How to get bigger calves: the complete guide

Developed calf muscles

So, you want bigger calves?  

Maybe you’ve been seeing big gains in other areas of your body, but your calves aren’t progressing much?

Maybe people are commenting on your small calves?

Or maybe you want to start training your calves after neglecting them for a while?

We’ve all been there!

Luckily, you’ve just stumbled upon the best guide on the internet for getting amazing looking and bigger calves.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this post:

Table of contents

Why would you want bigger calves?
Anatomy of the calves
Do I have bad calf genetics?
The best exercises for getting bigger calves
How will I see progress?
Sample week of calf workouts
The bottom line

Why would you want bigger calves?

You can have huge arms, a great looking chest, and Arnold-style quads, but if your calves are small then they probably don’t look very aesthetic in comparison to the rest of your body.

Here’s a picture of a bodybuilder with relatively under-developed calves, and we can clearly see how they don’t compare to the rest of his highly developed body:

Bodybuilder small calves

I see so many people at the gym train their calves several times a week, but they don’t get the results they want.  In some cases they barely see any growth at all!

This is usually due to doing exercises that don’t target the calves directly enough, but there could be other reasons, too.

Some people were born with calves that were apparently crafted by the gods themselves, while the rest of us have a slight genetic disadvantage when it comes to getting our calves to grow.

Shorter people also have it much easier when it comes to getting great looking calves.

If you’re tall, you’re going to have a harder time getting bigger looking calves because the muscle insertion is very high up your leg.

Fear not! We’re going to look at why genetics aren’t necessarily a barrier for getting bigger calves later on in the article.

Anatomy of the calves

To really understand how to get bigger calves, we need to understand the basic anatomy of the calves.

The calves are made up of two muscles:

  1. The gastrocnemius muscle

This is the large muscle that makes up most of the visible “bulk” of the calf

  1. The soleus muscle

This muscle is found deep underneath the gastrocnemius muscle

Here’s what those muscles look like:

Anatomy of calf mucles

These muscles have the main function of flexing the ankle, but the gastrocnemius muscle is also involved in knee flexion.

As far as aesthetics is concerned, we need to focus mainly on the gastrocnemius, but a developed soleus muscle is fundamental for muscle function and for that extra visual “bulk”.

Do I have bad calf genetics?

I know that the term “calf genetics” sounds ridiculous and pseudoscientific, but check out the explanation:

There are two main types of muscle fibers, Type 1 and Type 2 fibers.

Type 1 fibers:

These are more commonly referred to as “slow twitch” muscle fibers, and they have a fairly low level of growth and strength but are highly resistant to fatigue.

Type 2 fibers:

These are usually referred to as “fast twitch” muscle fibers, and they offer a high level of growth and strength but they fatigue much more quickly than Type 1 fibers.

Depending on your genetics, your muscles might be made up of a different combination of Type 1 and Type 2 fibers compared to someone else.

In other words, your friend with naturally massive calves might have a lower proportion of Type 1 fibers than you, making it much easier for him to bulk up his calves.

To get even more specific, your friend’s gastrocnemius muscle might be made up of 70% Type 2 fibers.

Your gastrocnemius muscle?  Maybe it’s only made up of 20% Type 2 fibers.

But forget about your friend and his big beautiful calves!

With the right calves training routine, you can get the results you want, it might just take more effort and a little extra time.

The best exercises for getting bigger calves

Calf growth exercise

Calf exercises can be separated into two main movement types:

1 – Calf raise

This is when you use your calf muscles to raise and lower the rest of your body.

2 – Calf press

This is when you press your toes against resistance

These two types of movements can be done in a standing or seated variant, depending on what area of the calf you want to target.

Standing raises and presses are done with the legs straight (but not necessarily standing up), which targets the gastrocnemius muscle much more.

Seated raises and presses are done with the legs bent, which mainly targets the soleus muscle.

You might think you’d prefer just to do just the standing variant of these exercises, and you’d be half right.

Ideally, you’ll be doing more standing calf exercises than seated ones, that way you’ll be developing the bulky gastrocnemius muscle.  BUT, you also have to do seated variations to make sure you’re not neglecting the functional and aesthetic potential of the soleus muscle.

Now, before we jump into specific exercises, I want to take a moment to talk about technique.

I see so many people stack super heavy weights when working out their calves, but their form and range of motion are terrible.

The golden rule for calf exercises is: Complete and controlled range of motion for every exercise.

If you’re not completing the movement properly, or if you’re doing it too quickly with terrible form, then you’re not going to see the growth you want.  It’s that simple.

Slow, full reps only.

Ok, here comes the good part, let’s move on to specific exercises!

Standing calf raises

This exercise is the foundation of any good calves routine, and depending on the equipment you have available, it can be done with a calf raise machine or with a barbell.

As I mentioned earlier, this exercise is done standing so it will focus on your gastrocnemius muscle.

Here’s a video of the exercise done on a calf raise machine:

Here’s a video of the barbell calf raise:

Seated calf raises

This is going to be your go-to seated calf exercise, and it’s all you need to target the soleus muscle.

