The calves are a troublesome body part for most guys, some of who are built like “light bulbs” – with larger upper bodies, and notably smaller calves. This calf-building primer is a collection of science-based principles for muscle growth that can be applied to build those stubborn calves. Here are five training tips, backed by research, to grow great calves.
Train Calves First
When you see a guy in the gym who is lacking calves, they always seem to train them after a major muscle group such as chest or back. Researchers in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reported that exercise order has a definite impact on muscle growth.
Participants were randomly assigned into two groups. One group began performing large muscle group exercises and progressed to small muscle group exercises (LG-SM), whereas another group started with small muscle group exercises and advanced to large muscle group exercises (SM-LG). The exercise order for LG-SM was bench press, machine lat pull-down, triceps extension and biceps curl. The order for the SM-LG was biceps curl, triceps extension, lat pull-down and bench press. At the end of 12 weeks, both training groups demonstrated greater strength improvements than the control group, but only bench press strength increased in the LG-SM group, compared to the SM-LG. Triceps muscle volume increased in the SM-LG group.
Based on this study, the muscle group you train first is going to get the most gain in strength and muscle mass, compared to the muscle group you train last. So if you want bigger calves, train them first.
(Spineti J, de Salles BF et al. Influence of exercise order on maximum strength and muscle volume in nonlinear periodized resistance training. J Strength Cond Res, Nov;24(11):2962-9)
Use A Full Range of Motion
Guys in the gym love to load up the calf machine and do quarter-reps and half-reps. Arnold Schwarzenegger used to train barefoot so he could get a full range of motion for better calves. So how important is range of motion for maximum muscle growth?
Researchers from Italy examined the effect of range of motion at different loads on electromyography (EMG) activity during the military press. Six experienced lifters performed three sets of 10 reps, each one with a different range of motion (ROM): the first set had a final elbow angle of 90 degrees (R1); the second set had an angle of 135 degrees (R2); and the last set had a final elbow angle of 180 degrees (R3). The 90-degree angle was a partial rep, the 135-degree angle was an incomplete or almost locked-out position, and the 180-degree angle was a full range of motion from the bottom all the way until the arms were locked out.
Not surprisingly, the execution of a complete ROM elicited the greatest deltoid EMG activity, together with the trapezius, showing their synergic activation. During the partial-elbow ROM, there was a decrease of deltoid EMG activity, together with a parallel decrease of the trapezius activity— which suggests you not perform the military press with partial-elbow ROM. The intermediate ROM (R2), where the elbow did not completely lock out, did not reduce EMG activity of the deltoid, but significantly reduced electrical activity of the upper traps.
Based on this study, using partial or intermediate reps is not going to fully activate the deltoids and trapezius muscle like doing a full range of motion. The same can be said about calf raises— if you are not using a full range of motion, you are not fully activating the muscle.
The days of having a guy sit on the calf machine and doing stinky reps are over. Lighten the weight and use a full range of motion. You may want to consider taking off your shoes to get a better range of motion.
(Paoli A, Marcolin G and Petrone N. Influence of different ranges of motion on selective recruitment of shoulder muscles in the sitting military press: an electromyographic study. J Strength Cond Res Jun;24(6):1578-83)
High Reps Increase Protein Signaling in Muscle
Old-school bodybuilders used to recommend regular sets of 100 reps to stimulate muscle growth. If you are going to perform 100 rep sets, you are going to have to reduce the amount of weight you are using— severely. No more throwing a bunch of 45s on the top of the calf raise machine with the pin at the bottom of the rack. Based on research, you are going to get better increases in muscle growth with lighter weight.
Researchers reported that when subjects trained at 30 percent of one-repetition maximum (1RM) and 90 percent of 1RM, both training protocols stimulated muscle protein synthesis but shockingly, training with the lighter weight and more reps and volume led to greater increases in protein synthesis than training heavier. Specifically, the 30 percent of 1RM to failure protocol induced similar increases in muscle protein synthesis as the 90 percent of 1RM to failure protocol at four hours post-exercise— but this response was only sustained at 24 hours in the 30 percent of 1RM group. This means that high volume produced sustained increases in protein synthesis above and beyond the high-intensity protocol. In the past, most researchers speculated that muscle protein synthesis was entirely weight or load dependent.
Another interesting finding was that genes for muscle hypertrophy (i.e., the expression of MyoD mRNA, which is associated with satellite cell activation) tended to be greater than the value at rest at 24 hours post-exercise in the 30 percent of 1RM protocol.
In conclusion, the researchers demonstrated that low-load, high-volume resistance exercise has a potent stimulatory effect on anabolic-signaling molecules, MyoD and myogenin mRNA expression, and muscle protein synthesis.
(Burd NA, West DW et al. Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PLoS One, 9;5(8):e12033)
High Volume for Muscle Growth
Some guys in the gym will perform 30-plus sets for chest, yet perform about five sets of calves and call it a day. You need to crank of the volume of exercise in order to get those diamond calves to stick out.
In an article published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers suggested that a greater volume of resistance exercise turns on signaling proteins for increased protein synthesis. Resistance exercise causes the acute increase in several mediators of protein synthesis, in particular mTOR, p70S6 kinase (p70S6k) and the ribosomal protein S6, which are thought to regulate muscle protein synthesis. Moreover, previous research reported that increased p70S6k following an initial bout of resistance training is closely correlated with the increase in human skeletal muscle mass after a few months of continuous training.
Researchers from Greece performed muscle biopsies on subjects before exercise, on an empty stomach. After the biopsies, subjects were broken into three groups to perform one set of 6RM, three sets of 6RM, or five sets of 6RM. Immediately after exercise, the subjects had another muscle biopsy taken to examine the changes from pre- to post-exercise. At the end of the study, two key regulators of protein synthesis, p70S6 kinase (p70S6k) and the ribosomal protein S6, were increased acutely after exercise— to an extent that depended on exercise volume. The group that performed five sets of exercise had greater increases in molecular responses of protein related to muscle hypertrophy.
This was a rare study that acutely looked at the molecular events associated with performing more sets. Furthermore, it seems that molecular proteins enhancing muscle hypertrophy are responsive to the number of contractions performed, which may lead to enhanced muscle mass following high-volume exercise. Based on this study, to get those calves growing, you need to perform just as many sets as any other muscle group such as chest or back.
(Terzis G, Spengos K et al. The degree of p70S6k and S6 phosphorylation in human skeletal muscle in response to resistance exercise depends on the training volume. Eur J Appl Physiol, published online)
Donkey Calf Raises Are King
Schwarzenegger was a big advocate of donkey calf raises for increasing muscle growth of the calves. The donkey calf raise machine, which you can rarely find in gyms these days, is one of the best machines for blasting calves. In a study of electrical activation of the calf muscle in response to different exercise, the donkey calf raise turned out to be the king of exercises for working the calves.
EMG Activity of Different Calf Machines
Donkey Calf Raises – 80%
Standing One-leg Calf Raises – 79%
Standing Two-leg Calf Raises – 68%
Seated Calf Raises – 61%
(Bompa T. Periodization – 4th Edition: Theory and Methodology of Training. Copyright 1999)