Article written by Matt Mills
In most articles I have read on calf training, it’s all from a bodybuilding perspective about how to make them bigger. Generally using some line like “turn your calves into cows”, well I’m not here to talk about only make them bigger. Hypertrophy will occur on this program, but I am writing this mainly for injury prevention. A lot of strength athletes say to avoid calf training as it will cause a “pump” during a competition, making it harder to move with the weight. This simply is not true, and the calves, like any other body part, need some direct training. I have always done direct calf training in my programs while I trained for strongman, and never once experienced a calf pump during an event.
It’s a well-known fact that bicep tears are a common injury when it comes to strongman. I have always recommended plenty of arm training to combat this, and to make the tendons stronger. Calf training is no different, and I have been seeing more and more calf injuries in not only in strongman, but now in Crossfit. One of the worst injuries I have seen is an Achilles tendon tear, and I hope none of you experience it. In Crossfit, there is a LOT of jumping, and high impact. It’s not uncommon for an athlete to go from double unders right to box jumps. Stronger calves will equal stronger tendons, preventing these kinds of injuries.
Without getting into too much anatomy, the calf muscle is made up of the smaller Soleus, and the bigger Gastrocnemius consisting of a medial, and lateral head. The soleus will get more activation while the knee is bent during a seated calf raise for example. The soleus is also a very slow twitch muscle, so it will respond better to very high rep training (20 reps +). The Gastrocnemius is a fast twitch muscle meaning it will come in to play during more power movements, such as a jump. A forgotten muscle of the lower leg is the Tibialis Anterior, which dorsi flexes the foot (think toes up).
I’m sure most of you have had shin splints at some point in your life, so we will be strengthening this muscle as well to balance your lower leg. Remember to always have balance in your training, as imbalances will cause injures. I know most of you may not have access to some of the machines to target your calves and that’s totally fine as I am going to outline exercises that can be done with just a barbell, dumbbell, and a sled. So if you’re ready to get some “fat guy” calves let’s get to it.
Standing Calf Raises
If you have access to a standing calf raise machine this will be the easiest way to perform this exercise. I like to keep the reps in the hypertrophy range of 8-12 reps, but you will be using a tempo to do so. The tempo will be: down 2 seconds, hold the bottom 2 seconds, 2 seconds up, and hold the top for another 2 seconds (2222). If you are unable to access a standing calf raise then you will simple do single leg raises with your foot on a step. If you are able to hold weight then hold a dumbbell in your opposite hand. For example if you are doing calf raises with your right leg you will hold onto the dumbbell with your left hand. You will then being using the same tempo of 2222. At the bottom of the movement you should feel a big stretch, and at the top contract hard like you are trying to raise your heel as high as possible.
This will work the same way as the standing calf raises do, as you will be using the same tempo. Keep the reps higher here in the 20 rep range. Also, if you do not have a seated calf machine then you will be doing these seated, one leg at a time, with a dumbbell held on top of your knee as you will see in the video. Prop your foot up so you can get a good stretch at the bottom, plates will work if you don’t have a step.
These will be supersetted with your direct calf training, and again with the same tempo. Keep the reps higher here as well, and if you have never done these be prepared because the burn sets in fast. You will do these both standing, and seated. These can be done just about anywhere you can hold on for balance, I will do them both standing and one leg at a time with a band. For one leg at a time simply take a mini band, and wrap it around a dumbbell. Place the band around your toes, and go to work.
Heavy Sled Pushes
These should be a staple in any athletes program but to make them more challenging, and to hit your calves even more, then push at a lower angle. As you are on the lower handles make sure your butt is down, and in line with your hands. Make these heavy enough that you can’t run with the sled, so it must be a slow grinder to strengthen your calves the most.
I’m sure this is an obvious one for the Crossfitters, but I feel this exercise is a necessity for any athlete. Not only will you build rock solid calves, but your conditioning will improve immensely. There is hardly a day that goes by that I don’t jump rope for at least a few minutes. Jumping rope is big in boxing and with good reason. The entire fight the boxer is on their toes bouncing around. The next time boxing is on check out their calves to see what I mean. If you can’t jump rope then just start slow. Start with just one jump at a time, and then move to two in a row, and then 3. A couple tips are to stay on the balls of your feet, and make yourself land as softly as possible. The first time I trained for boxing I could hardly walk the next day just because I was made to jump rope for half of the workout. Jumping rope can be done in a simple timed circuit, or how I like to do them as a warm up, and on my off days for conditioning.