Calves are notoriously hard muscles to grow. So much so that in 2019, more than $2 million was spent on calf augmentation surgeries, according to a report from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. That's less than was spent on breast augmentations or nose jobs, but it isn't zero.
If your goal is to train your lower legs into sleek, diamond-shaped calves without going under the knife, you're probably doing calf raises. If you're feeling a bit frustrated about your lack of gains, you could be making one or more of these seven mistakes. Fix them with these simple solutions, and you'll get more strength and size in your calf muscles.
1. You’re Doing All Your Calf Raises in the Same Position
Quick anatomy lesson: Your "calf" isn't just one muscle. It's a complex of several muscles that makes up your lower leg, including your gastrocnemius, soleus and tibialis anterior. If you're only doing one kind of calf raise, you're only optimally training one of these muscles.
"A standing, straight-leg calf raise hits, primarily, more of the gastrocnemius," says Glenn Higgins, a Surrey, England-based personal trainer. But a bent-leg, seated calf raise includes more of the soleus muscle, as bending the knee largely "turns off" the gastrocnemius, he says.
The tibialis anterior is often skipped, but it's also the site of many tendonitis issues, can cause shin splint issues and is important for knee and ankle stabilization, says Shawn Arent, PhD, professor and chair of the department of exercise science at the University of South Carolina.
“To optimally train [the three muscles] of the lower leg complex, you need three movements,” Arent says. Mix up your calf raise variations, including bent-knee and straight-leg calf raises. And switch up your foot positions to target both heads of the gastrocnemius and the tibialis anterior.
For the tibialis anterior, Arent suggests adding a slightly altered seated calf raise. “In the seated calf raise position, move your heels forward [on the pad], and move your toes up and down to do the exercise.”
You can also customize your standing calf raises to grow your gastrocnemius by changing your foot position. In an April 2020 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers found that by performing standing calf raises with the foot pointed slightly inward, the outside (lateral) head of the gastrocnemius grew more.
By pointing the toes slightly outward, the inside (medial) head of the gastrocnemius had more growth. Performing a mix of these foot positions — as well as doing the exercise with your toes pointed straight forward — can ensure you’re growing the entire gastrocnemius muscle.
2. You Blast Through Your Reps at Warp Speed
Many people program their calf raises for late in their workouts (see mistake 6 on this list), so they're in a rush to get out of the gym. As a result, they rush the exercise and don't do the full range of motion, says Tatiana Lampa, a certified personal trainer in New York and founder of Training with T.
"Most of them emphasize the upward phase, but should really bring the heel down to get the full benefits of the range of motion," she says. "Some people also don't come full up from their heels, again making the range of motion smaller."
Sacrificing range of motion lessens the contraction of the muscle you're trying to train. You're also reducing the amount of time that the calves are contracting, says Jared Meacham, PhD, CSCS, a fitness professional in Silver Spring, Maryland.
"The science is pretty mixed on 'time under tension,'" he says. The traditional strategy of "time under tension" says that the longer a muscle is being strained — through more or longer reps — the more it will grow. Though certain muscles, like the biceps, grow faster with faster reps, the calves respond well to more time under tension with slow, controlled reps, Meacham says.
One more reason not to rush: If you do calf raises too fast, you may not be training your calves for strength and size at all, says Arent.
"The calves — and the Achilles — are very good at the stretch reflex. The calf is built to recoil. That's why they're so important to the vertical jump," he says. "If you're bouncing through the range of motion, you could be doing more to activate the stretch reflex than working the muscle."
Slow down! Do your calf raises under control. Pause at the bottom (foot hovering just above the ground) and the top of each rep (and squeeze!) so you’re working the muscle, not your stretch reflex.
3. You’re Not Doing the Optimal Number of Reps
The soleus is about 90 percent type I, or "slow-twitch," muscle fiber, and the gastrocnemius is more than half slow-twitch fiber. This means that the muscle fibers primarily use fat as their fuel, and they're endurance muscles that can be used for a long time without tiring.
