Step Up Your Leg Day With These 9 Must-Try Calf Exercises

 Written by 

Julien Raby

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The calves are a hot-button topic in the fitness community. Some lifters believe calf size and strength are purely up to genetics, while others are on a quest to build the biggest muscle.

Either way, incorporating effective calf exercises will help you gain strength, coordination, stability, and size. 

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But what are the best exercises? Don’t panic. We’ve compiled the top 9 calf exercises to incorporate into your routine in the article below. Read on for everything you need to know.

Calf Muscle Anatomy

The calf muscle is actually three primary muscles, including the following:

  • Gastrocnemius
  • Soleus
  • Plantaris

Some of these muscles are easy to target, like the gastrocnemius, while others aren’t visible and are easy to neglect. Having a basic understanding of calf muscle anatomy and function will help you prioritize exercises to suit your training goals. 

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Gastrocnemius

The gastrocnemius is the largest, most visible calf muscle. It forms the bulge in the leg and provides a diamond shape, as it’s a two-part muscle. One part starts from the femur just below the knee, and the other part goes down and connects to the heel using the Achilles tendon. 

The main job of the gastrocnemius is to help you point your foot downwards, lifting your heel off the ground. It also helps with bending your knee.

Soleus

The soleus is found right underneath the gastrocnemius muscle. It’s smaller, flatter, and not visible to the eyes alone. 

It starts from the tibia and fibula, which are bones below your knee and connects to the heel using the Achilles Tendon. The main job of the soleus is to help you point your foot downwards, just like the gastrocnemius.

But because it only works at the heel joint, the most effective way to train this muscle is by bending your knees while exercising.

Plantaris

The plantaris is a long, slender muscle that stretches behind your knee, working together with the gastrocnemius and soleus. It starts from the lateral femur (the outer part of your thigh bone) and connects to the back of your heel through the Achilles tendon. 

The primary role of this muscle is to help you point your foot downwards, just like the soleus and gastrocnemius. However, because it crosses two joints, it also helps in bending your knee.

The Benefits of Strong Calves

There are several benefits to strong calves besides looking impressive in shorts. Incorporating 2-3 calf exercises can do wonders for your stability, durability, and strength. Here are a few advantages to consider when adjusting your training regimen.

Stable Ankles

Do your ankles lift off the floor when you squat or deadlift? This is a common issue that may be resolved with calf exercises. Training your calves will benefit your ankles, increasing their stability, mobility, and strength. 

With healthy ankles, your knees and hips can perform more efficiently with higher loading capacity. Stronger ankles will also benefit you inside and outside the gym, reducing the chance of injury or accidents.

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More Speed and Power

The calf contains fast-twitch muscle fibers, meaning they provide you with force and power. Stronger muscles will allow you to sprint faster, jump higher, and lift more. This can be particularly beneficial if you’re an athlete, runner, or competitive weightlifter. 

Reduces the Chance of Injury

Calf exercises are fantastic for injury prevention and rehabilitation. Consistent training will provide your lower body with more strength, stability, and flexibility. This will allow you to absorb more force and weight, so you’re less likely to suffer an injury.

Must-try calf exercises

1. Seated Calf Raise

Calf raises variations, like the Seated Calf Raise, offer straightforward ways to get stronger calves. You can use heavy weights with the calf raise machine, allowing you to engage the soleus muscle, which adds thickness and size to the calves. 

The weight is placed just above the knees on the quadriceps, allowing you to engage your calves completely. The seated calf raises machine is perfect for adding variety to your calf training sessions, like tempo sets and working to failure. 

Benefits

  • Most gyms have a seated calf raise machine, making it accessible for more lifters.
  • Easy to rack and unrack. 
  • The seated calf raise can be an easy addition to the end of a leg workout.
  • Easy to incorporate variety through tempo, weight, rep ranges, and training to failure. 

How to Perform

  1. Sit down on the seated calf raise machine and adjust the settings so you are comfortable.
  2. Sit upright and bend the legs at 90 degrees with your feet on the platform and the weight resting on the thighs.
  3. Unrack the weight and carefully lower your heels toward the ground. Pause at the lowest point for 1–3 seconds.
  4. Now, raise your heels as high as possible. Flex your calves at the top of the exercise and pause for 1–3 seconds.
  5. Slowly return to the starting position to finish one repetition. Repeat the exercise for your desired sets and reps. 

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Not pausing at the top and bottom of the movement. This will enhance muscle contraction and stretch, challenging the calves further.
  • Going too fast. Carefully lowering and raising the weight will increase your time under tension.
  • Lifting the weight with your hips or knees. Incorporating different muscle groups will reduce the efficiency of the exercise. 

2. Standing Calf Raise

If you don’t have access to a seated calf exercise machine or want to incorporate more volume into your calf workout, try the Standing Calf Raise. This is a classic exercise that can be performed with basic dumbbells, kettlebells, or body weight.

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You can also utilize a standing calf machine if you have access to one. Pausing at the top of this movement can increase the time under tension and engage the calf muscles more. 

