Most people believe the lower legs, especially the calves, are a difficult and stubborn group to develop. Indeed, lack of development can mar the overall effect of a good physique. However, with plenty of tough lower leg exercises, you will be amazed at the results you can achieve with the correct training for the lower leg.
Most Bodybuilders spend just 3.5% of Their Time Training The Lower Legs.
For overall symmetry, it is far better to commence training calves early on in your physique workouts rather than let other groups advance. A survey of training practices came out with the result that most weight trainers, in the percentage of time, gave 75% to building arms, pecs, and back, 20% time to deltoids, thighs, and abs, 3.5% to pumping forearms and just about the same lower percentage to working the calves. Only less time was spent on exercising the lower back and the neck muscles. It comes as no surprise most bodybuilders have better arms than lower legs.
Lower Leg Exercises
The simple apparatus and basic exercises often bring the best results, so let’s start with the two basic lower leg exercises we should all be performing when working our lower legs.
1. Standing Barbell Calf Raise
With a loaded barbell across the shoulders, step onto a thick board or, some people prefer, barbell plates. Obtain your balance, then push up with your toes to the fullest extension, contract your calves, and then lower, so the heels drop below the level of the toes to stretch and overextend the muscles. Exercise with slow deliberation, continuing with reps until the lower legs are unable to complete the exercise.
There are a lot of top trainers out there who continue with partial movements to produce that much loved ‘burn.’ Normal reps would be 15 to 20 with 3 to 5 sets. Increase poundage/resistance as often as progress allows.
Use a change of foot and toe placing so different stress is placed on various calf areas. For example, the inner calf will be most affected by turning toes facing outwards and heels inwards. The opposite position, i.e., heels out and toes inwards throw the main action in the outside calf. An alternative to using the barbell is to do toe raise exercises on leg press machines, with the added advantage of being able to watch the calves in action.
2. Seated Barbell Toe Raise (or use a machine)
To perform seated raises, you need to sit on the end of a bench, knees bent, barbell or plate loading disc device across the tops of the knees, with feet, i.e. placed across a block for full flexion and extension. The straightforward foot position concentrated all the effort on the main mass of the calf. Remember, as well as changing exercises, change foot positions.
If you are waiting for your set of weights to arrive, or wish to exercise during odd moments of the day, or perhaps away from home, you can always do plenty of single heel raises on a step or curb, etc., using high reps of 50 to 100 alternating leg for leg without rest. Even walking around on toes helps development.
3. Donkey Calf Raises
This calf exercise is slightly more unknown than a regular calf raise. The donkey calf raise is nothing more than a calf raise done in a bent forward position; they’re a worthwhile exercise to perform and can make your calves look huge when viewed from the side.
You can either use or machine or I prefer to go old school and place toes on a block, bend forward from the waist and lean on a bench or table for support. Your toes should be directly below your hips. Have a training partner add resistance by seating himself across your hips, as far back as possible to keep pressure off the lower back.
With your toes pointed straight ahead, lower your heels as far as possible, then come back up on your toes until your calves are fully contracted.
Machine Donkey Calf Raises
Set the lower back hip pad at the correct height (slight bend in your knees when your lower back/hip is in contact with the pad.)
Position the balls of your feet on the feet plates with your heels hanging slightly off
Press with your feet until your calves are fully flexed, keeping your legs straight at the knees, while exhaling
Lower until your heels are lower than the feet plate (you’ll feel the stretch), and inhale
4. Reverse Calf Raises
Reverse calf raises are the best exercise to develop the front of the lower leg. The primary muscle worked is the tibialis anterior, which separates the inside calf from the outside calf and makes the leg seem much bigger.
Stand with your heels on a block, and lower your toes as far as possible. Then lift your toes, feeling the muscles at the front of the lower leg contact as fully as possible. Perform around 20-30 repetitions with your own body weight. To increase resistance, this exercise can be performed with a barbell across the shoulders, as shown in the picture above.
Muscles of The Lower Leg
Considering we call the deltoids the ‘delts,’ the trapezius the ‘traps,’ and the pectoralis muscles the ‘pecs,’ You have to wonder why we call the gastrocnemius muscle the calves? I’m guessing it’s because ‘gastros’ would sound too like a digestive term. So calves it is, which for most, and the sake of convenience, include all the muscles of the lower leg, these consisting of the Soleus, the Peroneus, the Extensor Longus Digitorum, the Flexor Longus Digitorum, the Tibialis Anticus, the Extensor Brevis Digitorum and of course the Gastrocnemius.
The Soleus lies under the Gastrocnemius and is worked most efficiently in a seated calf raise position with knees bent, the poundage providing resistance loaded on top of the knees. The exercises performed slowly by raising and lowering the heels. The Gastrocnemius is worked best with knees locked or legs straight, attempting to go the fullest range from the deepest low to the upmost tiptoe position, feet on a high block.
The front of the lower leg consists of four muscles, the major one being the Tibialis Anterior, with its primary function being to flex the foot, this facility being catered for in exercises on the toe press machines or with ‘weighted iron boots’
The ultimate size potential of any muscle group spends largely upon its length. Long muscle bellies mean, with training and optimum nutrition, big muscle. This basic genetic concept is especially noticeable when dealing with low leg development. The lucky individual with long Soleus and Gastrocnemius means literally ‘frog belly’ quite apt for those unfortunates whose legs are more like tadpoles.
The basic function of these two major calf muscles are to extend the ankle, point the toes and assist in knee flexion. Calves are involved in a wide range of activities, including running, walking, jumping, and most sports, especially sprinting and dancing.
Calves are composed of tough fibers influenced only by challenging exercises to respond to growth – so after initial warm-ups, the calves can be hit hard with combinations of both high sets and high intensity, with, as we often repeat, special attention being given to fully stretching the muscles over their full range finishing off the set with burns or pumping partial movements exercising to s standstill, achieving maximum stimulation.
To Sum Up
Often the simplest exercises are the best, which is definitely the case when training the lower legs. No real requirement for complicated or expensive equipment, just some extra resistance via a barbell or loaded dumbbells or often just a training partner sat across the hips (Donkey raises), plus a thick block of wood or some barbell plates on which to stand the toes to fully extend and contract the calf.
Final advice would be to take care. It is quite possible to get carried away and overtrain the calves in the first instance – so don’t cripple yourself the first two or three workouts but work up the intensity gradually. Avoid jarring the calves or ankles with unaccustomed jogging or running on hard surfaces, this can cause stress fractures and a lot of pain.