How to grow stubborn calves? Flex Lewis has them in spades, though he rarely sets foot in calf machines. Meanwhile, Big Ramy sports peg legs, even as everything above his knees has ballooned up. Calves, as Millhouse of The Simpsons preaches, are the cruelest muscles. Either you got ’em or you don’t. And if you don’t, it seems like you never will, no matter what you do. You’re cursed. We can’t promise to turn Ramy calves into Lewis cows, but we’ll deliver the best strategies for combating the two largest genetic obstacles.
The calves are dominated by two muscles, the gastrocnemius and, lying beneath it, the soleus. The former is made up of about 50% slow-twitch fibers, on average, and the latter is a whopping 80% slow-twitch, with the rest, in both cases, fast-twitch. (By contrast, the hamstrings are about 70% fast-twitch.) This makes sense because slow-twitch are the endurance fibers, and your calves do a lot of low-intensity work, walking and standing.
Slow-twitch take longer to fatigue than their fast cousins, and they recover quicker. They’re also slower growers. Back to those average percentages, there’s a lot of variability in the numbers. How much? One study found the soleus slow-twitch ranged from 64-100% and the gastrocnemius from 34-82%. So, it’s probable those who grow easily from calf raises have more fast-twitch while those who work twice as hard for none of the growth possess almost entirely slow-twitch. And this is determined by your DNA. Some people are sprinters (more fast-twitch), some are marathoners (more slow-twitch).
There are two schools of thought on calf rep-ranges: go high and light to tire out the enduring slow-twitch fibers or go low and heavy because calves are already accustomed to high-rep work (walking). We offer a third school that splits the difference: Go moderately-high (10-20 reps) with the heaviest weights you can use through full ranges of motion. What your calves are really used to is quick, half reps (walking), so go slow and maximize the stretch and contraction on each rep. They’re also used to bodyweight resistance, so up the weights whenever possible.
The moderately-high reps and progressive-strength strategy was adopted by a dude named Arnold Schwarzenegger, who remains one of the few bodybuilders who turned a glaring calf weakness (in the ’60s) into a strength (in the ’70s). Curse be damned. He also took advantage of slow-twitch fibers’ rapid recovery by hitting calves with 15 sets every training day (six days per week). You likely don’t have the time for this (Arnold was working out twice daily). Still, try hitting calves in every other workout.
“If I had calves like that, I’d wear shorts all the time, even in the winter,” Johnnie Jackson joked about Erik Fankhouser’s calves backstage at the 2010 Mr. Olympia. The main difference between Jackson’s “pipe-cleaners” and Fankhouser’s “footballs,” other than their circumferences, is that the former was cursed with short muscles and long tendons while the latter was blessed with the inverse. Muscle attachments and lengths are crucial components of muscle size, and nowhere is this more evident than the lower legs. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to “pull down” high calves. (Even implants merely push out short gastro.) You need a workaround.
HIGH GASTRO STRATEGY
If you have very high gastrocnemii (yep, that’s the plural), your best strategy is to shift much of the focus to your solei (also the plural), because the solei attach much lower and can therefore give some breadth to the rest of your lower legs. Try doing twice as much soleus work as gastrocnemius work.
Our sample routine doubles up on seated calf raises (with different rep schemes), but you can also install some exercise variety by doing some seated raises one-legged or free-weight (with a barbell or two dumbbells held on your thighs near your knees). We’ve added tibia raises—done with a tibia machine, a band, or a leg curl machine (seated and facing backwards)—because growing this shin muscle will give depth to your lower legs from the front. If you’re never going to have impressive gastros because they’re hiding up high, don’t keep doing the same thing that’s never worked. Think different. Work the rest of your lower legs harder.
(Opening photo: Bodybuilding contest, Kaliningrad, Russia, 2016 / Wikimedia Commons)