Login | January 24, 2022

The calf muscles

Pete’s World

Published: November 29, 2021

Over the years I’ve been singling out muscle groups that tend to be neglected in workout regimes. And the reasons for such omissions can vary.
Sometimes it simply hinges on time constraints, other times it’s a matter of misinformation or misunderstanding, and still other times it’s something as frivolous as a misguided fixation on “mirror” muscles - chest, shoulders, arms, etc.
With that being said, today I’m going to be talking about those poor overlooked calf muscles, which certainly aren't glamorous, nor are they a topic that gym rats drone on and on about.
Yet this muscle group’s still important to address both from a strength, symmetry, kinetic chain (a system that allows movement of one joint to affect the movement of another joint) and sports performance standpoint.
And need I mention the fact that calves are critically important from a vanity standpoint?
Shoot, for those of you who’ve been kicking around the gym scene for a bit, think about those occasional Mr. chicken legs you’ve seen over the years. You know the person, right, the guy who’s all muscled up and looking good - except for those spindly little calf muscles.
So with that chicken leg visual as a constant reminder let’s get to it and talk about those calf muscles.
Located on the back of the lower leg, each calf is made up of two distinct muscles, the gastrocnemius (gastroc) and the soleus. The larger gastroc forms that bulge which is visible just beneath the skin. It’s made up of two "heads," and when well developed these gastroc heads tend to resemble a diamond shape.
The smaller soleus is a flat shaped muscle which resides beneath the gastroc. These two muscles taper downwards until they merge with some strong connective tissue at the base of the calf forming a link that connects the calf to the achilles tendon.
The achilles in turn connects to the heel bone. So with all this connectivity going on it’s easy to see why the calves play such an important roll in walking, running, jumping, etc., what with their pulling the heel upwards to allow for forward movement.
Now our entire lower body’s level of functionality depends on the strength and flexibility of our calves. They’re crucial not only to general mobility but also to sports performance.
For example, the calves are involved in plantar flexion of the foot at the ankle joint, so possessing sufficient calf strength improves our ankles’ ability to handle loads, thereby helping to stabilize our bodies during running movements.
So having weak and/or tight calves puts you at risk for a wide range of injuries, including a potentially debilitating condition called shin splints. So keeping those calves strong and flexible is paramount for general mobility, stabilization, agility, lower body strength - and injury prevention.
As far as calf strengthening and building goes, well, that’s where things get interesting because this muscle group can be one of the most stubborn when it comes to building lean tissue.
So if you’re looking to get toned/chiseled calves you’ll need to do some very specific exercises within a very detailed game plan.
And one of the best exercise in that game plan should be the calf raise (aka heel raise).
From individuals who have balance and or lower body strength deficiencies to athletes who are looking for improvements in sports performance, the heel raise is the ticket.
For unconditioned individuals heel raises help to stabilize the calves and feet thus ensuring one’s ability to maintain proper balance, and for athletes heel raises enable competitors to feel lighter on their feet and improve stride length and foot planting ability.
As far as just body building goes - creating big, honking calf muscles - now you’re talking tons of dedication and lots of hard gym work, typically at least 2x/week sessions that range from very heavy to very light and everything in between.
As I said, calve muscles can be tortuously slow in growing, so be patient and persistent.
With respect to heel raise exercises, there’s a host of variations. Some isolate the soleus - the seated variation. While others work both muscles - the standing variation.
There’s the leg press variation which enables one to use more weight, and then there’s the single leg standing variation which requires more balance but less weight.
There’s “tippy toe” walks, “farmer’s walks, band variations and much more - the sky’s the limit here.
Still have that chicken legs visual stuck in your head? Good, now get those heel raises into your workout routine.