best calf exercises for mass

If you weren’t blessed with genetically muscular calves, adding significant size to this area of your physique can often be a challenge.

While some trainees seem to be able to gain mass just by looking at a calf raise machine, others can go years while experiencing only minimal progress.

In this article I’ll be outlining the 5 best calf exercises out there along with a few tips, tricks and sample calf workouts that you can start employing right away to finally begin seeing some measurable results.

Basic Calf Anatomy

calf anatomy

There are 2 individual heads that make up the complete calf muscle group…

Gastrocnemius – This is the major visible portion of the calf and is where the majority of your calf muscle mass resides. The function of the gastrocnemius is to elevate your heel when your knees are in a relatively straight position.

Soleus – This is the smaller portion of the calf that lies underneath the gastrocnemius. Its function is to elevate the heel when the knees are in a bent position.

Although both the gastrocnemius and soleus contribute to your overall calf development, the gastrocnemius is by far the most important head to pay attention to since it makes up the vast majority of the calf muscle.

Also keep in mind that the soleus will still be activated heavily during gastrocnemius-targeted exercises, while the gastrocnemius will not fire significantly during soleus-targeted exercises.

The 5 Best Calf Exercises

calf workouts

While there is a massive list of potential calf exercises that you could perform as part of your workout plan, there’s really no need to over-complicate things here.

Your goal should be to select exercises that allow you to place as much direct overload on the calf muscles as possible while minimizing the need to balance and coordinate the weight throughout the movement.

This is why machine exercises are generally superior, as they allow you to place 100% of your focus on generating maximum tension in the calves while handling a large amount of overall resistance.

Here are the 5 best calf exercises to place the majority of your focus on…

#1 Standing Machine Calf Raises

standing machine calf raise

There’s really no way that you can go wrong with a basic standing machine calf raise. This exercise allows you to hammer your calves with a high level of intensity while keeping the weight completely steady and balanced for you.

Make sure to perform this lift with the largest range of motion possible by lowering yourself until your heels hang off the platform and raising yourself up until your heels are as high as possible.

As with all calf exercises, make sure to perform the exercise under strict control by utilizing a deliberate 3-4 second negative followed by a controlled positive with a brief pause at the top of the movement.

In order to generate maximum tension in the gastrocnemius, focus on raising yourself up onto your big toe rather than the entire ball of your foot. This prevents your foot from rolling outward and shifting the stress onto the soleus.

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#2 Smith Machine Calf Raises

smith machine calf raise

If your gym does not have a standing machine calf raise (or if you simply prefer this variation), performing your standing calf raises on a smith machine is also a great option.

The form should be executed in the same way here (3-4 second negative, pause at the top and raising up onto your big toe), but make sure to place a platform beneath your feet to allow for a full range of motion.

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#3 One-Legged Dumbbell Calf Raises

dumbbell calf raise

Another highly effective standing calf raise variation, this exercise is executed by holding a dumbbell in one hand and performing a one-legged calf raise on the corresponding leg.

Make sure to perform this exercise on a platform to allow for a full range of motion and hold onto a stationary object with your free hand to keep yourself balanced.

Although a freeweight exercise, it is fairly easy to train your calves with a high level of intensity since only one calf is being used to move the weight. This allows you to reach muscular failure with a fairly low amount of resistance.

The only downside to this exercise is that it is less efficient since you’ll have to perform twice as many sets.

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#4 Leg Press Calf Raise

leg press calf raise

Another option for targeting the gastrocnemius is to perform your calf raises on a leg press machine.

Sit on the leg press machine and hold the sled in place using only the balls of your feet and your toes. Keep your hips and knees stationary and produce all of the movement through your ankles only.

The same basic technique should be applied here as well: a slow 3-4 second negative, controlled positive, full range of motion and pressing the sled using your big toe to maximize gastrocnemius activation.

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#5 Seated Machine Calf Raises

seated machine calf raise

While the previous 4 exercises primarily target the gastrocnemius, the seated machine calf raise keeps the knees in a bent position to primarily stimulate the soleus.

Seated calf raises are not a mandatory exercise, but if you do decide to include them, make sure to do so at the very end of your calf workout.

The only difference in execution here is that you can raise up onto the entire ball of your foot rather than your big toe, since the soleus is the primary targeted head.

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Frequency, Sets & Reps

best calf exercises

Because your calves are heavily utilized throughout your entire day to support your body weight as you walk around, they are a very “tough” muscle that can withstand and recover from a lot of abuse.

For that reason, there is no set-in-stone approach in terms of training frequency and number of sets performed. A lot of it will come down to you, your current calf development and how much training you can effectively recover from.

For most people, 2 calf workouts per week is a good starting point. If your calf development continues to lag even at that frequency, try bumping it up to 3 or even more calf workouts per week until you start seeing noticeable results.

An effective calf workout should utilize 2-3 basic exercises of 2-4 sets each. Again, you’ll have to play around with this and see what works best for you as an individual. My recommendation would be to select 2 gastrocnemius targeted exercises followed by 1 optional soleus targeted exercise.

In terms of reps, anywhere as low as 5 reps all the way up to 15 will produce results in the calves. The calves are a highly variable muscle group that respond well to a variety of different rep protocols.

However, since the gastrocnemius is primarily a fast-twitch muscle group, a “sweet spot” of around 5-7 reps is what I would recommend for standing calf raise movements.

The soleus, on the other hand, is primarily a slow-twitch muscle group, and 8-10 reps would be the ideal range I would suggest for seated calf raise movements.

Sample Calf Workouts

build calf muscle

Putting all of this information together, here are a few sample calf workouts you can utilize as part of your training plan…

Sample Calf Workout #1

Standing Machine Calf Raise – 3-4 sets of 5-7 reps
Leg Press Machine Calf Raise – 3-4 sets of 5-7 reps
Seated Machine Calf Raise – 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps

Sample Calf Workout #2

Smith Machine Calf Raise – 3-4 sets of 5-7 reps
One-Legged Dumbbell Calf Raise – 3-4 sets of 5-7 reps
Seated Machine Calf Raise – 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps

Sample Calf Workout #3

Standing Machine Calf Raise – 3-4 sets of 5-7 reps
One-Legged Dumbbell Calf Raise – 3-4 sets of 5-7 reps

Sample Calf Workout #4

Leg Press Machine Calf Raise – 3-4 sets of 5-7 reps
Smith Machine Calf Raise – 3-4 sets of 5-7 reps

Again, these are just some ideas for you to play around with, as there are many different exercise, set, rep and frequency combinations that will work very well for the calves.

Just make sure to place 100% of your focus on training your calves with a high level of intensity (effective calf training should be very uncomfortable and challenging to perform) and increasing the amount of weight lifted on each exercise every week or two.

As long as you’re making use of the 5 calf exercises outlined in this article, employing the form tips mentioned and remaining consistent with your training, you should be experiencing steady, consistent gains in calf size and strength.

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