Calves are one of those muscles many people forget but are important sometimes. Here’s how you can easily train those muscles at home and make them pop!
Calf muscles work to point the toes down and help a little with bending the knee. To train them at home, calf raises, jump squats and calf launchers are the best options to target different parts of the calves. Jumping rope is a good warmup and cardio exercise but also helps develop the calves.
Keep reading to find out what you can do exactly to grow your calves at home.
Calve Muscles And What They Do
To understand how to train calf muscles, it’s a good idea to know what muscles there actually are around there. If we know where the muscles are and what they do, we can figure out how to train them.
There are quite a few smaller and larger muscles in the lower body but there are two muscles that make up the bulk of the calves so those are the muscles to train if you want to grow them. Those two muscles are;
- Gastrocnemius: The calf muscle that sits on the upper part of the calf. It draws the most attention because it is often well defined and is bulbous. However it’s actually smaller than the next muscle. In people with well developed calves, this is what draws the most attention. It attaches to the achilles tendon above the heel and to the femur just above the knee. There are two heads of this muscle. They attach to different sides of the femur. The function of the Gastrocnemius is to extend the foot and to bend the leg at the knee.
- Soleus: This muscle lays underneath the Gastrocnemius and is longer which is why it is a little less eye-catching although it’s still provides the bulk of calf muscle volume. It attaches to the Achilles tendon and to to tibia just below the knee. The function of the Soleus is to extend the foot (like the Gastrocnemius) but doesn’t help with bending the leg.
The two heads of the Gastrocnemius and the Soleus are activated in slightly different ways although most calf exercises target all of the muscles. You can change up the activation mostly by changing the foot position during exercises.
To grow calves, you’re going to need to put in a good amount of training volume. Hypertrophy (muscle growth) is optimal when you train a muscle with 15-20 challenging sets per week. At least 8 repetitions per set is a good starting point for heavy exercises.
However, the calves are mostly type 1 muscle fibers. That means they’ll benefit from higher repetitions. For lighter loads, 12-25 repetitions per set works well. Once your muscles are trained a little, you’ll want to add some extra load. With most exercises this is easy to do by holding a heavy backpack or wearing it.
Why do some people have small calves?
The calves are strong but not very large muscles compared to the hamstrings and quadriceps. You can grow muscles but it’s always going to be a relative increase to the original size.
Some people can have really strong legs and even train their calves regularly and still have relatively small looking calves. There are things you can do and the main thing is just training them more often and with high volume. Most people just forget to train their calves properly. Arms, shoulders and pecs usually get all the attention. Calves are usually an afterthought. Training your legs will somewhat use the calves but to get good size increases, you have to train them directly.
However, that doesn’t take away that there are significant genetic differences between people and that can result in different looking calves. The exact insertion and attachment points of the muscle make a difference in looks.
Also, the balance between the Gastrocnemius and Soleus is important. The Soleus is not what catches the eye but because it lays under the Gastrocnemius, adding size to the Soleus pushes the other muscle out more, making it appear bigger.
Home Calf Exercises Without Equipment
Here are the best exercises you can do at home that require no or very limited equipment everyone can get their hands on. Training calves is pretty simple and the exercises really aren’t rocket science. Take a look.
A great warmup exercise in general but also great for the calves if done right. There is a reason this is an often used warmup for boxing. With boxing the footwork is very important and having calf muscles with endurance helps quite a bit there. So besides being just a good warmup and cardio workout, it works the calves pretty hard.
Thats because to jump over the rope, you’ll stand on your toes or kind of bounce on your toes. That extension of the foot to push yourself of the floor is exactly what the calves do so doing exactly that isn’t a bad start.
The range of motion of the calves isn’t too big, it’s more a static load with small movements. You can increase the range of motion by consciously letting your heels go down all the way to the floor and really pushing off the floor with your foot extended. Jumping a big higher than strictly necessary also helps.
I don’t think I need to explain how to jump rope. Most people will have one and it costs about $5 to buy one which is a pretty good deal. However, if you don’t have access to a jump rope at all, you can just pretend like you have one. What I mean is: Just jump over and over again by using your feet to push off.
If it’s too easy, use one foot at a time. The rope helps time the jumps and forces you to jump high enough which is why the $5 investment is worth it.
