Why it’s difficult to tone your calves – part 3

Personal/Fitness Training Blog

In the last instalment of the series of articles on how to tone your calves – written by #TrifocusBrandAmbassador Ashleigh Frost – we’ll learn the best exercises you can do to train this part of your body.


As with any joint, if you are going to do a “pull” exercise you need to counteract that with a “push” exercise to emphasise the joint stability. It is important to approach the calf muscle group as any other major muscle group:

  • If you are going to work the front of the group you need to work the back, and
  • If you work the inside of the muscle group then you also need to work the outside.

Don’t just focus on working the gastrocnemius and the soleus to the point of exhaustion. You also need to  focus on the anterior tibialis in order to balance out the joint stability and to avoid injury.

Most problems with poor calf development go far beyond genetics

Unfortunately, most people execute most exercises with incorrect form (technique) and thus end up performing more of a movement and not an isolated contraction and flexion.

The biggest problem with developing calf muscles is that most people use the machines or do free standing calf raises with a bouncing action. Range of motion is also limited by only doing short, quick bursts. This in turn translates into a lack of potential development. In a calf raise movement, as the heel goes down towards the floor, there is an excessive amount of force exerted on the Achilles tendon, which serves to attach the gastrocnemius and soleus to the heel bone. It also inserts into the lower leg (posterior) halfway up. Therefore it is absolutely crucial to avoid any type of bouncing action to avoid injury.

The gastrocnemius and the soleus are also known as the tricep surae collectively:

  • The gastrocnemius is what we call a biarticular muscle. This means that when the knees are bent, the this muscle becomes an ineffective plantar flexor. This means that with bent knees it is ineffective on the gastrocnemiusdevelopment when you perform a pointed toe movement so the workload is transferred onto the soleus.
  • The soleus muscle is used whenever the ankle plantar flexes. To explain plantar flexion, picture yourself sitting on the floor with your legs extended in front of you and your toes pointing in a relaxed position towards the ceiling. This is position A (neutral). Position B will be as you flex your calf muscles and point your toes like a ballerina.
  • Flexing your foot back towards you making the angle between your shin bone and your foot smaller, is called dorsiflexion.

When you perform a heel-raising movement (read: calf raise) with the knees in full extension (straight legs) then the gastrocnemius will take most of the workload. This means that it is crucial to study the anatomy of the calf if you are keen to create some impressive lower legs:

  • Focus on the areas where you feel that need more development and train with knowledge and not just mindlessly bounce up and down with some heavy weights on a machine. A slower, more controlled squeeze and extension is far more effective than countless reps with terrible technique.
  • That being said, it is important to understand that the calf muscles are used to volume stress. What I mean by this is that you use them all day every day. Every time you take a step your calves are working. So it is important to know that when training them, make sure you isolate that session from your dominant leg session because if you train them together you will most likely be too tired and the muscles will be too fatigued to fire properly . (It is also important to know that this is my opinion based on experience. Some people train legs and calves together and that works for them. I prefer to split them. Calves are also not necessarily responsive to ridiculously high loads. You need to figure out what works for you.)

My advice

Start off with a medium weight range, perhaps slightly lower than your body weight, with high repetitions (30 – 40 reps) with at least 6 – 8 sets.

There are a few great calf exercises to choose from but at the end of the day all you really need are the basics with great technique.

  • Incorporate 2 calf sessions into your routine every week and document the changes. A great routine is as simple as 6 – 8 sets of seated calf raises with a rep range of about 30 reps, focusing on slowly lowering the weight and getting a solid stretch through the gastrocnemius , soleus and Achilles tendon and then a nice, slow and controlled flexion until you are right up on your toes, holding it for a second.
  • Follow this with some standing calf raises with the same rep and set range and concept of  technique in mind.
  • Once you get stronger and your calves get more used to the extra stress, I would advise changing it up a bit to keep it interesting. Periodise your training. One week do 2 sessions of medium to low weights with high repetitions, the next week do heavier weight range with a medium repetition range, and alternate each week for 3 months like that. This will keep the muscles stimulated and constantly guessing.
  • To focus on the other muscles I previously mentioned, try adding some resistance band routine work into your calf session. This would mean simply including about 6-8 set of plantar and dorsiflexion as well as inversion and eversion movements with a rep range between 30 – 45 with a resistance band around the ball of the foot while holding each end of the band at the desired resistance. You would perform these movements in an upright seated position (on the floor) with your legs extended straight out in front of you). The ankles range of motion is not large and thus it is important to work with slow and controlled movements.

Add these into your weekly routine and I’m sure your calves will be of the enviable sort in no time!

Catch Ashleigh and the rest of the #TrifocusBrandAmbassadors on the Trifocus Fit App!