How should calf raises be performed to maximize size and strength gains? I've heard it should be performed with light loads, many repetitions; heavy loads, few repetitions; heavy loads, many repetitions; as well as alternating light and heavy on successive days. Could you please help me understand how to train calves in terms of exercises, sets, reps, frequency and loads? Thank you very much for any assistance you could give.
I think you will find you are not alone in your confusion. Hypertrophy training for the calf muscles seems to be one of the most conflicted topics in the industry. You can find a quite diverse array of suggestions, which all seem to be supported with significant research.
Ultimately, I think you will find all the research is both right and wrong. As with any type of training, we need to remember that individuals are just that, individual. Each person is unique with a distinctive percentage of each fiber type, hormonal levels, nutritional regimens and training history. Taking individuality into consideration, one type of training (i.e., high reps, low weight) may be the most effective method for one person to train and quite ineffective for another.
I want to provide you with some simple facts you can use to determine the best route for you. I will preface this by stating that you may have to experiment with several different techniques and suggestions to find what is most effective.
Here are some facts to consider:
The calf muscles include two distinct muscle groups: the gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastroc is the outer most muscle. It originates on the distal head of the femur on the back side of the knee. It runs from two heads (this is the V you see in those defined individuals) to form a common tendon (known as the Achilles tendon) with the soleus muscle as it attaches to the back of the heal bone.
Deeper into the calf is the soleus muscle. As I previously stated, it terminates in a common tendon with the gastroc; however, its origin is on the upper backside of the tibia and fibia.
Since the gastroc crosses the knee joint, joint angle effects its participation in extending the ankle. Therefore, it is typically suggested to elicit the gastroc by performing ankle extensions with the knee joint extended but not completely locked out. Bending the knee to approximately 90 degrees will create enough slack in the gastroc to allow the soleus to become the target muscle.
Both of these muscles contribute to the mass of the calf area, and therefore, both should be trained. Exercise selection could be as follows: For the gastroc, you can use exercises such as standing calf raises (of assorted types) pulling a heavy sled or pushing a heavy implement while focusing on ankle extension (from a maximally flexed position). You can also climb stairs with a heavy weight, once again focusing on ankle extension.
For the soleus, you can perform seated calf raises or any other ankle extension exercise where the knee is bent to approximately 90 degrees.
Regarding sets and reps, traditionally for hypertrophy three to five sets of eight to 12 (sometimes up to 20) reps of 60 to 85 percent are suggested. The reason is muscle growth in a large part is a product of the repair of the damage within the muscle cell created by resistance training (from a very simplified perspective). Therefore, the greater the number of muscle fibers that get recruited and experience microtrama, the greater the number of muscle fibers that will rebuild and experience growth.
Lifting larger percentages (85+) tends to recruit the largest percentage of muscle fibers. However, only a small percentage of fibers has to fatigue before the weight is unmanageable. Therefore, the amount of microtrama is lower. Lifting lighter loads (<65 percent) tends to alter muscle chemistry (utilization of substrates and creation of waist byproducts) that ultimately causes fatigue with inadequate fiber damage to create growth. This lends validity to 65 to 85 percent range.
Rep range is typically inversely related to load. Simply stated, you should not be able to perform the same number of reps with 95 percent as you can with 65 percent. However, muscles that are designed to perform more work, whether by presenting a larger percentage of slow versus fast twitch fibers or via a product of training history, will typically be able to perform more reps with a given percentage of weight. When this is the case, an individual will have to perform more reps and potentially more sets to achieve growth.
My suggestion is to use a moderately heavy weight and perform your sets to either near technical failure (the point where your technique fails and not your muscles) or to technical failure (should happen between eight to 20 reps). Hit this range, but do not obsess over an exact rep number for each set. Do this for three or so sets.
You should perform exercises for both the gastroc and the soleus. After you have finished your sets for a given exercise, you should still be able to extend the ankles under your own body weight, although you should be able to note a moderate level of fatigue. If this fatigue is not present, you can perform another exercise. Regardless, let common sense dictate how much volume you use. Also try to mix up your exercises so you are not always performing the same calf movements every time you train your calves.
Regarding frequency of training, never forget this simple rule: You don’t grow in the weight room. You grow once you leave it!!! As I said before, resistance training causes microdamage to the muscle fiber. The muscle fiber must repair itself for growth to occur. Therefore, you need adequate time to recover. What is adequate time? It depends on your percentage of slow/fast twitch fibers, training history, nutrition and recovery techniques. Typically, I would not suggest training any muscle group aggressively more than twice a week. You should also give two to three days of active rest (i.e., walking, riding a bike or playing sports) between workouts. I would not perform any additional focused training on these muscles outside of your two workouts.
My other suggestions are to eat an appropriate diet, use massage on the muscle (massage sticks are great), perform mobility exercises, use hot/cold treatments, etc to speed up recovery.
I hope this helps.
- Fact 1: Fiber type percentages differ from person to person and muscle to muscle.
- Fact 2: Hypertrophy = 8-12-20 reps.
- Fact 3: You don’t grow in the gym-recovery time.