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5 of the Best Exercises for a Calves Workout

Have you ever seen the guys at the gym who have jacked upper bodies and bulging quads, but twigs below the knees? It’s clear they skimp on the calves exercises in their workouts. It can be easy to make these smaller muscles an afterthought, but strong calves don’t only help to balance out your appearance, they’re also key to gaining power and explosiveness both inside and outside the gym.


“Your calf muscles help propel you forward and up in explosive movements,” says Cody Braun, Openfit fitness specialist. This makes them very useful for sprinting and plyometrics, and any activity that requires leg propulsion or foot stabilization upon landing, like cycling, running, volleyball, or basketball.

Tight calf muscles can limit your ankle mobility and potentially increase the likelihood of injuries like shin splints, plantar fasciitis, or Achilles tendonitis. That’s why it’s crucial to regularly train your calves, Braun says. To help you get started, we compiled a list of the best exercises and stretches for a comprehensive calves workout that can be done anywhere, even at home.

Calf Anatomy

“The two main muscles you’re trying to build when doing calf exercises are the soleus and the gastrocnemius,” Braun says. The gastrocnemius is the main muscle you see when looking at someone’s calves — it will be thick and well-defined if it’s highly developed. The soleus, in contrast, isn’t outwardly visible — it’s situated deep beneath the gastrocnemius. Both muscles work together to help flex your foot, but only the gastrocnemius plays a role in knee flexion (bending your knee).

Though the gastrocnemius is primarily responsible for the outward appearance and size of your calves, it’s important to engage and exercise both parts of the muscles, since each has a unique function. “The gastrocnemius contributes to jumping, acceleration, and explosive speed and power,” says William P. Kelley, C.S.C.S., ACT, while the soleus contributes to walking and running endurance. That’s because the soleus has a very high density of Type 1, or “slow twitch,” muscle fibers, he explains. Type 1 muscle fibers have slow contraction times and a high resistance to fatigue, which is helpful since your legs get a lot of action carrying your body from once place to another.

The Role of Genetics in Calf Development

You probably know someone who has massive, sharply defined calf muscles, yet rarely exercises. Meanwhile, you’ve been training your calves three times a week and still only see minimal results. What gives?

“Genetics play a role in your muscle makeup and size due to the allocation of Type I and Type II muscle fibers,” Kelley explains. While Type I fibers are more resistant to fatigue, they tend to have a lower growth potential than Type II, “fast twitch,” muscle fibers.

Everyone has a different percentage of Type I and Type II muscle fibers, meaning “someone with a genetic predisposition to Type II fibers may have a greater growth potential than someone who is more Type I dominant,” Kelley says.

If you weren’t born with naturally thick, shapely calves, don’t stress. “[Genetic makeup] does not prevent anyone from increasing calf strength and size,” Braun says, it might just require more work. The right workout routine, diet, and recovery plan can help you build stronger, more athletic calves no matter where you’re starting from.

8 of the Best Exercises and Stretches for a Calves Workout

Below are eight simple, but effective moves to help strengthen and stretch your calves. The best part? These calf exercises are easy to do at home. All you need is a jump rope, a pair of dumbbells, and a bench or chair.

Try incorporating these calf exercises into your workouts a couple times a week, Kelley says. But if you adhere to a demanding cardio routine, this amount may vary. “For example, a distance runner may need to resistance train calves less frequently to avoid overtraining,” he explains.

Standing Barbell Calf Raise

Stand upright with a barbell supported on your upper back. With your toes pointing forwards, raise your heels off the floor and contract your calves. Slowly return to the starting position.

Single Dumbbell Calf Raise

Put a weight plate on the floor and rest your toes on it whilst sitting on a bench. Place a dumbbell on your knee, your right hand holding the handle whilst your left hand holds the top. Lift up your toes as high as possible. Pause, then lower it back onto the weight and repeat.

Seated Calf Raise (Leg Press Machine)

Sit down at the leg press machine and rest your feet so just your toes are resting at the bottom of the platform. Push back as far as you can while keeping your feet against the platform. Return under control to the start position and repeat.

Farmer's Walk (On Tiptoes)

Grab a pair of dumbbells (or kettlebells) and hold them by your sides. Walk forward – on your tip toes – taking short, quick steps. At first, go for a lighter weight in order to maintain balance. Go for the given distance, as fast as possible.

Box Jump

Set yourself a comfortable distance from the box with feet shoulder width apart. Drop quickly into a quarter squat, swing your arms and explode upwards to jump onto the box. Land as softly as possible. Now step backwards off the box under control.