There are some muscles in the body that can be stubborn to grow. For many trainees, calves tend to be among the hardest to grow. Many bodybuilders and fitness gurus will make the claim that in order to have good calves you have to be genetically gifted for them. While some people are genetically predisposed to having a very thick lower leg with little effort, it is by no means impossible to make huge improvements in your calves, even if you have celery sticks for lower legs.
One of Arnold’s un-sung triumphs was his ability to bring up his calves which were dwarfed by every other muscle in his body. Arnold took an approach of high frequency training to bring up his calves. He also took mental steps such as always wearing shorts so that he would always see them and have a constant motivation to train them. The point of the story is, if you are motivated to train, you can make your calves grow quite impressively.
Reasons Your Calf Training Isn’t Working
- Poor flexibility
- Fascial restrictions and adhesions
- Lack of training variety
- Failure to utilize proper tempo
- Not enough volume or intensity
Ankle flexion and extension does not provide a very long movement like a squat or bicep curl. You only have a few inches to work with, and if you’re limited even just slightly, you are losing out on valuable training stimulus. Losing an inch of dorsiflexion at the ankle would be like losing the top 15% of your curling motion. When you can’t train the full range of motion, you can’t recruit all the fibers effectively in that muscle. The end result is plateaus and limited results from your training.
Fascial restrictions and adhesions
Soft tissue problems can limit results in three ways. These can decrease your flexibility, resulting in the problems listed above. Soft tissue adhesions can also decrease the strength of the muscle and load you can use in training because the fibers are not able to contract properly. If you can’t use a proper weight, you will not grow very easily. Lastly, restrictions in the soft tissue can actually make it harder for the muscle to grow simply because there is not room. Imagine blowing up a balloon that is inside a bottle. As soon as you have filled the bottle, it becomes impossible to expand the balloon further. Muscle fascia has a tensile strength greater than steel, and can restrict the growth of the muscle belly in this same fashion.
Lack of Training Variety
Calf training tends not to be very fun or sexy. Thus not a lot of thought usually goes into it. Most bodybuilders might have 50 exercises they know for biceps and less than 5 they use for their calves. Calf training needs changes in the angles, strength curve, and force curve just like any other muscle. Changing your stance, and angle of your feet are a good way to add variety to your training even if you are limited on equipment. Most gyms will have either a standing or seated calf raise machine but not both unless you are lucky. The leg press and squat machines also serve as equipment you can perform heavy calf training with. The point is, you may have to get creative, but it is still important to change up your calf routines just as much as you would for any other muscle group.
- Vary foot position
- Vary knee and hip angle
- Vary width of stance
- Vary the angle of the foot platform from which you are pressing.
Failure to Utilize Proper Tempo
Proper tempo for calf training is extremely important. With such a thick tendon, and elastic component, the calf muscle can handle a significant load with very little muscular work. The calf/soleus complex is a very reflex based muscle group. The muscles utilize the tension built up in the tissue to then contract like a stretched rubber band. These elastic contractions are important to train for sports and maximum strength, but are not very effective for muscle growth because the majority of the work is not done by the muscles fibers contracting. Controlling the eccentric (lowering) portion of each rep will help increase growth response, and pausing at the maximum stretched portion of the exercise will increase the amount of muscle fibers recruited giving you even more growth. Of course you will not be able to move nearly as much weight with a controlled tempo, but the results will be much better. Don’t let your ego stagnate your growth.
Not Enough Volume, Frequency, or Intensity
Calves are one of those muscle groups that respond really well to high volume training. You can accomplish this by dedicating a entire training session to calves each week, or incorporating 3 sets of one exercise per day, 4-5 days per week. The latter is the approach Arnold used to get his stubborn calves to grow. He used to train calves between sets of his body part for the day. Both methods work very well, but if you have never trained high volume for calves, you will be finding yourself in a whole new world of hurt. In addition to volume, high intensity (heavy load) such as >90% of your 1RM need to be used at times. The calf (gastrocnemius) muscle is largely a fast twitch muscle that will respond better to heavy low rep sets than high rep sets. It’s also important to maximally contract the calves when using heavy loads. You don’t want to lift the weight slow. If you never train at high intensities for calf training, you will plateau very fast.
An example of a bad calf routine: standing calf raise 3 sets 20 reps, 1010 tempo.
An more effective routine: standing calf raise, narrow stance, toes neutral, 6 sets of 4-6 reps, 22X0 tempo + 3 sets of seated calf raise toes out, 6-8 reps 24X0 tempo.
If I get 50 likes on Facebook I will write a similar article on training traps next week!