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Killer Calf Training: Is Your Routine Working?

Are those calves lagging in size and development? If so, who is to blame? Genetics or yourself? I find it funny to hear guys who play the blame game on their “challenged calves” due to their genetic predisposition. Don’t get me wrong, genetics do play a huge role in this sport, but at what point are you going to get over it and start making progress?

Calves are one of the most difficult parts of the body to understand. They don’t seem to respond quickly, and are the most painful to train. This leads to frustration and eventual abandonment in most cases. If this sounds familiar, don’t lose hope yet, for this article is a savior to all who dwell in the “tiny calf” community. I must admit that I was once a member of this exclusive community, but after years of stagnant growth and slow development, I decided to re-evaluate my calf training and start over again. 

Starting from Basics

There are numerous ways to train the calf muscles, yet half the time I see guys performing the wrong exercise. First, you must start from the basics and work your way to the top. It’s vital to understand the anatomy and how each muscle works before beginning a program. The calf muscle is divided into 2 sub-units: the gastrocnemius and soleus.

http://www.fitstep.com/Advanced/Anatomy/Calves.htm

The gastrocnemius muscle group is where we see the most width in the calf because it has two heads. It is what gives the bodybuilders their overwhelmingly large leg appearance, similar to that of a turkey leg. The only way to positively engage this muscle is through standing or vertical positioning of the legs. Legs may be slightly bent; however, limited flexion of the knee is required to train this muscle effectively. Here are some beneficial ways to train the gastro:
  • Standing calf raises (dumbbells or shoulder weighted machines). This is said to be the best way to stimulate calf growth, although heavy weight is subject to spinal loading.
  • Donkey-calf raises - An old school method of bending your upper torso over with weight on the hips and glutes, rather than on the shoulders. This is very effective and safe because it reduces the spinal pressure we receive from standing calf raises under a machine or barbell.
  • Leg press calf - Simply load up the leg press and start pushing. It’s important to remember that the knees CAN be slightly bent to reduce patellar pressure and possible hyperextension.
  • The soleus is the secondary muscle involved in calf training. It will still receive contractions with the previous exercises discussed, but it is directly affected by being seated. Sitting provides a 90° angle and loads the soleus alone with weight, rather than the hips or spine. A way to train this muscle is by using a seated calf machine. There is no quick tricks to this one, it’s vary basic and to the point.

CHANGE IT UP

If you’re routine is lacking variety and muscle trauma, change things up a bit by turning your feet. Foot positioning is key with any lift because depending on where they are, different muscles are going to be engaged. This may seem strange at first, but try it out and then you’ll understand. In order to directly target the gastrocnemius, have the toes slightly pointed outward. This will cause the medial head of the gastrocnemius to contract, leaving that inner calf on fire. In contrast, turning toes inward has been shown to successfully use the soleus muscle, no matter if you’re standing or seated. These little alterations in technique could be just what you’ve been looking for in order to sustain muscle confusion. A good indicator of this will be the tremendous sensitivity you feel as you walk the next two days.

There are several training methods to go by when targeting calves. Most individuals choose the easy way out and simply volume train until they think they’ve achieved failure. This lethargic method of training is permissible for the guy who has had freakishly large calves since birth. For the struggling individuals, you have got to get it into your mind that this is not going to be easy. Training this muscle region is one of the most painful and agonizing muscles there is (aside from biceps and quads). Training here doesn’t mean lift until they hurt; it means to push yourself until you can barely walk. As blood rushes through the leg region, your body may feel like it’s about to piss itself at any moment. No matter the effect, don’t get lazy if your goal is to grow.

I’ve broken down some various calf training routines according to level of experience.
  • Level 1 – Get comfortable with the exercises listed earlier and use them frequently in no specific order. Concentrate on foot positioning and throw in some drop sets here and there.
  • Week 1-3: 4-5 sets x 15-20 reps (rotate exercises every 5-7 days). No need in doing 10 sets as long as you have fully fatigued the muscle group.
  • Week 4-6: Keep volume the same, but begin to take more time during each rep. Count up to 3 seconds when contracting and relaxing. Maintain change in the exercises you pick so that you have awareness of how each feels to you. Slower repetitions allow larger blood flow and increased muscle fiber recruitment.   
  • Level 2 - Start using specific exercises that you perform the best; one for each calf muscle.
  • This will maintain balance and symmetry as you begin to grow.
  • Weeks 1-4: 4-6 x 12-15 reps (pyramid down each week and focus on slow eccentric with explosive contractions). Throw in some supersets occasionally to allow more blood supply and tissue damage. Supersets can deviate from weight if you choose so. (ex. Heel raises on elevated platforms). Designate calves to your routine every 5-6 days rather than the typical week.
  • Weeks 5-8: Change exercises completely and begin the new cycle of pyramid reps. Aim for 5-7 sets x 8-12 (Start with higher volume and progress down as you wish with more emphasis on controlling the weight correctly). As you begin to note your progress, go up in 5 lbs increments each time that you train them in order to provide shock and muscle confusion. In relation, this will also permit you to see your strength progression
  • Level 3: This is the most intense phase of calf training and is not intended for the weary. This method of training will leave you sore for days and cause the most pain during exercise, but is without a doubt the best way to grow calf muscles. It is a style similar to the infamous Dog Crap Training (see DC training articles) which utilizes rest-pause sets. Have 2 favorite lifts (one gastrocnemius and one soleus) and stick to them. You will perform this routine every 5 days, but the exercises will swap each time. (Ex. Mon- standing calf, Fri- seated calf). This will give balance to both calf regions. As you prepare for the set, make sure you are warmed up, because this will only require one set! Yes, I said it…..one set and you’re done. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? The exercise will start by you contracting the muscle (raise your heels), and slowly regress to below staring position (take 5 seconds to get there). Once below the starting position, let the calf stretch for 10 seconds until you start again. This won’t be bad until the 5th consecutive rep hits, but DON’T STOP! The goal is to make it past 12. If you can keep this pace and make it to 12 reps, then you know next time to go up in weight (increments of 5-10 lbs).
  • Following this giant set, your calves are going to be numb, but it isn’t over yet. Next, proceed to do as many standing calf raises as you can with no weight. Some call this a ‘burnout’, but think of it as a last ditch effort to grow. Continue this routine for 5 weeks and once plateaus have been reached, switch to alternative methods (pick another calf exercise).

This training routine is a base template for all levels of experience. It may take some time to get used to, but don’t get brain washed into the typical volume set workouts. Obviously whatever you were doing up until now hasn’t been working, so why not try something new? Variety and change are the key components to muscle confusion and hypertrophy. You must incorporate different ways to train if you truly want to have size and development. Don’t get caught up in overtraining one region of the calf vs. the other, for bodybuilding is about symmetry and proportion. 

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