Calves and Cows! Building Maximum Muscle Mass Below the Knee!

Calves and Cows

Stop wasting time with improper training techniques for your calf muscles.

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Nothing turns heads faster than a well-formed pair of legs, and solid calves can add a lot to the shape of yours. Depending on your genetics - that is, whether or not you have much in the way of calves in the first place-you can work to either tone and shape your calves or to build them up and transform them into cows.

Many bodybuilders feel so strongly about the role of genetics in calf development, they think that growth is impossible for the less endowed, however, this doesn't have to be the case. Although ultimate mass is primarily limited by genetics, you can definitely enhance the shape and size of your calves through proper training. And don't succumb to the popular theory that black bodybuilders all have small calves. Vince Taylor and Chris Dickerson are just two exceptions to this so-called rule. There are plenty of white athletes who have punny calves and plenty of blacks who are endowed with full-fledged cattle. Don't set such limitations on your own calf development-read on, then get to the gym and train!

In terms of calf development most people concentrate on two muscles, the superficial gastrocnemius and the deep-placed soleus. Other muscles of the lower leg, the peroneus group and the tibialis anterior (T.A.), are often neglected even though they play a major role in some sports and add shape to the front and lateral sides of the lower leg.

While the gastroc gives shape to the calf area, the soleus is the bigger muscle and actually makes up the greatest proportion of muscle mass. When you're training for size, soleus development is far more important than gastroc development. On the other hand, if it's shape you want, you should focus on the gastroc.


Due to both structural anatomy and fiber composition, it's easy to isolate these two muscles in training for your specific goal. The gastroc crosses both the knee and ankle joints, while the soleus crosses only the ankle joint. This makes it possible to isolate each muscle simply by changing the position, or angle, of your knee joint. The more flexed the knee joint, the more the stress is focused on the soleus. Seated calf raises, for example, place virtually all the work on the soleus. Standing calf raises with your knees extended, however, place most of the stress on the gastroc. By changing your knee angle on most exercises, you can shift the focus to either muscle.

While muscle fiber composition depends on the individual, there are some generalizations that apply to the calf muscles. The soleus is predominantly composed of slow-twitch fibers, while in most individuals the gastroc has a higher proportion of fast-twitch fibers. The more fast-twitch fibers, the greater the force-production potential, so you can generally handle heavier weights. Due to differences in size between the two muscles, however, the soleus can often exert as much force as the smaller gastroc.

Many bodybuilders mistakenly overtrain their calves, working them every day or even every other day. They claim that the muscle is dense (whatever that means to them) and requires more work. There is no scientific or anecdotal evidence to back up these claims. Some top bodybuilders who have outstanding calf development train their calves only once or twice a week, the same as they train their other bodyparts. Physiology would dictate that this type of schedule allows for optimal development; however, many bodybuilders notice enhanced calf development when they switch to fewer calf sessions per week. In other words, in calf development the quantity of work does not appear to be as critical as the quality.

The peroneus and tibialis anterior are smaller muscles and, as previously mentioned, are often neglected. While their development is not as critical to the competitive bodybuilder, they play an important role in such sports as running, cycling and skiing. For the physique athlete developing the muscles in the front of the lower leg will enhance performance and ward off shin splints and other injuries to the shin and foot due to over stress and/or overuse.

Most calf exercises can be performed with either a straight knee to stress the gastroc, a fully bent knee to stress the soleus or some position in between to work both muscles. The only exception is the seated calf raise, which works the soleus exclusively.

A full range of motion is critical for optimal development. Changing your toe position, pointing in or straight out, only places more stress on your ankle joint, leaving the area more prone to injury. It is best to place your feet in your natural anatomical position and push up on either the big or little toe to change the stress from the inner to outer muscle head.

Stretching at the bottom of each rep may be the most important aspect of a given repetition. The following descriptions cover just a few of the many calf exercises.

