When you think of building muscle mass, you might envision long, tedious hours spent in the gym lifting weights. But you can also grow your muscles by running — yes, even smaller muscles like your calves.
Located on the back of your lower legs below your knees, your calves are a two-headed muscle group consisting of the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the larger of the two and makes up the bulging shape of the calf. The soleus is seated deeply in your calf under the gastrocnemius.
With every step you take, your calf muscles are working hard to propel you forward by lifting your heel when your leg is both straight and bent. So, the more you run, the more they'll work and the bigger — and stronger — they'll become.
So, does running make your calves bigger? And if so, what type of running is best? Ahead, we'll dive into what you have to do to build muscle mass and how running — and strength training — can help grow your calves.
How Muscles Grow Bigger
When muscles increase in size through exercise, it's called muscle hypertrophy. The primary goal of muscle hypertrophy is for your muscles to get bigger, rather than for your muscles to get stronger, per the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA). That's not to say your muscles won't get stronger during the process though!
Your muscles grow when they're stressed enough to break down, causing microtears, according to University Hospitals. When your body repairs these microtears, your muscles grow back bigger (and stronger).
While running doesn't break down your muscles to the same degree strength training does, logging miles does still cause microtears — specifically in your legs.
Does Running Make Your Calves Bigger?
Now that we've covered how to grow your muscles bigger, we can answer the question: Does running increase your calf size?
The type of running you do — distance running or sprinting — makes a difference when it comes to building calf muscle size. That's because each type of running recruits one of two types of muscle fiber — slow-twitch or fast-twitch — each of which has a different result in the size of your muscles.
You use slow-twitch muscle fibers when you run long distances, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). These fibers aren't as strong as their fast-twitch counterparts (more on them below), but they can work for long periods of time without fatiguing due to their good oxygen supply.
Fast-twitch muscle fibers, on the other hand, come in handy when you're doing more explosive movements — like sprinting — per the NASM. That's because fast-twitch fibers are stronger than slow-twitch fibers. However, fast-twitch fibers do tire faster, so it's harder to sustain these efforts over a long period of time.
Due to the extraordinary amounts of explosive power required to sprint short distances, the calf muscles of short-distance runners tend to be large. In addition to sprinting, running up hills, doing plyometric drills (like hopping and skipping) and performing calf-specific strength exercises (like the moves below) all rely on your fast-twitch muscles and will build muscle mass in your calves.
While you may wish to shape your calves to suit your preferred running distance, focusing solely growing your calves may be detrimental to your goals. Your exercise program should combine muscle-strengthening and cardiovascular exercise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Similarly, your calf workouts shouldn't focus exclusively on either bulking or toning exercises. For distance runners, the added power provided by resistance exercises may help on uphill climbs and race-closing sprints, while the endurance provided by long-distance running may benefit sprinters who compete in multiple races over a short span of time.
Do Bigger Calves Make You Faster?
The size of your calves does not determine your running speed. The strength of your calves, however, does play a role. The stronger your calf muscles are, the faster they'll be able to propel you forward — and the faster you'll be able to run.
The Best Exercises for Bigger Calves
Is running good for your calves? In short, yes. But while running is helpful for building bigger, stronger calves, you can do strength exercises that help grow this muscle, too. Here are a few to add to your routine, according to the ISSA.
For best results, do 4 to 5 sets of 6 to 12 reps of each exercise.
1. Stair Calf Raise
- Stand on the edge of a stair so that only the balls of your feet are on the stair and your heels are hanging over the edge. (Stand on flat ground if you don't have access to stairs.)
- Hold onto a stair rail for balance, if necessary.
- Rise up on your toes, and then slowly lower your heels so that they come below the stair and you feel a stretch through your calf muscle.
- Hold for a moment before rising up again and repeating.
2. Seated Calf Raise
- Begin seated with a flat back and a moderate or heavy dumbbell resting across your thighs, just above your knees.
- Remaining seated, press through the balls of your feet to raise your heels and the dumbbell as high as possible.
- Pause here for a moment then slowly lower your heels back to the floor.
3. Jump Squat
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes facing forward or slightly outward.
- Keeping your feet flat on the floor and back straight, brace your core and push your hips back and down until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or as low as you can comfortably go).
- From the bottom of your squat, push through your feet to jump explosively off the ground. (You can extend your arms down along your sides as you do.)
- Land safely with your knees slightly bent.
4. Farmer's Carry
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Choose a weight that's heavy enough to challenge you yet light enough that you can maintain good posture while walking.
- Engage your core, pull your shoulder blades back and down and stand tall. Avoid allowing the weights to touch your outer thighs.
- Take a small step forward and begin walking. Walk quickly, taking small steps, while still keeping your spine tall, shoulders back and head up.
- Continue walking for a specified time, distance or number of steps.
- ISSA: "Calf Workout: Top Exercises for Building Bigger Calves"
- ISSA: "What Is Hypertrophy? Definition, Types, Training Tips & More"
- University Hospitals: "How Microtears Help You to Build Muscle Mass"
- NASM: "FAST-TWITCH VS. SLOW-TWITCH MUSCLE FIBER TYPES + TRAINING TIPS"
- CDC: "How much physical activity do adults need?"