Calf Training: Anatomy, Function, Form, Toe Position & Training Program

Calf Training

A Balanced Physique Does NOT Neglect any Muscle Groups

The importance of good calf development for a competitive bodybuilder cannot be overstated. No other bodypart receives such close scrutiny or comes under more criticism. They can literally make or break you, and poor calf development has been the ruin of many an otherwise well-developed athlete. Good calf development is essential for balancing the mass of the thighs and torso and is necessary for a complete and balanced physique.

Unfortunately, of all the body's muscles, calves are undoubtedly the hardest to develop, except for those who are genetically gifted. We use calves when we walk, run, jump, dance or climb stairs, so Mother Nature designed them to be difficult to fatigue. It takes super-high-intensity training to make most people's calves respond and grow, except for a handful of the population lucky enough to have been born with naturally large and well-shaped calves.

No other muscle group seems so influenced by genetics and race. It seems that Asians have naturally long, full calves, while many blacks have a short, high "sprinters" calf, like a softball under the skin just below the knee. Caucasians seem to have a mixture of both types. Ironically, some of the best calves in the business have belonged to black bodybuilders, men like Chris Dickerson, Johnny Fuller, Bertil Fox, Sergio Oliva, Shawn Ray and Vince Taylor.

It bears mentioning that ectomorphs (those naturally skinny people with long, thin limbs usually have a hard time building big calves because they just don't seem to have the requisite quantity of muscle cells in their lower legs, no matter how they train them. Conversely, endomorphs (round, heavyset people with a propensity for fat storage) and mesomorphs (those naturally thick, muscular types - God's gift to bodybuilding) usually have a much easier time building good calves. When it comes to calf development, people fall into one of three groups.

Group number one has lousy genetics for calf development, either because the calf is short and high or because the muscle cells just aren't there.

Group number two includes the genetically gifted in the calf department. This group needs little or no calf training. Juliette Bergmann fits into this category. People in the third group actually have the potential for good calves, but lack good calf development out of sheer neglect or improper training, if they train their calves hard, properly and persistently, they can eventually match or even exceed the development of people in group number two.

Third group examples are Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ken Wailer, Reg Park and JJ Marsh. These men all had mediocre calves early in their careers, but once they began blasting them unmercifully with super-high-intensity training, they all developed fantastic calves. Calf training isn't easy for group-three people, but at least it's possible. Those unfortunates in group one have almost no chance of developing good calves.

Still, anyone can improve their calves no matter how pitiful they are, and any improvement is better then none. Group one people can still develop half-decent calves, even if their calves will look mediocre by group two and three standards. The following routine will improve anyone's calves, no matter how bad they are or even if there hasn't been any calf improvements for years.


Although there are eight muscles on the back of the lower leg, the two most important for bodybuilders are the large gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius forms the greater part of the calf and is two. headed; that is, there is an outside head and an inside head. The soleus is a broad, flat muscle situated just below and beneath the gastroenemius.

Both muscles extend the foot: the gastrocnemius when the knee is locked and the soleus when the knees are flexed or bent at least 90 degrees. This is important to know for practical purposes. If you want to work the soleus the knees must be bent, as when doing seated calf raises, bent-leg toe presses and standing calf raises. If you're trying to work the gastrocnemius the knees must be locked and the legs straight, as when doing standing calf raises, donkeys and toe presses.


Before we get to the killer calf routine, let's examine a few pointers about exercise form. The calves respond best when worked over a full range of motion. You should force your heels as low as possible at the bottom of any movement to give the calves extra stretch. Also, rise up as high on your toes as you can to fully contract the calf muscle. Many people with poor calf development tend to do half-reps and sort of bounce up and down instead of doing their reps slowly and fully. This poor form usually results from attempting to use weights that are far too heavy, weights that actually encourage half-reps and prevent a full range of motion.

Heavy weights also limit the number of reps you can do. It's not possible to fatigue the calves if you're only doing eight or 10 reps a set, no matter how heavy the weight is. The calves are a high-rep muscle. Remember, Mother Nature designed the calves to be difficult to fatigue. In order to make your calves respond you need to get a white-hot burn, as if a blowtorch were being applied to your calves as you do your reps. if you have a low pain threshold and stop a set before the white-hot burn sets in, forget it. You'll never get great calves (unless you're a person who falls into the group two category).


When people build super-developed, diamond-shaped calves they're said to have cows. Only people in groups two and three can build cows, but belonging to either group is no guarantee. It takes years of the correct type of high-intensity training. So without further delay, let's study the routine that can turn your into cows.

This routine is the brainchild of John "The Punisher" Parrillo. Once you try it you'll think the Marquis de Sade couldn't have come up with a worse calf torture. But if you can stand the pain, this routine will produce results.

Under the Parrillo method, the calves are trained on a two-day-on, one-off schedule. The first workout primarily targets the soleus muscle, while the second blasts the gastrocnemius. Each day you do just two types of exercises for two to four sets each, depending on your level of development and the state of your nutrition. That's four to eight sets a workout.

That may not sound too tough, until you consider that you must do 100 reps a set (that's not a typo). To make it even tougher you have to superset your calf exercises with a special calf movement Parrillo calls "shit" calf raises (I prefer squatting calf raises). You need to follow up each superset with intense fascial stretching for the calves.