Benefits

  • It can be performed with or without weights. Bodyweight calf can be an easy progression method and add training volume to a routine.
  • Incredibly accessible, it doesn’t require any equipment or machines.
  • Adding pauses at the top of the raise and slowly lowering the body can increase muscle recruitment. 

How to Perform

  1. You can perform this exercise on an elevated surface with your heels hanging off the ground if desired. 
  2. From a standing position with dumbbells in both hands at the sides of the body, raise your heels off the ground. 
  3. Press through the balls of your feet and hold the top of the position for 1–3 seconds.
  4. Slowly return to the starting position to finish one repetition. 

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Using too short of a range of motion. It’s critical to raise your heels as high as possible to get a deep stretch in the calves.
  • Going too fast. Practice control so you can challenge the muscle throughout the entire range of motion. 

3. Single-Leg Calf Raise

Another excellent exercise is the Single-Leg Calf Raise. You might wonder, “Why should I incorporate this over the seated variation?” 

The single-leg variation is a unilateral exercise, meaning you train one side at a time. This is perfect for building balance and addressing any asymmetries that may have accrued over time. The movement also adds more volume to each leg, as you’re training each muscle independently—essentially doubling your workload. 

Benefits

  • Trains each calf muscle independently, addressing any imbalances or asymmetries.
  • It can be performed with basic equipment, like dumbbells or kettlebells.
  • Increases training volume as you work each leg at a time.
  • Offers a weighted stretch and a larger range of motion. 

How to Perform

  1. Grab a dumbbell in one hand and position your right foot on an elevated platform or firm on the ground. 
  2. Raise your left ankle behind your body. You can hold onto the wall for balance if necessary.
  3. Now, press through your toes to raise your right foot as high as possible. 
  4. Pause at the top of the movement before lowering your body.
  5. That’s one rep. Repeat the exercise for your desired rep range before switching sides. 

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Going too fast. Like all the other raises, it’s critical to perform the movement slowly and with control to get the most muscle recruitment.
  • Losing balance. If you’re struggling to stay balanced, ensure you’re positioning your other hand on a stable surface so you don’t injure yourself. 

4. Donkey Calf Raise

One of the best calves exercises is the Donkey Calf Raise. This move can be performed with a donkey calf raise machine or with basic gym equipment. This variation provides a longer stretch and allows you to use heavy weights, which will engage the calves nicely.

The technique can be a bit challenging at first, as you have to angle the body forward. Once you get the form down, the donkey raises variation will be a staple in your leg workouts. 

Benefits

  • It provides a deeper muscle stretch which is critical for optimal calf muscle growth.
  • You can use heavier weights allowing you to engage the calves thoroughly.
  • It can improve ankle mobility, stability, and lower body strength. 

How to Perform

  1. Pick the way you like to set yourself up (check the video above). Hold on tight with your hands and bend back at your hips. Put the front part of your feet at the very edge of the step.
  2. Now, take your time to lower your heels as much as you can until they almost touch the floor. Hold it there for three to four seconds.
  3. Next, raise your heels as high as you can, and at the top, really squeeze your calf muscles.
  4. Then, slowly lower down again and repeat for reps. 

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Performing partial reps. It’s important to raise and lower your calves for the full range of motion to get the best results. 
  • Standing too upright. This variation requires you to bend forward to stretch the calf muscles. If you stand too upright, you’ll reduce this stretch and reduce the effectiveness of the exercise. 

5. Jump Rope

Before you ask, no, Jump Rope is not just a warm-up or conditioning exercise. Jump rope is an excellent calf exercise that strengthens the lower body and improves ankle stability, coordination, and cardiovascular endurance. 

The jump rope engages the largest calf muscle (gastrocnemius) with every repetition. This increases your muscle hypertrophy and can lead to stronger, more sizable calves. As you improve your strength, you can incorporate a weighted vest to engage the calves even further. 

Benefits

  • Great as a warm-up or at the end of a calf workout.
  • Engages the calf muscle with constant time under tension.
  • It will enhance endurance, coordination, stability, and lower body strength.
  • Incredibly accessible and an easy way to incorporate cardio into your training regimen. 

How to Perform

  1. Ensure you’re using a rope that fits your body size. 
  2. Now, stand in the middle of the rope with your feet shoulder distance apart and a handle in each palm.
  3. The rope should be behind the body. Rotate your forearms forward to move the rope, and use your wrists to move the rope overhead.
  4. Once the rope is overhead, bend the knees. 
  5. Once the rope reaches shin height, press up from the balls of your feet to jump. Repeat for your desired time frame. 

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Forgetting to stay on the balls of your feet. Jumping from the balls of your feet is critical to engage the calves to the fullest.
  • Going too fast. Once you get the hang of the movement, you can increase the speed, but it’s better to start slow and with control.
  • Using the wrong rope. Too large or small jump ropes can interfere with your technique. 

6. Farmer’s Walk 

The Farmer’s Walk is a classic exercise for engaging the full body, including muscles like the quads, hamstrings, upper back, arms, and calves. But you can turn this into a calf development superstar by walking on your toes. 

Walking on your toes will engage the calves, providing more time under tension and helping you build more calf strength. The farmer’s walk will also challenge your balance, stability, and core strength. 

