Most bodybuilders regularly perform calf raises with the obvious goal of developing their calf muscles. There are numerous
basic calf exercises, including standing calf raises, seated calf raises, donkey calf raises and calf raises performed on a
leg press or hack squat machine.
What is commonly thought of as the calf muscle is actually two muscles that share a common tendon of insertion. The gastrocnemius, or gastroc for short, makes up the larger, upper portion of the calf and is itself made up of two distinct heads. A "head" is another name for a muscle belly or a distinct portion of a muscle. In the case of the gastroc, the inner half of the muscle is the medial, or inner, head and the outer half is the lateral, or outer, head.
The gastroc originates on the lower and back portion of the femur, or thigh bone, and it inserts on, or attaches to, a large ankle bone known as the calcaneus, or heel bone, via the Achilles tendon. The fact that it crosses both the knee joint and the ankle joint is a very important fact, and I'll come back to it.
The second calf muscle, the soleus, lies underneath the gastroc. It originates on the middle back of the tibia, the major lower-leg bone, and shares its insertion on the heel via the Achilles tendon. The soleus crosses only the ankle joint, however.
The function of the gastroc is to raise your heel off the ground as if you're rising up on your toes, a movement known as plantar flexion. It also assists in bending, or flexing, the knee. (Note that there's an additional action of the gastroc that takes place when you're running, in which it can actually help straighten, or extend, the knee, and this is known as the gastrocnemius paradox.) The soleus, on the other hand, can only raise the heel off the ground.
Most people vary their toe positions during calf raises, and according to gym myth, they do it to vary the training effect on the calf muscles. There are three standard positions:
Foot Position 1: Toes pointing straight
Foot Position 2: Toes pointing in
Foot Position 3: Toes pointing out
It is generally believed that the toes-straight position produces an equal effect on both heads of the gastroc; however, opinions vary as to what the toes-in and toes- out positions actually do. The majority of trainees believe that the toes-out position produces a greater effect on the inner head, while the toes-in position produces a greater effect on the outer head. There are, however, opinions that challenge these beliefs.
At the national conference of the American College of Sports Medicine in June '94, there was a presentation on a study that used EMO, or electromyography, to look at the effect of toe positions on gastroc action. EMG, is a test that measures the electrical activity in a muscle. The more active the muscle is, the more electrical activity is present.
This study was presented by a group of biomechanists, who are scientists that study biomechanics, or the analysis of movement. Their finding was that the toes-out position increased EMG activity in the outer head, while the toes-straight and toes-in positions didn't produce any statistically significant difference. Now, the doctors and professors who attend these meetings get the opportunity to ask questions and critique studies that are presented, and one flaw that they discovered was that the researchers had included no control for the amount of knee flexion used during standing calf raises. This is an important point.
As noted earlier, the gastroc crosses both the knee and the ankle. It's what is known as a two-joint muscle, and a two-joint muscle must be stretched at both joints in order to be recruited, or used, to its maximum potential. In the case of the gastroc, if it can bend the knee and raise the heel, then the knee must be straight and the heel lowered, usually off a block, at the other end of the movement. Since the researchers didn't control knee flexion-that is, they didn't make sure that the knees remained straight, we aren't sure if this study has any significant meaning for training purposes.
Some trainees might say, "If the outer head showed increased activity when the knees were bent a little, then should we still perform calf raises that way to train the outer head?" The answer is no.
There are two main types of errors that occur in EMG analysis. The first is incorrect placement of the needle (too deep, not deep enough or inserted into a different muscle), and the other is that background electric noise coming from other muscles working can cause the appearance of increased activity. Some of the EMG activity in this study could have come from the soleus underneath the gastroc. The bottom line is that this study will most likely be repeated.
Let's ask ourselves two key questions. Does the exercise really do what the gym myths claim? And does it cause harm or injury? We know that the jury is still out on the effect of toe position on gastroc development, but can use of the various toe positions injure the ankle? Carol Frey, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in Manhattan Beach, California, discusses this point. Frey's qualifications include having earned a foot and ankle fellowship from the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York, and she's a consultant for Nike, the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament and the Ice Capades.
"If a person has normal ligaments and there is no injury, it may be okay to fine-tune the muscle with different toe positions," she began. 'The changed foot position may move the Achilles tendon a hair, and this might help a little. Dancers jump and land...in various foot positions. However, if there is [or has been an ankle injury, the different foot positions are not worth it.
"Foot and ankle specialists state that normal biological loads never exceed the tensile strength of the ligaments," Frey continued. "We define a normal biological load as two times bodyweight. There should not be any harmful effect on the cartilage lining the ankle joints, and this is primarily due to the unique structure of the ankle joints and also due to the fact that degenerative joint changes are initially caused by a leakage of water out of the cartilage. That occurs over time, and the amount of time spent performing a calf raise is quite limited."
The addition of weight changes the situation, Frey explained. "The dynamic stabilizers of the ankle, the peronei muscles and posterior tibialis [located on the inner and outer sides of the lower leg can begin to give out at double body- weight with the foot in the neutral position. If weight is added, do not use the toes-in and toes-out positions," she concluded. "Stay with the toes-straight position."
"Double bodyweight" means your bodyweight plus an equal amount of added weight. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds, you'd use 200 pounds on calf raises, as you're lifting your body plus the additional weight. We know that Arnold Schwarzenegger was a proponent of heavy calf raises, and he reportedly used 1,000 pounds for 10 sets of 10 reps. I've personally witnessed Samir Bannout perform 10 reps with 1,100 pounds, which is obviously five to six times his body- weight.
The body does have an adaptive ability, but there's a risk in using that kind of poundage. There's always a risk when you deliberately alter joint mechanics, so please keep in mind Carol Frey's wise advice.