- Sets: 2-3
- Repetitions: 1-3 minutes per set
The mainstay of any calf workout is going to be the calf raise. In the gym, you can find machines where you wedge your knees under a lever arm that can be loaded and really isolate your calves. At home, even with some gym equipment, a standing calf raise is going to be easier.
So simply standing up straight and pushing your heels up is going to be a good calf exercise. However, by simply standing on the floor with your feet flat isn’t going to take your calves through the full range of motion. Your toes can actually go up higher than your toes. Having your heels lower means that your calves have to pull up the heels further. This is a greater range of motion which means a bigger training impulse.
All you need for this is a little ledge to put the ball of your foot on. Something about 4” high is high enough. It can be a ledge, piece of wood, solid box, etc. As long as it’s solid and doesn’t move when doing the exercise it works.
If you have your ledge ready, put the ball of your feet on the ledge and let the heel drop down. Push up as high as you can by pushing the balls of your feet down. Then drop back down as far as you can. Move up quickly and down in a controlled manner and hold one or two seconds at the top of the movement. You might want to be next to a wall or cabinet to balance yourself.
A note on foot position. While doing calf raises, you can have three foot positions: Neutral, toe in and toe out. The neutral position (toes pointing forward) activates both heads of the Gastrocnemius muscle equally. The toe in position activates the outside head more and the toe out position activates the inside head more.
That means it’s a good idea to switch up your toe positions regularly. Also try to do an equal amount of sets with your toes pointed in as with the toes pointed out. If it becomes too easy, try using one leg at a time. This means all your body weight has to be lifted by that one leg which is obviously heavier.
- Sets: 3-6 (1 or 2 sets for every foot position)
- Repetitions: 15-25
Jumping is something that requires a lot of force production in the calves as well as other leg muscles. That’s why the jump rope works. But instead of doing a lot of small jumps, we can do a few big jumps. Both ways target the calves differently.
Box jumps are great as well but quite advanced and require you to be pretty athletic. Also, if you miss the jump, the risk of injury is pretty high. Jump squats don’t require you to clear a certain height and there is nothing to crash into so it’s safer.
A jump squat is a bodyweight squat with a jump added on. Focus on pushing off forcefully by pushing down the ball of your foot and let your heels go down in a controlled manner. Jump squats are good for the whole lower body so they’re easy to integrate into a leg workout.
Jump squats focus more on explosive force production. This isn’t necessarily the absolute best for calf size, it’s great for athletic performance.
- Sets: 3-4
- Repetitions: 8-15
This is a pretty advanced exercise but a good one for the Soleus muscle that’s a little harder to isolate in training. It’s important to train the Soleus because it’s actually the biggest part of the calves although not the most visible. But growing the Soleus will push out the Gastrocnemius muscles further which creates the illusion that those muscles are bigger.
You do need something to wedge your feet under like a heavy sofa, bench or cabinet. Get on your knees in front of the object you want to wedge your feet under, point the toes down and slide underneath.
Start by sitting down until your bum is on your heels or as close as you can get. From there, move your body forward so your calves have to balance the weight sticking out in front of the knees. Hold your body out for a few seconds and then move back. You’ll feel a very strong contraction in your calves that is hard to get with other exercises.
- Sets: 2-3
- Repetitions: 8-15
Home Calf Example Workout
Here is an example of a calf workout you can do at home with limited equipment. Depending on your body weight and training level, you might need some extra resistance. A heavy backpack or shopping bags held in the hands or on the back is something that everyone has access to and helps tremendously.
If this is your first time training calves directly, start with an easy workout. When untrained, calves can get pretty sore after the first few workouts. They can get sore to a point where you can barely walk (guess how I know..). So while you need to train with a good volume of sets and repetitions to grow your calves, start by adding one or two calf exercises to your leg workouts. I would recommend adding them to the end of your regular leg workouts.
In a regular leg workout it’s very likely you’ve already done normal squats so you might not want to add jumping squats to the workout later on. Simply add the following two exercises to an existing leg workout:
- Standing calf raises: Start with 3 sets for 12 reps. Build up the reps per set to about 20 and then start adding sets.
- Calf launchers: Start off with two sets for 8 reps. Slowly increase the amount of reps and the hold time every workout.