75% of your foot in the air, you lower and raise. You can add resistance as with a standing heel raise, by holding a dumbbell, while performing with a single leg at a time.
Nonetheless, the tibialis anterior is a small muscle that seems logical to work but has little growth potential. Most classic bodybuilders ignored toe raises of any sort. This muscle seems to get developed sufficiently through indirect work, mirroring overall calf size.
Nonetheless, the reverse heel/toe raise is an exercise to consider toward maximal calf size. It requires a time investment yet does little to exhaust the body as a whole, so is worth a try.
Keep the reps higher.
Many bodybuilders describe the calf muscles as dense and therefore needing higher reps, perhaps due to their slow-twitch fiber dominance.
Anecdotally, many old-time bodybuilders say that tiptoe walking, jumping rope, and even walking and running, perhaps on the beach, seems to help.
Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, we also know that a duration reached for 5-8 reps maximizes full motor unit recruitment for most exercises.
Maybe due to a shorter stroke that also affects exercises like wrist curls for the forearm belly, we need higher reps to get enough work, traditionally at 15-20 but at least 8-12 reps.
Many bodybuilders today, like Jay Cutler, stuck to moderate rep ranges yet added volume through several exercises and sets to build world-class physiques.
Higher reps also seem to facilitate more range of motion, which may develop fuller muscles by addressing various muscle-building stimuli and overloading non-uniform sarcomeres, or the smallest basic units of muscle contraction, especially since the gastrocnemius is a short muscle.
Achieve a fuller range of motion; vary overload through strength curves.
Vince Gironda swore by training barefoot to allow for extra range of motion on heel raises.
He suggested performing heel raises on a 4 in. calf block done on a rubber pad. The rubber pad allows extra range of motion at the top, which otherwise may cause pain that prevents it. Larry Scott concurred.
Related to why higher reps may work best, bodybuilders struggle to use a lot of weight and also achieve a full range of motion.
Old-timer Clancy Ross would perform sets with a partial range of motion, done heavy, and some lighter sets with just bodyweight for the fullest possible range, also suggested by Arnold.
While this could develop a different subregion, it likely just leads to a tremendous pump that can temporarily engorge the muscle with blood, and therefore more size, due to an occlusion effect.
Vince even suggested a hack squat heel raise to hit the upper region since it limited the range of motion at the bottom. You can also do the reverse of the Howorth standing heel raise position… lean back while standing by holding onto something.
Overloading the midrange and stretched positions is likely best for overall size and refining that diamond shape. Nonetheless, overloading sarcomeres at various lengths could draw out the potential for a fuller triceps surae.
Address other functions?
Foot inversion develops the deeper muscle beneath the soleus and gastrocnemius called the tibialis posterior.
Foot eversion develops the small yet superficial peroneal group near the lateral head of the gastrocnemius.
Both of these functions can also be combined with heel raises, or more importantly to train these muscles, toe raises.
Knee flexion may affect the gastrocnemius uniquely, activating unique motor units due to a weak moment arm here, by performing a leg curl.
We know, for example, that the biceps develop medially versus laterally when supinating the hand versus flexing the elbow, contributing to a higher biceps peak.
Applying this logic, all of these functions can work untapped muscles while addressing different compartments within the calves.
When questioned on which protein sources to eat, Arnold had a philosophy of “eating all the proteins.” If he wasn’t sure which foods were best, he decided to eat them all. This idea seems absurd at first but actually contains much bodybuilding wisdom applied to training as well, in that variety is a core principle.
How to Build Large, Diamond-Shaped Calves
Many bodybuilders practiced extreme routines to build up the calves. Perhaps this is all related to their slow-twitch dominant composition. Forget just a month of consistent workouts… Arnold claimed it took at least 500 hours to build his great calves!
Do you need this severity to grow stubborn calves? Modern champions have still gotten incredible results by treating the calves like other muscles.
Jay Cutler says, “I’ve never been into high reps for calves. I think 10 to 12 is best. Sometimes I’ll go to 15 to 20, but I tend to stick to that moderate range.” He performed a few exercises for a few sets each to train his calves.
Still, unlike pulling exercises which stimulate the brachialis and brachioradialis fairly well even as back exercises primarily, thigh movements fail to do much for the triceps surae. We need direct work to achieve real growth.
Try these ideas to develop big and shapely calves, which possess the diamond shape, toward an impressive physique.