The vast majority of gyms have a machine for seated calf raises, but if yours doesn’t, there’s a barbell alternative.

Here’s a video of the machine seated calf raises:

And here’s a video of the exercise done with a barbell:

Calf press on the leg press machine

This is the best alternative to the standing calf raise, and you might feel that it’s a more comfortable option for you to target the gastrocnemius.  It’s also a good option when you just want to switch things up or if the barbell or calf raise machine isn’t free.

Here’s a video that shows the proper form for the calf press on leg press machine:

Donkey calf raise

This might look a little weird, but the donkey calf raise is a very popular calf exercise.

Some people find it more comfortable, or feel that it targets their gastrocnemius much more directly.

Here’s how the donkey calf raise should be done:

If your gym doesn’t have a machine for the donkey calf raise, try this variation:

How will I see progress?

Body builder calves

Well, as far as exercises are concerned, those four are all you need.

The problem for a lot of people is that they do the same exercises with the same weight for months and months on end, and they obviously don’t see any growth in the muscle.

The following tips will help you do these exercises with proper form for maximum growth.

Progressive overload

Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed on a muscle during weight training.

This is done simply by increasing the weight that you’re lifting over a period of time.  This applies to every single muscle group in the body, and the calves are no exception.

Low and high rep exercises

The calves are incredibly resistant to both low and high rep exercises, so another great way to promote growth is through a combination of both.

This takes us back to the fact that calves are made from both Type 1 and Type 2 muscle fibers.

Type 1 fibers respond better to high rep ranges, while Type 2 fibers respond very well to low rep ranges.

Workout frequency

I’m not going to pretend that growing your calves can be done with minimal effort or with “this one simple trick”, because it’s just not true.

You have to specifically focus on your calves several times a week, and go HARD several times a week.  That means making space in your workout schedule to do calf exercises.

If you think your calves are seriously under-developed, or if you’ve never worked your calves out before, start with a minimum of 8 sets a week.

For most people, it’s best to start with 12 to 16 sets a week.

If you feel like you aren’t exhausting the muscle much, or if you already have decent strength in your calves, go for 20 sets a week and see how you feel.

All of these should be spread out over 2 to 4 workouts a week.

Weight load

Stay around the 60-70% of 1 Rep Max. (1RM) range for best results.  If you see no growth at all after a few weeks of consistent calf workouts, try 70-80% of 1RM range.

If you do decide to increase weight, just make sure to maintain a full and controlled range of motion throughout.

Your 1RM is the maximum weight you can lift for a single repetition.

If you’re not sure what your 1RM is, use this calculator.

Be careful with DOMS

For those who are working out their calves for the first time, the DOMS are going to be out of this world and you’ll be walking like a duck for a few days.

In this case, go easy on the first week of training and only do 8 sets.  Then increase workout frequency as you see fit.

Pro tip for a bad case of calf DOMS: Take the elevator.  The stairs will make you want to chop your legs off.

Range of motion

I know we already covered this briefly, but it’s so important that it needs its own section.

If you’re only doing half-reps, you won’t see any growth.  It’s that simple.

At the bottom of a calf raise, you’ll need to hold the stretch for a couple of seconds, and at the top of the movement hold the contraction for about two seconds again.

Here’s a picture of what the stretch and contraction positions should look like for calf raises:

Range of motion calf exercise

Foot position

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what position to put your feet in when doing seated calf raises for example.

Toes pointed inwards? Feet close together? Toes pointed outwards?

A 2017 study showed that there was no significant difference between different feet positions.

So, it’s best to choose what’s most comfortable for you.  This will probably mean placing your feet just narrower than shoulder width with feet either pointed straight ahead, or pointed slightly outwards.

Sample week of calf workouts

Calf press exercise

Here’s an example of how you could set up your week of calf workouts.

The sets have been divided into 3 days, and you should rest your calves for one day in between.

Between exercises, rest for about 2 minutes.

Workout 1

  • Seated calf raise

3 sets of 12-15 reps

  • Standing calf raise

3 sets of 12-15 reps

Workout 2

  • Calf press on leg press machine

3 sets of 8-10 reps

  • Donkey calf raise

3 sets of 8-10 reps

Workout 3

  • Standing calf raise

3 sets of 4-6 reps

  • Seated calf raise

3 sets of 4-6 reps 

The bottom line about getting bigger calves

Like I said earlier, getting big calves is no walk in the park (we all wish walking in the park gave us huge calves).

You have to commit to making enough time for multiple calf workouts every week.

Every exercise must be done with a complete range of motion, and a slow controlled movement.  That means no jumping about or using momentum so spring yourself up and down.  If you do that, you’ll probably just be using some other muscle instead of your calves.

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What do you think?

Everyone has different experiences with calf workouts, so I want to know what’s worked for you and what hasn’t.

Leave a comment below with your favourite calves exercises (or the ones you hate doing), and let me know if I left any important tips out of this guide!

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