There's good reason for that: You're using your calves with every step you take. If they tired out too easily, walking would be a much bigger challenge! That means, to train them, you need to tire them out.
"When we've often read about the 'best way to train your calves,' we take a very polarized approach: It's either 'heavy, hard, bang those suckers because they're so fatigue resistant … you need to expose them to heavy weight because that's not what they're used to,'" Arent says. "And the flip side is 'Type I fibers tend to respond better to more high-volume work, so we need reps reps reps'."
So what's best? A mix.
The truth, Arent says, your calves need a variety of training. “Rather than getting caught up in high reps or low reps, light weight or heavy weight … rotate that type of training with your calf work. Do a little bit of everything.”
Arent suggests alternating your calf training days between a day with lighter weight and a day with heavier weights — approaching failure in both cases. On the light days, you’ll be doing as many as 15 or 20 reps per set, while on the lighter days, you’ll be doing 8 to 12 in each set.
4. You’re Lifting Some of the Weight With Your Hips or Knees
Especially if you're calf raising with a heavy weight, it can be easy to cheat the exercise — without even noticing.
"If I'm not thinking about what I'm doing, I can easily start to move the weight with other muscles — my hip flexors can do most of the work, and I won't even realize it," Meacham says. The calves are relatively small muscles, and there are much bigger muscles throughout the leg. If those big ones take over, you're not really training the calves any more.
"It's not a case of just getting from A to B in the movement. You need to know how you are getting there, and feel that the correct muscles are firing," Higgins says.
Make sure you’re really using your calves when you calf raise. To help create awareness of the calf itself, Higgins suggests performing body-weight reps of any calf exercises to prime and stretch the muscles and establish the mind-muscle connection.
Once you add weight, keep that mind-muscle connection with this coaching cue from Meacham: Instead of focusing on lifting the weight up in your calf raise, focus on pushing your toes down into the ground.
To see how this works, try it while sitting in a chair: You can easily bounce your feet up and down by thinking of lifting your knees up. But concentrating on the act of pushing your toes down into the ground slows the rep down and keeps tension on the calf — where you want it.
5. You Don’t Squeeze at the Top of Each Rep
When trying to increase the size of a muscle, focusing your attention on the contraction of that muscle can help it grow.
In a March 2018 study in the European Journal of Sport Science, a group of untrained college men that focused on contracting the target muscle — getting a good squeeze — saw double the growth in that muscle over eight weeks of training compared to a group that focused on simply lifting the weight.
The calves, like the triceps and the quadriceps, are made up of very tight, dense muscle fibers. "These [types of fibers] respond really well to peak contraction [aka the squeeze]," says Meachum, adding that it also increases your time under tension.
Pause briefly at the top of each rep, contracting your calves to ensure they’re engaging fully. Aim for a one- to two-second squeeze at the top.
6. You Leave Calf Raises for Last in Each Workout
In many ways, this makes sense: You don't want to tire out your calves if you're going to need them for bigger movements where they're also activated, like lunges, squats and step-ups. But if you're hoping for calf growth, leaving them for last can hinder your gains in two ways, according to Meachum:
- You become more likely to skip the exercise.
- Your body may not have the materials it needs to perform full contractions.
"It's a worry from an acid-base standpoint. Lactic levels are up, hydrogen levels are up. The contractions aren't going to be as good … so the stress on the calf isn't good enough to elicit any kind of growth," he says.
If you want your calves to grow, make calf work a priority. Program the exercises into your workout earlier on and make them a default part of your training.
Instead of sacrificing calf contractions for your other, big leg exercises, Meacham suggests programming some calf raises on non-leg days earlier in the workout, performed during rest periods of other moves.
For example, if it’s back day and you’re going to do a set of pull-ups, superset them with heavy rows, then do 2 sets of calf raises, Meacham says.
“You might do 45 seconds of seated calf raises, 45 seconds of standing calf raises. Then your back’s ready to roll again, and you’re back into your pull-ups,” he says.