Nice, well-defined quads complete with that enviable side sweep. Thick, bulging hamstrings that complement your powerful glutes.
Continue scanning down and … so-small-you’d-need-a-magnifying-glass-to-see calves?
Uh-uh. That’s a definite no-go for most lifters.
For one, it immediately (and unfortunately) discounts the aesthetics of your physique. And two, it puts you at an increased risk of lifting injuries; as large and powerful as your quads are, you’ll still need your calves to help stabilize knee flexion and ankle movement.
In other words: you’re as strong as your weakest link, which, in this case, is your calves.
"But I've already tried calves raises! They didn't work! I don't have the right genetics.” — You.
To that, all we have to say is this: you better pick up that towel
Because, yes, while genetics will determine how large your calves can get (maybe you won’t get calves like Erick Fankhouser), the truth is that anyone can transform their calves from barely there to big and juicy with a few tweaks to how and when they do their calves raises.
Meet your calf muscles
Okay, so first, let’s talk about the muscles in your calves. Unlike your back, which literally has so many muscles (from your traps to rhomboids to lats to erector spinae), your calf muscles consist only of two primary muscles:
- Gastrocnemius (the bulkier calf muscle under the skin): "Gastroc" for short from now on because it's a handful to type. This muscle has "two heads" that originate on the outside of the femur and join together, attaching at the Achilles tendon.
- Soleus (the flat muscle that sits deeper than the gastroc): This muscle originates on the posterior surface of the tibia and the fibula and joins the gastroc into the Achilles tendon.
Calves raises will grow your calves (you’re just doing them wrong 🤷♀️)
Do calves raises grow your calves? Yes — 100%. To favorably target the:
Soleus: Heavy, seated calves raises through full range of motion
Find that hard to believe because you haven’t seen any growth from calves raises? Well … here are three questions that’ll help you troubleshoot where you’re going wrong. Please be honest with yourself (only you know the answers!)
#1: How many sets of calves raises do you do weekly?
How many sets of exercises do you dedicate to your biceps? What about your quads?
Now, compare your answers to how many sets you do for your calves: are they in very different ranges? E.g., 12 sets for your chest vs. 3 sets for your calves?
If so, that's probably why your calves aren't growing. You simply aren't hitting them with enough training volume. Like all muscle groups, your calves will require a weekly volume of at least 8 to 12 sets (and that’s the range for beginner lifters!)
#2: At what point of your workout do you do those calves raises?
Getting a little red-faced and ashamed? Uh … we’re not done.
But, believe us, while the truth hurts, really owning up to the mistakes you’re making with your calves training — and putting in the effort to fix them — will help you experience growth like never before. #Toughlove
So, here’s the next question: when do you perform your calves raises? Is it at the very, very end of your workout session, where you’re likely already totaled from:
• 5 sets of barbell back squats
• 3 sets of Romanian deadlifts
• 4 sets of glute-ham raises AND
• 4 sets of leg extensions
Listen, if you want to grow your calves, they’re just like any other muscle group. You need to prioritize them. Put them first in your training session.
This prevents you from opting for a lighter-than-you-should-be-lifting weight, skipping out on calves raises completely, or cheating (we’ll talk about this in a bit) your reps due to accumulated fatigue.
#3: Are you bouncing (read: cheating) out of the bottom position?
This question might sound weird, but really think about it: would someone watching you perform calves raises describe your reps as … well, bouncy?
Do you immediately “spring up” upon reaching the bottom range of the position? Yeah. We have news for you.
Muscles grow better when you emphasize the stretch (i.e., the bottom position). We see it in the biceps. We see it in the quads. The same goes for the triceps and hamstrings. So, you can bet that we'll see it in the calves, too — and research agrees. Let's look at two different studies:
- 2001 study published in Acta Physiologica Scandinavica: Participants who performed the leg press with a plantarflexed ankle (i.e., the foot pointed away from the body) experienced decreased gastroc size.
- 2022 study published in Frontiers in Physiology: Participants who stretched their calf muscles daily for six weeks saw an increase in 15% of their gastroc size. Note: this is just from stretching!
So, whenever you're performing calves raises, hold the stretch at the bottom for at least five seconds. You may also wish to add in loaded stretches for more extended periods (e.g., 60 seconds) if you wish (and can take the pain).
Stop making excuses for why XX muscle isn’t growing
When you aren’t seeing the growth you want, it’s tempting to blame your genetics. But that’s doing yourself a disservice.
Yes, as mentioned earlier, all muscles have a large genetic component for every individual — but everyone can grow their muscles with proper training modalities (and the right mindset). How would you know how far you can go without even trying?
If calves aren’t your only problem area, here’s how we’d suggest “troubleshooting” your lagging muscle groups:
- Calculate weekly training volume (psst: this is where a workout tracker, like GymStreak, comes in handy 😉)
- Study exercise selection — are you choosing the right exercises to target that muscle group?
- Relook at your form. Are you transferring the load to another muscle group?
- Find ways to improve your workout programming (e.g., rest days)
Found that overwhelming? Prefer to offload all these to someone else? Good news: you can. GymStreak, the AI-powered personal trainer app, can help track, plan, and guide you through your workout sessions.
See it in action here:
We'll guide you through it all — step-by-step. Just download the app, and you'll achieve your goal physique in no time.
Akima, H., Kubo, K., Imai, M., Kanehisa, H., Suzuki, Y., Gunji, A., & Fukunaga, T. (2001). Inactivity and muscle: Effect of resistance training during bed rest on muscle size in the lower limb. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 172(4), 269–278. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-201x.2001.00869.x
Maeo, S., Huang, M., Wu, Y., Sakurai, H., Kusagawa, Y., Sugiyama, T., Kanehisa, H., & Isaka, T. (2021). Greater Hamstrings Muscle Hypertrophy but Similar Damage Protection after Training at Long versus Short Muscle Lengths. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 53(4), 825–837. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000002523
Maeo, S., Wu, Y., Huang, M., Sakurai, H., Kusagawa, Y., Sugiyama, T., Kanehisa, H., & Isaka, T. (2022). Triceps brachii hypertrophy is substantially greater after elbow extension training performed in the overhead versus neutral arm position. European Journal of Sport Science, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2022.2100279
Pedrosa, G. F., Lima, F. V., Schoenfeld, B. J., Lacerda, L. T., Simões, M. G., Pereira, M. R., Diniz, R. C. R., & Chagas, M. H. (2022). Partial range of motion training elicits favorable improvements in muscular adaptations when carried out at long muscle lengths. European Journal of Sport Science, 22(8), 1250–1260. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2021.1927199
Sato, S., Yoshida, R., Kiyono, R., Yahata, K., Yasaka, K., Nunes, J. P., Nosaka, K., & Nakamura, M. (2021). Elbow Joint Angles in Elbow Flexor Unilateral Resistance Exercise Training Determine Its Effects on Muscle Strength and Thickness of Trained and Non-trained Arms. Frontiers in Physiology, 12, 734509. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2021.734509
Warneke, K., Brinkmann, A., Hillebrecht, M., & Schiemann, S. (2022). Influence of Long-Lasting Static Stretching on Maximal Strength, Muscle Thickness and Flexibility. Frontiers in Physiology, 13. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2022.878955