Calf Exercises That Work

Strong calves are critical for a slew of sports skills and movements. STACK Expert Justin Groce helps you train outside the box with 5 effective calf exercises.

Jump Rope

Calf exercises to build strength are essential for a slew of sports. Strong calves propel you when you explode out of the blocks in a sprint. They help you maintain ankle stability when you make a cut. And they enable you to "dig" into the ground when you press against an opponent.

If you're serious about building your calves, you can't just throw in a set here and a set there. You've got to dedicate yourself to some outside-the-box exercises.

Here are some unorthodox approaches to building strong, athletic calves that will help you on and off the field. After all, you want to look good as well as perform well.

The following calf exercises cover all the bases: endurance, strength-endurance and hypertrophy.

Jump Rope

I must preface this by saying that jumping rope isn't meant to build massive calves, but it does aid the calves' muscular endurance and fast-twitch capabilities. It's also great conditioning work. Instead of texting between sets, skip rope. You'll burn calories and do your calves a favor. Add 60 seconds of rope-skipping between sets or for five minutes as a warm-up or cool-down.

Sled Pushes

In my opinion, Sled Pushes are one of the best exercises. Not only do they condition the whole body, they have virtually no eccentric component—meaning they don't cause much soreness. In relation to the calves, Sled Pushes have great transference for linemen, sprinters and wrestlers, all of whom need to explode out of the gates and create "digging strength."

If you don't have a sled available to you, put your car in neutral and push it. Your best bet is to do this exercise once a week. Sets and distance depend on your goals:

  • Strength-endurance: 3-4 sets of 20-30 yards at 85-90% effort followed by a 2-3 minute rest
  • Explosion: 4-6 sets of 10-15 yards at 100% effort followed by a 3-5 minute rest
  • Endurance: 2-3 sets of 30-50 yards at 75-85% effort followed by 2-3 minute rest

Smith Machine Calf Raises

I'm not re-inventing the wheel here, just assuring you of the importance of this exercise. But in order to maximize your gains, you need to stand on a 4- to 6-inch platform (or two 45-pound plates) and hang your heels off the edge. Here's the next thing: when you reach the "bottom" position, hold it for one to two seconds and feel the entire stretch thoroughly, then press back up toward your big toes. By feeling the entire stretch, you are maximally engaging your calves and firing up to the greatest possible height (greatest possible extension) by finishing on your big toes.

Now that you've got the mechanics down, we'll discuss the rep schemes necessary for growth.

Since your calves are used thousands of times per day—especially if you do a lot of walking or standing—they're engaged a lot. That means you need to stress your calves to an entirely new degree in order to get them to respond. Here's a calf-building progressive overload scheme that is sure to get those stubborn muscles to grow:

  • Set 1: 20-25  reps to failure
  • Set 2: 15-20 reps to failure
  • Set 3: 10-15 reps to failure
  • Set 4: 5-10 reps to failure
  • Set 5: 20-25 reps to failure, rest approximately 15-20 seconds, then perform another set to failure; rest 15-20 seconds and perform one last set to failure. Note: On Set 5, do not change the weight between the rest-pause sets.

By implementing a mixed-hypertrophic/endurance scheme, you target the slow-twitch muscle fibers then progress to the fast-twitch fibers.

Barbell Clean-Pull (a.k.a. "Barbell Jump Shrug")

The Clean-Pull is the first movement—and often the limiting factor—in your ability to maximally Power Clean.  It's also a great alternative to the Power Clean, especially when you're in-season and in maintenance phase, because it isn't nearly as taxing on the central nervous system.

Essentially, the Clean-Pull is the first phase of the Power Clean, minus the catch. You start in the beginning position of the Power Clean and explode up onto your toes, as if you were trying to jump with the bar, while simultaneously shrugging the bar to your ears.

Why would someone want to do the Clean-Pull? Well, if your Power Clean is lagging, you'll put 3 to 5 percent more weight on the bar than your max Power Clean and focus on the triple extension. The Clean-Pull also transitions to the Deadlift and teaches the hips to fire more explosively, which helps in sprinting and jumping.

Try this once a week and focus on being as explosive as possible, as if you were trying to jump as high as possible. Perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps at a heavy enough resistance that you can perform it soundly in terms of mechanics and still generate a lot of power.

Single-Leg Calf Raises

This exercise is performed much like the Smith Machine Calf Raise, except you stand on one leg.  The SLCR is a great adjunct exercise, especially for injury prevention. Ever wonder how wide receivers can cut on a dime without their ankles collapsing? I just gave you the secret.

Hold a weight in either hand, place your heel over the edge of a platform or a stack of plates and lower yourself into that deep stretch for 1-2 seconds. Then explosively drive up onto your big toe. Since this is more of an injury prevention exercise, keep the reps in the 8-12 range. If you want to go heavy, by all means, do so!

Now let's turn those calves into bulls!

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