Day One - Soleus Training

The main exercise to work the soleus is the seated calf raise. To do a set of 100 reps you'll probably have to start out using weights one-quarter to one-sixth as light as you normally use, since you won't be used to such high reps. I used only 25 pounds my first workout, but by the time I got to 80 reps my calves were screaming in pain.

Because the weight will feel light the first 30 or 40 reps, make sure you do the reps slowly and strictly over a full range of motion. Get as much stretch as possible at the bottom of the rep (really forcing the heel down) and come up on your toes as high as you can in the top position. Once the calves start burning badly you can speed up the reps. Your range of motion will shorten a bit, but make every effort to keep it as large as possible.

As soon as you get off the seated calf machine, immediately begin squatting calf raises. Squat down for this movement, keeping your heels directly under your glutes. Keep your feet and knees pressed together and steady yourself by holding onto a power rack, a pair of dipping bars or any heavy piece of gym equipment. Rise up as high as possible, trying to come up on your toes like a ballet dancer, with the bottoms of your feet in line with your body. At the top of the movement, push your heels to your glutes and hold for a second or two. Then lower and repeat. You should aim for 50 reps a set, but after the 100-rep set of seated calf raises most bodybuilders will probably fail after 12 or 15 reps. Keep adding as many reps as you can until you can do 50.

The pain of these squatting calf raises has to be experienced to be believed. But this routine grants no rest for the weary. Following the squatting calf raises, immediately stand on either a high block or the platform of a standing calf machine and do your fascial calf stretching. Get into the low position of a one-leg calf raise, hold for a count of 15 seconds, then repeat for the other leg. Over the next few weeks, keep increasing the amount of tiwe you hold each stretch, ultimately aiming for a one-minute stretch for each leg.

This superset of seated calf raises, squatting calf raises and fascial stretching is one set (or a triset, if you prefer). You have to do one to three more of these trisets before moving on to the second triset grouping. Parrillo suggests you do only two of each type of triset during the first workout. Work up over time to four trisets of each.

Your first exercise for the second triset for the soleus is the bent-leg toe press on the leg press machine. You must again do 100 reps a set, so you'll have to use a very light weight to begin with. Even 25 or 30 pounds (plus the weight of the machine) will be hard at first. Make sure your knees are always bent to keep the pressure on the soleus. After finishing your 100 reps, hobble off the machine and immediately do as many squatting calf raises as you can stand, quickly followed by your fascial stretching. As with the first triset, do only two of the second tri-set group the first workout and work up to four over time.

I did only four total trisets the first time I performed this routine, but I was in agony and couldn't walk properly the next day. I knew my calves had been through hell. The pump and burn were unbelievable.

Day Two - Gastrocnemius Training

Your two main exercises will be the standing calf raise and the toe press on the leg press machine with the knees locked. The drill is the same - four tri-sets of each exercise, though I recommend that beginners do just two trisets until they start building up their calves.

You get a break on the standing calf raises. Instead of sets of 100 reps you need only do 50. As soon as you finish your set, immediately go into a set of squatting calf raises, doing as many as you can. Do 12 or 15 at first, but work your way up to 50. Next comes the fascial stretch for each calf, initially held for a count of 15, then up to a minute. Keep an accurate training diary to monitor your efforts and give yourself a goal to beat every time you train.

After two trisets of the above exercises, move on to the second triset combination: straight-leg toe presses (for sets of 100 reps), squatting calf raises and calf stretches. Two trisets should suffice the first couple of weeks, but eventually go for four trisets of each combination.

That's it. Day three is for rest, and believe me, you'll need it. Then repeat the same workout schedule the next two days. Always keep adding weight to your main core exercises and more reps to your squatting calf raises. Hold the calf stretches for longer and longer periods of time.

This is probably the most painful and intense calf routine you'll ever try. But if you lack good calves and are willing to put in the work, this is the routine for you.


Many of us are taught to vary our toe positions as we do our calf exercises; toes out for the inner head, toes in for the outer head and toes straight ahead for the main belly of the calf. Parrillo takes a slightly different approach. Concentrate on your heel, not your toe position. To work the outer head, twist your heels out as you rise up; to work the inner head, twist your heels in. For most reps it helps to focus on putting all the pressure on the big toe as you rise up on your toes.

Your stance width also affects where the pressure is felt in the calf muscle, If you use a shoulder-width or wider stance, you'll feel it more on the outside head of the calves because you'll tend to roll more on the outside edges of the foot. A closer stance makes it easier to work the inner head.

On your 100-rep sets you might want to break the set up into thirds: Parrillo's way would be 34 reps keeping the heel straight, 33 twisting the heel out to work the outer head and 33 reps twisting your heels in to work the inner head. The latter will result in fuller, more complete development and give you a better chance of obtaining that much-desired diamond shape.

Take each set to failure, and if you train with a partner, have him help you do forced reps on the last 15 or 20. This will allow you to use slightly heavier weights. Really go for the burn, making sure not to rest between exercises of the triset. Rest only about 60 seconds after each triset.

One final tip. After about a month on this routine, add in some heavy training days. On every third or fourth calf workout, do some heavy sets of 12 to 15 reps before blasting the high-rep stuff. This lets you hit the deeper muscle fibers and keeps your strength up.

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