Calf Training Conundrum
The most difficult muscle on the human body to develop
Featured Bodybuilding Equipment: bench press, barbell, dumbbell, standing calf machine, stair stepper
Back in the 1980s I trained with one of the nation's top young bodybuilders. Jaime wanted to enter some bench press competitions and was shooting for a 450 raw bench press weighing 198. Short and thickly muscled, he was an extroverted bodybuilder that would predictably start posing in the mirror after we finished crushing ourselves with various grip-width barbell bench presses, dumbbell chest presses, tricep nose-breakers and weighted dips. He also had really good thigh development and could rep 405 lb. barbell squats for 20 using a super narrow stance. He had no shame and had the disconcerting habit of suddenly dropping his sweat pants to show off his thighs. As it turns out, he always wore posing trunks underneath.
His sweats would always end up in a heap around his ankles and though he must have pulled the drop-the-pants routine at least ten times in the time I knew him, I never saw his calves. One time during one of his pants-droppings (he'd always yell, 'look at my 28-inch ripped thighs!') someone said "show us your calves Jaime." His faced went white and he staggered as if he'd been shot. "They're not ready for viewing!" Eventually he competed locally and it became clear why he always kept his calves hidden: beneath genuine 19-inch arms, a 50-inch chest, a 31-inch waist and 28-inch thighs were a pair of pathetic, bird-like 14-inch calves. It ruined his entire physique and eventually his inability or unwillingness to build calves ended his career.
In a related tale with a different outcome: a very young 20-year old Arnold Schwarzenegger traveled to South Africa to vacation with his bodybuilding mentor, Reg Park. Arnold had just become the youngest man to ever win the NABBA Mr. Universe and asked Reg to critique him: Arnold was moving to America and needed to take his bodybuilding game to the next level. Reg's sage advice was simple: "Kid, work your calves like your life depended on it: your entire bodybuilding career hinges on you being able to bring your sub-par calves up to American standards." Unlike Jaime, who essentially ignored and attempted to hide his shortcomings, Arnold took an opposite approach.
Arnold's solution was genius. He moved to the West Coast and began training at Joe Gold's gym. Being a master of self-manipulation, he cut off every pair of sweat pants he owned (at the knees) purposefully exposing his worst body part. His goal was to evoke mockery and derision; he wanted it directed his way by the American bodybuilding pros that trained at the same facility. By purposefully inviting stinging, nasty comments about his subpar calves he became insanely motivated to bring them up. He created the psychological incentive and now he needed a calf strategy: his solution was simple: quadruple the amount of calf training he was doing.
When Arnold would train, no matter what body part, he would pre-load a standing calf machine to 600 pounds and in between sets of benches and flyes, presses and lateral raises, abs and arms, he would walk over to the standing calf machine and do a set of calf raises to failure. This 'staggered set strategy' enabled him to 'slip in' 20 to 30 sets of extra calf work every session, six days a week. He also worked his calves 'formally' 2-3 times a week. By doing upwards of 300 sets of calves per week, within three years he had built his calves from 16 to 20 inches. Weak points became strong points. His two-pronged approach, artificial motivation and tons of extra work was smart on a multitude of levels.
Calves and forearms are the most difficult muscles on the human body to develop. This is due to the denseness of the muscle tissue. The muscle density of calves and forearms are due to the fact that they are the most used muscles on the body. We need calf contractions to walk and run and we need to use our hands all day long. People born with great calves are usually born with great forearms. Mike and Ray Mentzer were probably the most extreme examples of this genetic phenomenon. Both men were born with 19-inch calves and 16-inch forearms.
It is possible to build good calves, but it requires a lot of volume, lots of high-rep sets and lots of sessions. There is a specific technical protocol for doing calf raises that most folks are ignorant of. First off, optimal calf stimulation requires a maximum range of motion: the reason all calf machines have blocks on the floor is to accommodate a 'pre-stretch.' The first duty of the calf exerciser is to stretch maximally in the bottom. Too many trainees 'kinda' stretch. The first lesson in effective calf training is learning to totally relax and let the poundage stretch your calves downward.
Regardless if you are doing one-legged calf raises, donkey calf raises, standing or seated calf raises, learn to totally relax the calf muscles and let the weight stretch the hell out of the calves. After a maximal pre-stretch, go all the way up on the toes: when you think you've rose up as high as you can, try for one more inch. Stretch all the way down, rise all the way up and hold the completed top position for a beat before lowering. Too many trainees use way too much poundage and do little half reps; they never stretch all the way down and they never go all the way up on the tiptoes. These Dumbo's use a lot of weight and bounce around in the middle of the calf raise rep stroke.
If you insist on technical perfection on every single calf raise rep, you will find that a light weight becomes extremely heavy. Most trainees cannot perform ten perfect single-leg calf raises on a stair-step using NO weight - assuming you are going all the way down and all the way up - yet they'll load up a standing calf machine to 400 pounds and do 15 reps using the partial bounce technique. The exercise selected and the device used is secondary to the technique.
You can get an incredible calf workout using a stair stepper. Try single-leg calf raises on the stair-step with no weight: how many perfect reps can you do going all the way down and all the way up? When you are able to perform 15 perfect, single leg stair-step reps, start holding a 15-25 pound dumbbell in one hand. This will knock your perfect reps back down to 10. Pros will perform three calf variations: toes pointed out and rising up on the ball of the foot; toes pointed straight ahead and rising up on the mid-foot; toes pointed inward and rising all the way up on the outside of the foot.
You now know everything you need to know about calf training. To add calf size you must be consistent, tenacious and ferocious. Cut off the bottoms of your all your sweats and let's turn calves into cows - but please don't start dropping your pants at inappropriate times.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.