fbpx

The 8 Best Calf Exercises For Strength + Definition

Reduce injury and increase performance with these advanced techniques for bigger, stronger calves.

Most leg day workouts focus primarily on the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and possibly adductors, but it’s also important to include calf exercises in your routine.

Having strong, defined calf muscles isn’t just a matter of looking like you put in the time at the gym when you’re sporting a pair of shorts.

The best calf workouts will also help you develop bigger, stronger, more powerful lower body and calf muscles for jumping higher, running faster1Mann, R. A., & Hagy, J. (1980). Biomechanics of walking, running, and sprinting. The American Journal of Sports Medicine8(5), 345–350. https://doi.org/10.1177/036354658000800510, and supporting your ankles and knees.

But what are the best calf exercises for building muscle? How do you structure a calf workout for hypertrophy and strength gains?

In this article, we will discuss how to program a calves workout based on your training goals and provide step-by-step instructions for the following best calf exercises to include in your calf workouts:

Let’s dive in! 

A person flexing their calf muscles.

How to Structure Calf Workouts For Bigger And Stronger Calves

Generally speaking, a calf exercise will primarily involve plantarflexion, which is the movement that occurs when you point your toes, such as standing up on your tiptoes.

Therefore, most of the calf exercises included in a calves workout will involve some version of a “calf raise,“ which is the exercise term used to describe pressing up onto your toes, raising your body, or a load using your calf muscles.

The calf muscle group2Binstead, J. T., & Varacallo, M. (2019, April 5). Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Calf. Nih.gov; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459362/is made up of a number of different muscles, but the main two are the gastrocnemius and soleus.

When you are performing calf workouts to increase strength, build up to doing 2-6 sets per exercise, 3-5 reps per set, and at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the load. The fewer reps you perform, the closer to 100% of your 1RM you should aim for with your weights.

In cases where your goal is hypertrophy (muscle growth), try to perform three sets of each exercise, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps.

The 8 Best Calf Exercises For Strength and Calf Definition

Here are some of the best calf exercises to include in your calf leg day workouts:

#1: Machine Standing Calf Raises 

A person on a calf raise machine.

If you have access to the standing calf raise weight machine, it is a good tool to use in your calf workouts for strong calves, in particular, your gastrocnemius muscle.

The design of the machine allows you to work through a large range of motion and load up the exercise with a lot of resistance to maximize your gains.

Here are the steps to perform this calf exercise:

  1. Stand upright on the machine with the balls of your feet on the footplate, feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Lower the shoulder pads so that you have to squat down a bit in order to get your shoulders underneath the pads.
  3. Press through your legs to stand up straight so that your body is supporting the load rather than the machine.
  4. Lower your heels as far as possible, pausing at the bottom of the range of motion for 2 to 3 seconds.
  5. Press powerfully through the balls with your feet to lift up onto your toes as high as possible.
  6. Pause at the top position before beginning the next rep.

#2: Donkey Calf Raises

A person doing a calf raise.

The donkey calf raise exercise is one of the best calf exercises for hypertrophy and strengthening your calves because it allows you to work through a larger range of motion and use a lot of weight.

Because this calf exercise angles your body forward and you have your arms supported, your body is in a much more stable position3Nunes, J. P., Costa, B. D. V., Kassiano, W., Kunevaliki, G., Castro-E-Souza, P., Rodacki, A. L. F., Fortes, L. S., & Cyrino, E. S. (2020). Different Foot Positioning During Calf Training to Induce Portion-Specific Gastrocnemius Muscle Hypertrophy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research34(8), 2347–2351. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000003674to lift a lot of weight with your calves, enabling you to go heavy on the exercise to better increase calf strength and mass.

Plus, by standing up on a box, you are able to increase the range of motion of this calf raises exercise because you can drop down and stretch your calves beyond or deeper than resting length.

Taken together, these mechanical factors provide a great muscle-building stimulus to the calf muscles.

Here are the steps to perform this one of our calf exercises:

  1. Place the balls of your feet on the footplate of the donkey calf raise machine with the pad positioned on your lower back.
  2. Drop your heels towards the floor to lower the weight as far as possible.
  3. Pause and then explode through the balls of your feet to lift the weight as high as you can up on your toes. 
  4. Pause at the top of the flexion, and then slowly lower back down for the next rep. 

#3: Seated Calf Raises

A person doing a seated calf raise.

The calf muscles are actually composed of two separate muscles: the larger and stronger gastrocnemius and the flatter and thinner soleus, which lies underneath the gastrocnemius.

While training the gastrocnemius will give you the definition in your calf muscles, notably the two-headed shape of the gastrocnemius with peaks at the top of the muscle, strengthening your soleus muscle will help give bulk and girth to your calf muscles for a more “meaty“ and impressive looking lower leg.

Additionally, it is important to include exercises that specifically target the soleus muscle in your calf workouts because even though this smaller muscle often plays “second fiddle“ to the powerful gastrocnemius, it is a muscle that is used for walking, running, and stabilizing your shin and ankle. 

As such, it is important to develop calf strengthening as it can help with injury prevention and muscular endurance.

This calf exercise helps target both calf muscles, but the seated position helps you isolate the soleus, and you can work to failure, which will help recruit soleus muscle fibers after the gastrocnemius fatigues.