Benefits

  • Straightforward full-body exercise that improves balance, grip strength, and coordination. 
  • Accessible for most lifters as all you need is a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells. 
  • Walking on the toes engages the calves more, strengthening the muscle and building more size. 

How to Perform

  1. Select weights roughly 25–50% of your body weight in each palm.
  2. Now, raise your toes and take small paces forward. Stay on your tiptoes as long as possible.
  3. Squeeze the calf muscles as you move forward, staying elevated as high as possible. 

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Using light weights. It’s essential to use weights that challenge your body and endurance.
  • Not walking long enough. It’s important to select a distance that will challenge your calves and provide a deep stretch in the lower body.
  • Jerky movements. Maintain control as long as possible as you walk. Avoid jerky movements If you start to lose grip or become fatigued.

7. Box Jumps

Plyometric exercises, like Box Jumps, provide an effective way to target the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. This is an explosive movement that can enhance your athletic performance, vertical jump, and coordination.

It can be a bit challenging if you have calf mobility issues or you’re just starting out, so it’s best to start slow. After you find your footing, you can increase the height of the elevated surface or foot platform. 

Benefits

  • Increases explosive power, strength, and coordination in the lower body.
  • It can be a fun exercise to incorporate variety into your routine.
  • Helps with calf growth and lower body development. 

How to Perform

  1. Start with the box or platform just in front of you, and keep your feet apart, about the width of your shoulders.
  2. Now, bend your knees a little and crouch down while extending your arms backward.
  3. Use the energy from this semi-squat position to jump up onto the box. As you do, let your arms swing forward.
  4. When you land, do so gently with both feet, making sure to keep your knees slightly bent to absorb the impact.
  5. Step back down, and then do the same thing again for another repetition.

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Selecting a box that’s too high. This can make the exercise difficult and cause injury or calf strain.
  • Jumping off the box. Jumping backward off the box can also increase the risk of injury. Instead, carefully step off and repeat the movement.
  • Improper landing. Be sure to land gently on your entire foot with a slight bend in the knees. 

8. Eccentric Heel Drop

One of the best bodyweight calf exercises is the Eccentric Heel Drop. The eccentric contraction slows down the movement, exaggerating the lower portion of the movement. It provides an effective method for enhancing strength, coordination, and balance around the ankle joints.

The eccentric heel drop is commonly used as an injury prevention method or as a rehabilitation technique for the Achilles tendon. It’s an incredibly simple move but can benefit tight calf muscles. 

Benefits

  • A simple movement that benefits ankle injury prevention and rehabilitation.
  • It can increase calf flexibility and ankle strength, with or without a loaded stretch.
  • Accessible as it only requires a small elevated platform. 

How to Perform

  1. Start at the edge of an elevated surface with your heels hanging off the edge.
  2. Now, press through the balls of your feet like a standard calf raise. 
  3. Slowly lower your heels past the edge of the platform until you feel a deep stretch in your calves and ankle. Take a pause at the lowest portion of the exercise.
  4. Return to the starting position to finish one repetition. 

Mistakes to Avoid

  1. Not using a complete range of motion. It’s critical to get a deep stretch in your calves and ankles to get the most out of this exercise. 
  2. Going too fast. This is a movement where practicing control is the name of the game. Going slowly and carefully stretching the muscle will yield the best results. 
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9. Sprints, Hill Running, & Stair Climbing

Any type of running, hill climbing, or hiking activity will enhance your calf size and strength. These activities require you to push from your calves and train the entire lower body, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.

You can incorporate any of these exercises into your routine as a warm-up, cool-down, or secondary activity. For instance, you might go for a steep hike on your day off to enhance cardiovascular and speed performance. 

Benefits

  • Versatile, you can include activities like sprints, stair climbing, or hikes into your routine.
  • It can be used as a warm-up, low-intensity movement, or as a component of your calf training regimen.
  • Improves cardiovascular endurance, range of motion, and ankle flexibility. 

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Not warming up. All forms of cardio require a solid warm-up to prevent injury and prepare the muscles for training. Be sure to incorporate a mix of static and dynamic stretches before your training session.
  • Overexerting yourself. It’s important to use challenging training techniques without pushing yourself past a healthy level. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What Is the Best Exercise for Your Calves?

Incorporating calf raise variations, like the Donkey Calf Raise, Single-Leg Raise, and Seated Calf Raise, will help you grow your lower body. The donkey and seated variations allow you to use higher loads. The single-leg option provides you with a unilateral movement to increase volume on both sides of the body.

How Can I Build Calf Muscle Fast?

First, prioritize heavy compound lifts like the squat and deadlift. These movements will train the calves indirectly. Next, include 2-3 isolation movements, like calf raises, jump rope, or farmer’s walk. Train your calves 2–3 times per week and focus on getting enough protein in your diet. 

Is It Ok to Workout Calves Everyday?

Training your calves every day may increase the chance of injury or strain and slow your progress. Instead, train the calves 2–3 times per week using a variety of isolation exercises. Ensure you’re performing enough reps in a weight range that brings you close to failure so you get the most muscle hypertrophy.

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About

Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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