Calf Training - Research Validates Old School Bodybuilding Practices
Written by: Christopher Barakat, MS, ATC, CISSN
The idea of having six-pack abs, bulging biceps, and a strong bench press to match an aesthetic chest is a pretty common goal amongst most gym-goers. On the other hand, building massive calves isn’t nearly as desired for many. The truth of the matter is, too many people skip leg day, and even those that do train legs, regularly skimp out on calves at the end of their session. Moreover, there is this common belief that the calves are a stubborn muscle to build and don’t respond to resistance-training like other muscle groups. Nonetheless, building impressive calves is still a goal for some; I’d say more serious bodybuilders or those that just really value and emphasize symmetry to their physique.
With that said, I want to cover some basics of calf training and also review a recent scientific study investigating the effects of different foot positioning during calf training & its impact on muscle growth! (6)
Research Review: “Different foot positioning during calf training to induce portion-specific gastrocnemius muscle hypertrophy” – Nunes et al. 2020
Anatomy of the Calves
The calves, scientifically named the tricep surae muscle group, are composed of the soleus and the gastrocnemius. The soleus is a single joint muscle that is responsible for plantarflexion of the ankle. However, because it’s a deep muscle it’s not visible to the human eye since the gastrocnemius lays on top of it. The gastroc is a multi-joint muscle acting on the knee & ankle. Its primary function is to plantarflex the ankle and the secondary function is to flex the knee. However, the gastroc is a bipennate muscle, with medial and lateral heads that also play a role of supination/pronation at the ankle and functionally acts as a sling. Additionally, the gastroc is composed of more ‘fast-twitch’ muscle fibers and the soleus is more ‘slow-twitch’ dominant.
Does this actually matter when it comes to training?
Due to the difference in functional anatomy between the soleus and gastroc, different exercises and even loading schemes have been proposed to augment the best training adaptations. For example, the seated calf raise has been deemed a better exercise to target the soleus due to active insufficiency and the length-tension relationship of the gastroc in that position (2,3). Also, different foot positions have been suggested to impact the muscular demands on the calf musculature. In 2017, Marcori and colleagues(1) demonstrated that muscle activation was altered based on foot position utilizing electromyography (EMG) technology. The found that pointing the toes out during the calf-raise led to more medial head activation and turning the toes-in led to more lateral head activation. However, there is a gap in the literature between acute muscle activation and its impact on hypertrophy(4,5).
Therefore, a group of exercise scientists in Brazil decided to investigate how different foot positions may impact muscle hypertrophy of the gastroc. This study was run by my friend Joao Nunes out of Londrina State University. (6)
HERE is a link to the full study.
This study consisted of 22 subjects and they actually had each subject perform these calf press in a uni-lateral fashion and each leg performed a different variation of the calf press/ was allocated to a different group. This within-subject design significantly strengthens the results by eliminating confounding variables between subjects (e.g. genetics, protein intake, sleep, etc.). Nonetheless, the three groups were; 1: Foot pointed outward (FPO), 2: inward (FPI), or 3: forward (FPF). These subjects trained for 9 weeks (weeks 2-10) and muscle thickness assessment were taken at baseline (Week 1) and post-training (Week 11).
Subjects trained their calves utilizing the leg-press machine and throughout the entire 9 weeks stayed in the 20-25 repetition range with a 1:1:2 tempo (concentric, concentric peak, eccentric). For the first 4 weeks, subjects performed 3 working sets and on the final 4 weeks, volume was increased by performing an additional working set. Additionally, progressive overload was ensured by increasing weight by ~5-10% and training to (or very close to) concentric failure.
So what did they find?
The authors found that all foot positions were able to produce significant growth of the gastroc over the 9-week training period. However, they found that the FPO position was able to produce significantly greater growth of the medial gastroc specifically compared to the other two positions. Also, the FPI position was able to produce greater growth of the lateral head of the gastroc.
Turns out that bodybuilders from the golden-era had their scientific logic proven. Awesome job to Nunes and colleagues(6) for investigating this!
Earlier this week, Kassem Hanson and I sat down to discuss this study. Check out the full discussion below.
So why did the foot positions impact muscle growth?
To keep things simple, because the gastroc is a bipennate muscle, the different foot positions enable us to alter the length and tension stimulus. For example, in the FPO position, the medial head is moving through a slightly greater range of motion, is under a deeper stretch at the bottom of the position and is forced to produce more torque leading to greater muscle activation, mechanotransduction, that ultimately leads to greater hypertrophy. The same holds true for the FPI and the lateral head!
For a lot more insight, be sure to check out the video discussion between Kassem and I!
How should you train your calves?
Well if they are a priority to you, make them a priority! That means, train them early on in the session when you’re fresh and have the most energy to produce the greatest amount of force with greater amounts of overload. Even if they’re not a priority, I often program calf raises at the beginning of a training session because this can increase the range of motion at your ankle joint, which is commonly a limiting factor in people’s ability to squat through greater ROM. Therefore, I personally perform a seated calf raise before forming my major squat compound exercise of the day.
Regardless of the calf exercise I’m performing, I typically utilize the following tempo:
This translates to an explosive concentric (X), one-second pause in the fully shortened position (1), 3-second negative/eccentric (3), and a 1-sec pause at the bottom on the fully stretched position (1). Pausing at the bottom of the movement is extremely important when training calves because your Achilles tendon stores a lot of elastic energy and you can easy use this to bounce through the ROM, rather than having your skeletal muscle appropriately contract (stretch/shorten). Ensuring you train through your full range of motion is going to be crucial when performing these single-joint exercises for the calves.
The repetition range you use during calf training isn’t nearly as important as your execution and intensity (effort). As long as you train close to, or to true concentric failure, you will reap positive benefits. Before I got into bodybuilding, I developed very solid calves from doing body-weight calf raises. I would regularly do 100 calf raises a day. Initially, I performed these calf raises bilaterally and was doing high repetitions per set (i.e. sets of 30+). Once I was able to do a good set of 50 calf raises in one set, I started doing uni-lateral calf raises to increase the load and decrease the repetition range.
Currently, I train calves 2x/week. One day I perform 3 sets of the seated calf raise with a ~15 repetition goal before getting into my squat variation of the day. Later in the week, I perform 4 sets of donkey calf raises for 10-15 repetitions. If you want to really focus on bringing up your calves as quickly as possible, you can consider doing 3 sets of calf raise variations, 3 days per week for a total of 9 working sets per week.
Take Home Messages:
- Calves are NOT a stubborn muscle group, they respond to resistance training similarly to other muscle groups. However, most people don’t give them enough attention (i.e. time, consistency, effort)
- Foot positioning when performing calf-raises can alter neuromuscular adaptations between the medial and lateral head of the gastroc.
- Performing calf raises with your toes pointed out has been shown to lead to more growth of the medial head.
- Performing calf raises with your toes pointed in has been shown to lead to more growth of the lateral head.
- Performing calf raises with a neutral, foot forward position has been shown to increase muscle hypertrophy in both heads; thus you can bias a particular head by altering foot position, or continue to keep it simple.
- Seated calf raises will bias the soleus more and inhibit the gastroc ability to assist because it crosses the knee joint and is in a shortened position, leading to active insufficiency.
- Train your calves through a full ROM and implement a X/1/3/1 tempo.
- Train your calves first if they’re a priority and a muscle group you’re keen on improving upon your physique.
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment below or contact me via email – [email protected]
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