Here are the steps to perform this one of our calf exercises:

  1. Sit up straight at the seated calf raise machine with bent knees at 90° and the balls of your feet on the step. The pads should be placed on your thigh just above the knee level.
  2. Unrack the weight and then press into the balls of your feet, contracting your calf muscles to lift the weight up as high as possible.
  3. Pause in the top position for 2 to 3 seconds.
  4. Then, slowly drop your heels as far as possible to the floor, holding the stretch for several seconds. You should extend well below 90° so that you are getting a deep stretch in your calf muscle and increasing the range of motion.

#4: Seated Dumbbell Calf Raises

A person with dumbbells on her quads.

Many gyms do not have a seated calf raise machine, but you can replicate the exercise on your own using dumbbells. You can also use a barbell if you need.

Here are the steps to perform this one of our calf exercises:

  1. Sit at the end of a weight bench with an aerobic step, block, or another short platform about a foot in front of you.
  2. Place the balls of your feet on the edge of the platform or step about hip-width apart. 
  3. Position a dumbbell on each thigh just above your knees as if you were about to lie back and grab them for a chest press.
  4. Then, press through the balls of your feet to lift the weight and come up onto your toes on the box.
  5. Pause for several seconds before dropping your heels as low as possible.
  6. Pause before beginning the next rep. Make sure to go slowly when you lower down and press explosively when you are lifting up.

#5: Single-Leg Calf Raises

Two people doing single-leg calf raises.

Any unilateral exercise gives you the opportunity to identify relative weaknesses from one side to the other and correct any noticeable muscle imbalances.

The single-leg calf raise is a great opportunity to strengthen each calf muscle individually, and you can hold a dumbbell or kettlebell to add resistance for bigger gains in strength and size.

You will perform one set with the right leg/right foot and then the next with the left foot.

This exercise is also great for range of motion of the achilles tendon and ankle joint. If your goal is ankle mobility, lower your heel down and lean into the stretch.

Here are the steps to perform this exercise in your calves workouts:

  1. Stand upright with the balls of your feet at the edge of a step, box, or platform.
  2. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand, and use the other hand to lightly hold on to the wall or surrounding stable surface or balance. You will not be pressing into this hand to assist the exercise, but it is there in case you need it for balance and support.
  3. Lift up one leg and hook it behind the working leg so that you have only one foot on the platform.
  4. Press through the ball of your foot to raise up as high as you can onto your toes.
  5. Hold the top position for 2 to 3 seconds.
  6. As slowly as possible, lower yourself all the way down until your heel drops below the step that you are on, stretching out your calf to maximize the range of motion of the exercise.
  7. Pause at the end range of motion and then explode back up onto the ball of your foot, until you are on your tiptoes.
  8. Complete all of your reps on one side and then switch legs.

#6: Weighted Toe Walks

A person holding two weight plates.

This calf exercise is sometimes called a Farmer’s walk, and it is a great way to strengthen your calf muscles and increase muscular endurance.

Essentially, you will be holding weights and walking on your tiptoes for whatever designated distance you can handle per set.

Here are the steps to perform this one of our calf exercises:

  1. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand. You should work up to holding a total of 50% of your body weight, if possible, depending on your fitness level.
  2. Rise up onto your tippy toes and then walk forward, continuing to step only on the balls of your feet, maintaining the toe walk for the duration of the exercise.
  3. Think about squeezing your calf muscles for the entire duration of the walk as if you are wearing invisible stiletto heels.

#7: Sled Drags

A person pulling a gym sled.

Most exercises found in calf workouts are calf isolation exercises, but it is also helpful to train the calves in a functional exercise, working multiple leg muscles at once.

The sled pull is a great exercise to add to your calf training for this reason.

You will strengthen your calf muscles along with your quads and hamstrings while challenging your power and explosive strength.

Here are the steps to perform this exercise in your calf workouts:

  1. Situate the weighted sled behind you, holding one strap underneath each arm with a tight grip in your hands.
  2. Step one foot forward as if going into a lunge, reaching out as far as possible with your foot while aiming to “claw“ the floor with your toes.
  3. Push through your toes to help propel you into the next step, focusing on exploding through your calf muscles to maximize the workload on your calves and enhance the neuromuscular connections with the calves.

Note that you can also do sled pushes to strengthen your calves.

#8: Jumping Rope

A person jumping rope.

Jumping rope is generally considered to be a conditioning exercise, but it is also a great way to build muscular endurance in your calves. It’s a great plyometric exercise, similar to a jump squat or jumping jacks.

Landing quickly and lightly on the balls of your feet and then springing up onto your toes to launch your body into the air between jumps is controlled by your calves.

Aim to jump as fast and for as long as possible, increasing the duration of your jump roping bouts to build muscular endurance.

There you have it, 8 awesome calf exercises that you can use to put together your best calf workouts!

Remember to always warm up, choose the correct starting position, and pick the right weight and the right leg exercises that work for you. If you want further help, we recommend working with a certified personal trainer.

They will be able to devise the best calf strength training plan to suit you.

To learn more about jumping rope, check out our 30-day jump rope challenge here.

A person jumping rope.

References

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.