A bootcamp for the calves
Having lower legs without calf muscles sucks. I know it by experience. True, you can live with it. You won’t feel the absence of spectacular calves. It’s just quite depressive to see a relatively well developed upper body standing on two pathetic drumsticks. No matter how spectacular the rest of your body may look. If the sticks keep sticking out of your shorts, it’s just a question of time when you will be asked this question: “You don’t do your legs, do you?” As if your legs were limited to your calves; as if there was no such a thing as lousy genetics; and as if nothing else mattered. People tend to notice flaws easier. Well, that’s that. But it would be a shame to blame it all on genetics even though you can do something about it. Let’s see, how!
A bootcamp for the calves
Maybe you have crappy calves for genetic reasons; maybe not. You may try to do something about it, you may not. Or, you do, but your efforts do not seem to be rewarded. In this case you might consider some aspects regarding workout technique. Because the ONLY remedy for calf-less lower legs is hard training. It’s not enough to bomb your calves once a week. This muscle group is special in this respect. The calf muscles, a.k.a. triceps surae are extremely strong. After all, they move your whole bodyweight several thousand times a day when you are walking. Hence you need to provide this muscle group much stronger stimuli than average in order to make it grow.
However, the shape of the calf is mostly determined by genetic traits; apart from that, themusculus gastrocnemius is the most important muscle, which strongly determines its size and shape. The calf muscle itself is made up by the musculus gastrocnemius and the soleus together. The soleus and the Achilles tendon are literally the “Achilles heel” of the calf, since the length of the Achilles is decisive: The longer your Achilles tendons, the higher your calves are connected to your tibia (shank bones). Plus, you might take a whole lot of load off your calf muscles while exercising, if you let your soleus and Achilles do the work instead of the “real” muscles.
If you are moving in a too dynamic, fast and less concentrated manner while exercising your calves, the elastic energy stored in your Achilles tendons will make you bounce up and down like a piston, but without actually exercising your muscles. And if you are too lazy and use the seated calf machine all the time, the soleus will get more load than the musculus gastrocnemius. Again, this is as good as nothing. To cut a long story short, you should make sure you kill these muscles from as many different angles as possible, as concentrated as possible, with the highest intensity, volume and load possible, in order to make them grow.
First of all: Attack them from all directions!
This is the starting point. If all your calf training was 3 x 30 standing calf raises so far, it is probably high time you changed this regime: Do both standing and seated calf raises to target the soleus, too. This is particularly useful if your calves are high, because this way you can make the lower part of your calves stronger. Try doing each exercise single-legged; work them with free weights; work them with machines; work them in all possible ways!
How to bomb the tibialis
There are thousands of tricks. Furthermore, the calves adapt to a certain kind of load quite fast, so it might be a good idea to do a different calf workout each time. You might as well attack them from the front, not just from behind (I mean the calves, of course :)). The tibialis anticus connects along your tibia (shank bones). And these muscles are in fact involved in the game when your feet are pointing upwards (towards your tibia) instead of downwards.
Inwards or outwards?
In both directions. You can isolate the interior and exterior heads of the musculus gastrocnemius almost completely by changing the position of your feet. According to the common stereotype, if your feet are pointing outwards while doing the exercise, the load will be exerted on the interior heads, while pointing inwards, mainly the exterior heads will be loaded. And this is basically true. So, feel free to vary the exercises as well as the positioning of your feet as you please, i.e. as you wish to shape your calves. But variety should not only be limited to this aspect.
Take a look at the “triangle” above the Achilles and below the musculus gastrocnemius: this is the soleus.
Plus, by locking out your knees completely, you can exert more targeted load on your musculus gastrocnemius, while the more your knees are bent, the more load will be exerted on the soleus. So, here you might vary not only the positioning of your feet but the angle of your knees, too. Try different combinations and feel free to experiment. We all have different calves, so each of us might need completely different exercises.
Training frequency and repetitions
A remedy for calf-less lower legs
As I have mentioned before, the calf is a really stubborn muscle. More stubborn than you can imagine. And if your calves are difficult by nature, you must show them for real, who the boss is: It’s no use to mess around with one workout per week. Give it to them two or even three times a week. In the beginning, twice a week may be enough. Moreover, if you bomb them with a really kickass workout on the first workout already, then one workout per week may suffice for the next week or two weeks. Based on my own experience, it’s not cool to kill them so that you can hardly walk for 2 or 3 weeks afterwards. The pain I experienced then was something more than simple muscle soreness. This doesn’t make sense and does more harm than good. An SMR roller (foam roller) is a useful tool, too, because it is suitable for working stiff and sore muscles and fascia as well. The latter is particularly important in the case of calves.
Concerning the number of reps, you have great freedom here. Using too heavy weights will obviously limit the number of reps, but it is a basic rule that you should not go below 20 to 30 reps, unless you have reached failure. You might as well go hardcore with sets of 70 to 100 reps. But first of all, you should choose a program to start with.
Conventional schemes work pretty well in my opinion. A program based on three classical exercises may be good to start with.
Standing calf raises 3 x 30
Seated calf raises 3 x 30
Calf exercise on the leg-press machine 3 x 20-30
You can rock a similar workout twice a week, varying the number of reps or the positioning of your feet or knees. It is perfect for the purpose. It could not be simpler, still it leaves infinite room for variety: For example, you might push it until failure in the last sets. Have no fear: A little rest, and believe me, you can go on with the next exercise. ;) You might do strip sets as well, or partial reps, which is great for giving the calves the finishing stroke when they are almost knocked out. Another great trick is letting your muscles stretch fully at the lowest position and hold for 10 to 15 seconds.
If you are gone totally insane, you might try mad sets of 60 to 100 reps as well. After a while, this might be in fact necessary. Remember, calves adapt themselves fast to changing loads. For example:
Standing machine calf raises 60 – 100
Donkey calf raises 60 – 100
Seated calf raises 60 – 100
Now, one exercise equals one set. Your goal is to reach the prescribed number of reps. No matter, how: You might even rest a bit at the lowest position, but you should carry on. Warm up with about 20 reps and choose the weight so that you can do about 30 reps. After 30 reps, rest for about 10-15 seconds and go on until you reach 100 reps. Yummy! Another simple and effective technique. Or you can change the position of your feet within the same set, or lock out or bend your knees etc. It’s a good idea to apply both techniques in parallel each week: The classical pattern of several sets on the first workout and the 100-rep madness on the second.
If you feel your calves are really starting to peg out and the pain seems to go beyond classical muscle soreness after 2 or 3 days, an SMR roller, massage, alternated hot and cold shower (1 minute each, as long as you like it) or a good herbal ointment can help a lot.
The point is: You should vary your training regime as much as possible. Never do the same workout twice; always change something. Some fine-tuning on the number of reps, changing the order of exercises or a combination of the above! If you have problems with your (invisible) calves, you can do a lot about it in reasonable time with a similar training regime and some determination.
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