The calf muscles are notorious for being hard to build. I often hear that they are something either you’re born with, or you’re not. Well, if you’ve been doing leg press and lunges to no avail, keep reading to learn a little bit about what your calves are made of, and how to best work them and put on some size.
Your calves are composed of 2 main muscles: The Soleus and the Gastrocnemius, which has a medial and a lateral head. The condition of the Achille’s Tendon is also an important part of the calf and the size of your calves. Tendons are the tough end points of muscles before they attach to the bone; the Achille’s is the end of the Soleus and Gastrocnemius muscles that attaches to your heel. (You have many more tendons in your hands, knees, elbows, shoulders, feet, etc.)
Now here is where the particulars of anatomy become important in your calf training: The Soleus originates below the knee, on your tibia and fibula and is comprised of mostly slow-twitch muscle fibers. This means that the Soleus is built more for endurance than raw strength (though it is still very powerful), such as when walking up a long flight of stairs, or wearing a pair of heels for a long day. The Gastrocnemius originates above the knee joint on the femur and is comprised of mainly fast-twitch fibers, built for shorter bursts of strength.
(Image taken from “Best of Calves” article from t-nation.com)
What does it all mean?
So why does it matter where the muscle originates and what kind of muscle fibers they’re made of? Well, it means that there are 2 different ways you need to train your calves to get the most out of both muscles. The Soleus is best trained using straight-legged exercises for higher reps, such as 12-20. The Gastrocnemius is best trained with a bent knee, due to it’s insertion above the knee joint, with lower reps, in the range of 3-8.
For the most out of your hypertrophy efforts, really take the eccentric portion of the lift slowly. The eccentric portion is the part most of us disregard when performing the exercise – lowering your muscles back to the starting position. For example, during a standing calf raise, lowering your heels back down towards the ground would be the eccentric part of the lift. You’ll want to make sure you take this portion of a lift every bit as seriously as the contraction itself!
The Achille’s Tendon is a very important factor in your calf size as well. If you rupture it, the atrophy of the calf muscles that ensues is tedious to rebuild – even with vigorous training it can take years to bring both of your calves back to normal size. Thankfully, strength training will help keep your tendons strong and healthy. Check back later for exercises and rep schemes to do for these muscles.