Let’s talk about one of the harder places to add size, the calves. There are two muscles that make up the calf, gastrocnemius, and soleus. The gastrocnemius is the larger of the two and is the muscle you normally see when you flex your calves.
The soleus is the muscle that is deeper and closer to the tibia. There are three types of skeletal muscle fibers: Type 1, Type 2A, and Type 2B; and knowing the differences is a key factor in training the calves. Type 1 fibers are what make up the majority of the soleus muscle. These fibers are deep red and do not fatigue easily. This means more reps are needed to wear out the muscle. Type 2B, on the other hand, is a white muscle that can fatigue very easily. This is what the majority of the gastrocnemius is made out of. Type 2A muscles are a red/pink color and have properties of both Type 1 and Type 2B fibers. Type 2 fibers are also the muscles that give you the size and hypertrophy in the muscles.
So now we know what muscle is made up of what skeletal muscle type, we need to know how to activate each muscle. While it turns that during plantar flexion of the ankle both gastrocnemius and soleus muscles flex, you can isolate one muscle when lifting. When the knee is bent the soleus becomes the main muscle at work. This is because is gastrocnemius origin is on the medial and lateral condyle of the femur, therefore crossing over the knee join. This is also why the gastrocnemius also helps with flexing the knee joint. Once the knee is bent the gastrocnemius cannot pull at its full potential, thus the soleus has to do most of the work while plantar flexion of the ankle occurs. When the knee is straight, the gastrocnemius becomes the primary muscle at work.
Now that we went over how the muscles work and how the muscle fibers respond, let’s put this into action. Say you want to train your soleus muscle, how would you go around to doing this. We know that the muscle is primarily Type 1 muscle fibers, it fatigues slowly, and it can do high rep work. This might blow some people’s minds, but sets over 30 reps are what you need. You can do reps 15 plus, that works too, but to truly fatigue a type 1 muscle fiber you need to tax the muscle until the Type 2A has to start taking over. 3 x 30 reps in a bent knee version of plantar flexion movement and once that is done, then up the weight and train some reps of five. Why do you ask? This is because now that the Type 1 fibers are burnt out, you can train the Type 2 fibers in the soleus. That is where the size of the muscle will come from. The same could be done for the gastrocnemius, however, to do high rep training for the gastrocnemius won’t be as beneficial. Heavy, heavyweight, and low reps are needed to train the gastrocnemius muscle properly. The ankle is a class 2 level, meaning that it has a huge mechanical advantage when plantar flexing. Class two levels have the fulcrum on one side and the effort (or force) on the other while the load (or weight) is in the middle. Think of this like a wheelbarrow and how easy it is to pick up a mass amount of weight with it. Plus being a Type 2B muscle fiber, the gastrocnemius needs heavy weight to get growth. Plyometrics and Sprints also help the gastrocnemius, as these are both ways to try the Type 2 muscle fibers.
There is one more thing I should mention before I talk about movement (lifts) to train the calves. We have all probably heard someone say that if you point your toes out or in, you’ll hit the calves differently. This is not true because when you point your toes out or in the rotation does not happen at the ankle or knees, It happens at the hip. It is true that some rotation can happen at the knee but VERY little. Pointing the toes out or in only changes the pull on the thigh (above the knee) muscles, not the leg muscles (below the knee). Also, make sure you always have a full range of motion of the ankle joint!
To the fun part, what lifts will help your little calves become a buff bull? Standing Calf Raise is a classic and I’m sure most all of us have done this. Smith machine, dumbbells in hand, or just with a barbell, it does not really matter as long as you can go full range of motion. You might need to stand on a little box to be able to get the full stretch of the muscle. If you have no box or anything to stand on, try the Rocking Standing Calf Raise variation. Donkey Calf Raises are old school and I’m sure we have all see the photo of Arnold doing this with the ladies on his back. Now you know that the name of the lift that he was doing. This has the same target muscle (gastrocnemius) as standing calf raise but keeps more of a content stretch on the muscle. Seated Calf Raise using Machine is a common way to hit the soleus muscle. Works well and the same movement can be done with a barbell on the thighs or one leg at a time with a dumbbell on the thigh of the leg being worked. Calf Press on Leg Machine, the leg press machine can be used for good, don’t think all negative about it because of the guys who don’t squat. You can do this with a slight bend in the knee or none. Just don’t let your knees hyper-extend, stay smart and safe. Calf Raises with Band are nice for the fitness person who trains at home or on the go. Sit down on the ground, or where ever you can fully extend your legs, and sit up. Use a resistance band and put it around your toes. Hold on to it and plantar flex your angle. Note that most of the movements you also could do this one leg at a time.
Let us know if this is helpful to you by leaving a comment below. Some might bring up how the attachment point of the gastrocnemius can affect the look of the muscle, this is not being talked about here. The main point of this post was to help people with understanding how to get extra mass on the calves.
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