In the gym: Getting real work done on your calves


Awhile back, I laid out a leg workout that included a small bit on working the calves. I recently saw a post that rekindled a desire of mine to revisit this often neglected and poorly worked part of the body.

First, let’s not underestimate the importance of the calves. Power and explosivity come from the thighs, but the calves are wonderfully constructed for so many athletic endeavors. They give you that extra boost for jumping. They are the crux of your agility when running/cutting, and are key stabilizers for hiking.

Seeing how they’re designed, one key thing to understand about your calves is the interplay between muscle and tendon, specifically the Achilles. The Achilles tendon is one of the key body parts that allows us to run and jump. It has incredible elasticity and “snap-back” power. This works for us when we’re out there working hard. But for the unwary, it can work against you when you weight train. Let me explain.

Imagine yourself in the weight room. You see a guy load four plates on the seated calf raise machine. Serious work is gonna be done. He gets on, removes the safety bar and proceeds to rapidly go through his reps, practically bouncing the weights up and down to the point that they’re clanging.

I can tell you right now: That guy did NOTHING for his calves. He simply kept the muscles tight enough to not snap his Achilles while also using the elastic tension of that tendon to “successfully” bounce the weight around.

Here’s what should have happened…

Same dude walks up to the seated calf machine. He loads two plates, sits down, then removes the safety bar as he gets going. He lowers the weight, holds it for a second, two, then three, his calf muscles stretched at the bottom of the lift. THEN he completes the lift by flexing his calves. This slow, deliberate rep is repeated seven more times before the set is complete.

Now we’re talking. By including the pause in the middle of the lift (and at the point where the muscles are at their most stretched), you completely isolate those muscles and take away the “cheat” factor of using the tension bounce from the Achilles tendon. Real work is being done with half the weight. In other words, you trade in the image of looking like a hoss for doing the work that will actually MAKE you a hoss.

This principle will work on any calf exercise — seated raises, standing raises, standing one-leg raises, etc. Include that pause — make it at least a couple of seconds — and forget about that pathological need to load up on big weights.

Combine these kinds of lifts with calf work that hits your fast-twitch muscles (box jumps, jump rope, sprints) and your calves will become a powerful part of your lower body — the foundation of any athlete.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


4 thoughts on “In the gym: Getting real work done on your calves

  1. I have always lived by that philosophy. I love to see these guys in the gym who bounce there weight of themselves. There only cheating themselves.

    • It’s almost embarrassing to watch. But it happens all the time, most notably on other exercises where it’s easy to cheat, ie any barbell bench press, almost every bicep curl and just about any dumbbell delt fly.

      There was a dude at a gym where I used to work out who was about 5-6, 160. Stacked and ripped. When he worked out, he often used smaller weights and was super strict on form (in other words, doing it right). His attention to detail paid off. He could easily compete in shows at any time. More people should take notice.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  2. I’ve never been one to lift weights or work on toning a specific part of my body, but what I’ve found is that trail running (and I mean with steady climbs, rocks, dirt, roots, etc) works my calves to a great extent. Blanced with yoga, which makes the muscles long and lean, I’m good to go! 🙂

    • Indeed. Basketball really helped my calves develop, and lately, running as well. Calf raises are more of a power thing, and for those that want it, a way to grow that area of the body.

      I’m a firm believer in weight training for any athlete, whoever they are or whatever sport. So I still do calf raises. I just cringe when I see people doing them wrong. For that matter, poor form on any weight exercise is like nails on a chalkboard to me! The weight room is one area in life where I’m a little OCD.

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