Seated calf raises (soleus): Sit on a seated calf machine with the balls of your feet supported by the foot rest, keeping your back straight. Adjust the knee pad so that your heels drop below the footpad. Pull the knee pad onto your legs while releasing the safety bar. While loosely gripping the handles or the knee pad with your hands relaxed, flex your calves and raise your heels as high as possible. Lower your heels to below the footpad, and repeat. This exercise is a favorite of Tom Platz and Danny Padilla, both of whom have phenomenal calf development even when standing relaxed. Tom often has a partner push down on the weight stack for negatives at the end of each set.

Seated toe presses (gastroc and soleus): Sit on a 45-degree leg press machine. Place your feet on the foot plate, with your toes forward and the balls of your feet on the edge of the footpad. Remove weight from the rack and bend your knees slightly. Remember to keep your knee angle constant throughout the movement to eliminate any quadriceps contribution. Drop your heels as far as possible. Press up on the balls of your feet and flex your calves. Lower your heels to the starting position and repeat.

Inverted calf raises (gastroc): Lie on your back below an inverted leg press machine. Place the balls of your feet on the edge of the footpad. Extend your legs, supporting the weight with straight knees, and remove the support levers. Relax your calves and allow your toes to drop as far as possible. Flex the calves and press up on balls of your feet. Lower to the starting position and repeat. This exercise really stretches the calves. It is a favorite of Robby Robinson and Laura Beaudry.

Standing calf raises (gastroc): Bend your knees to the point where you can rest the yokes of the machine over your shoulders, with your toes and the balls of your feet on the calf block. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart and pointing directly ahead of your body. Straighten your legs and body completely, with your glutes tucked in. Drop your heels below the calf block so that they are lower than your toes. Rise up as high as possible on your toes, keeping the legs straight. Lower your heels back down to the starting point and repeat.

Donkey raises (gastroc and soleus): Holding onto a support, stand with your feet slightly apart, your knees relaxed. Bend your knees to a squat so that a partner can climb on your back and sit erect close to your buttocks, behind the small of your back, with his or her legs close to your hips. Keeping your abdominals in to firmly protect your back, lift up on your toes as high as possible. Your partner should sit motionless without leaning forward. Return to the starting position and repeat.

Calves on lying leg curl (tibialis anterior): Sit on a leg curl machine with your toes below the pad. Keep your back straight and hold the bench loosely with both hands. Relax your tibialis anterior, allowing your toes to drop, stretching the muscle. Contract the T.A., bringing your toes upward toward your body. Slowly lower and repeat.

Standing toe lifts (tibialis anterior): Stand with your heels on a block or stair so that your toes extend beyond the edge. Tuck your pelvis in and hold onto a rail or wall for balance. Lower your toes below the edge by relaxing the T.A. in your shin. Lift your toes as high as possible without arching your back, and lower to starting position. Repeat.

Stretching is an important component of calf development as well as an effective means injury prevention. This is why most top stars advocate it. In addition to your regular stretching before, during and after each calf workout, you can stretch your calves whenever you stand on a corner waiting for the light to change or on any step while waiting for a friend.

Another good stretching exercise is one where you stand at least two feet from a wall, facing it. With your hands on the wall let your upper body fall forward while stepping forward with one leg. Keep your rear heel flat on the floor. Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds and repeat with the other leg. By keeping your knee locked, you can stretch the gastroc; then bend your knee slowly to stretch your soleus.

Two workouts per week is optimal for calf development, preferably working the calves in conjunction with your legs. It is also best to follow a heavy-weight, low-rep/moderate-weight, high-rep schedule to stress both the fast- and slow-twitch fibers.

Depending on whether you're working for size or shape, you can design your workout to emphasize either your gastroc or soleus. Those desiring overall development should design and follow a balanced workout. Here are two workouts to help mature your calves into cows. Be sure to stretch after each set before racking the weight.

To begin: Recommended weight is given as a guideline. Use a weight that lets you complete the given number of reps yet makes the last few reps difficult.

To progress: You should be able to complete all the sets for each exercise. Once you reach the maximum number of reps in the final set, add weight to each set of that exercise, allowing only the lower number to be completed on the final set.

Looking at the calves possessed by Chris Dickerson's brother and Danny Padilla's sister tells you that genetics plays a major role in calf development. Even so, the techniques described in this article will allow you to reach your potential and help develop your calves into full-grown cows.





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