Here Is Everything You Will Ever Need To Know To Cure The Pink Flamingo Syndrome
Building calves is freaking hard!
Also, people give up easily. Those who have tried everything, have not. Here’s a classic:
Trainee: I have tried everything!
Trainer: Have you tried upping the volume?
Trainer: Have you tried heavier loads?
Trainer: Well, what have you tired?
Trainee: Literally everything!
Narrator: He hadn’t tried anything at all. Nothing. And he found comfort knowing that it was because of his genetics.
Actually – full disclosure – the number one parameter that factors in for great calf development is genetics.
You see, the shorter the tendon, the bigger the muscle belly. (In passing, shorter tendons also provide a better mechanical advantage and therefore are a great predictor of an individual potential for strength.)
At one extreme of the spectrum you will find guys with small tendons and wide belly muscles. They sport huge calves and often don’t even need to train them. (By the way, it is the number one tell-tale sign of mesomorphism.) At the other extreme, you have the guys with long tendon and small calves. Sadly, you can’t change how your muscles insert, even if it has been tried!
Charles was fond of this story: Rumour has it that in the seventies East German sport scientists – whose scientific rigour was only an approximate match to their morals – experimented with reattaching muscle insertions of judokas and wrestlers to create über fighters. They actually only managed to produce very clumsy humans since coordination went south after the procedure. So, no, this kind of surgery is not an option.
On the bright side, athletes with longer tendons and short muscle bellies have the best potential for sprint and jumps. Since the calves nest near the knee they provide them with a better leverage. There’s always a silver lining!
Ultimately, if you are after size, either you have won the genetic lottery or, you get to learn how to be clever about your training. (Which is good! <= growth mindset!)
But, why are calves so tricky?
- First, training calves is painful. Small muscles accumulate lactic acid pretty fast, and, it just hurts like a motherfucker.
- Then, the range of motion available for calf exercises is small. It makes tempo variation difficult when compared with larger range of motion exercises such as deadlifts or chin-ups. Also, to add insult to injury most trainees have piss-poor flexibility in the lower leg which limits the ROM even more.
- Then, you only have a limited exercise treasure to play with. The sheer amount of biceps exercise is enough to make someone dizzy; not so with calves.
- And finally you have to work against the grain. The gym culture is to train calves at the end of the workout as an afterthought. Here’s a nice Poliquinism to illustrate the fact: “if a law were imposed gyms that for every set of biceps curls you do you must also perform a set of calf raises, a year from now you would see the average calf measurement increase by at least two inches!” Charles R. PoliquinClick To Tweet
When all is said and done, growing a decent pair of calves (when they are not god-given) is somewhat of a badge of honour. You need to be industrious and learn how best to trick your calves into growth. So let’s dive in!
First a quick anatomy recap on calves. Then, we will explore 11 basic principles to keep in mind when training calves along with 3 advanced techniques. And finally we will look into a few of the very best routines ever written for calf training.
Okay, anatomy first!
Let’s get the terminology out the way. The lower leg is everything below the knee and above the ankle.
There are 11-13* muscles in the lower leg (* there are 2 inconstant muscles hence the range bracket.) These muscles are usually divided into 3 compartments: the anterior, lateral and posterior loges.
Now, don’t worry, for us gym rats, the only muscles we need worry about are the triceps surae (in the posterior loge) and the tibialis anterior (in the – you’ve guessed it – anterior loge!)
Let’s begin with the triceps surae.
The triceps surae is composed of 3 muscles (tri = three):
- the plantaris
- the gastrocnemius
- the soleus
Let’s get the plantaris out of the way first.
What about the plantaris?
- It is an inconstant muscle – about 10% of the population lacks it.
- It is a very small muscle, the equivalent in size to your middle or index finger. And it is, therefore, very weak.
- It works as a (very) weak accessory to the gastrocnemius since it has similar attachements.
- Now an interesting fact is that it is hypothesized to play a role in spatial monitoring of the triceps surae group and ankle since it displays a great number of proprioceptors. These specialized cells convey information about muscle tension and length.
Now that we’ve got this tiny thing of a muscle out of the way,
Let’s move on to the infamous Gastronemius!
- The gastroc lies superficially and constitutes the bulk of the lower leg.
- It has two heads – hence two origin points. The medial head of the gastrocnemius originates from the medial epicondyle of the femur. The lateral head of the gastrocnemius originates from the… lateral epicondyle of the femur (the names kinda give everything away, right?)
- It inserts on the Achilles tendon which it shares with the soleus and the plantaris and then inserts at the tuberosity of the calcaneus.
The gastrocnemius has 2 functions:
- the gastrocnemius assists in knee flexion, it only has a small action there. But it means that the gastrocnemius is basically incapacitated when performing seated exercises. The corollary being that the best exercises to target the gastrocnemius will be performed with straight legs [this is why you guys want to know your anatomy. And you will be happy to know that we are up to some cool stuff such as an upcoming online class on anatomy! We will keep you posted!]
- Plantarflexion which means: pointing the feet in an open chain movement, or, standing on the tip of your toes in a closed chain movement.
Best Training Recommendations:
Form dictates function, hence the best exercise is always the one which provides the best line of pull. In this case it is going to be with straight legs. Here a few exemples:
Calf Extensions Atlantis 45 Sliding Machine Feet Inward Mid
Calf Raise Standing DB Foot Neutral Unilateral
Calf Raises Standing Machine Feet Neutral Narrow
The gastrocnemius is a mixed type, but the athletic population usually leans toward a fast-twitch profile. The gastrocnemius is involved in speed movements such as running, and jumping.
- As such, the ideal time under tension for training the gastroc will range from 20 to 40 seconds on average.
- Also, due to its somewhat fast-twitch profile, this muscle requires a longer recovery period. It is best for most to train it only once every 5 days.
… on to the soleus.
The soleus lies underneath the gastrocnemius and, in the same way as the brachialis does for the arm, hypertrophy of the soleus will make the gastrocnemius pop up more and add to the overall volume. So, it’s best not to neglect it if you want bigger calves.
It originates at the head of the fibula, the posterior border of the fibula, and on a tendon arch at the soleal line on the tibia.
It inserts on the Achilles tendon and the tuberosity of the calcaneus.
The soleus muscle belly is almost completely covered by the gastrocnemius but runs lower down toward the Achilles tendon. There are inter-individual differences.
Best Training Recommendations:
The soleus is best isolated when the knee is bent because it does not cross the knee joint. Here a few examples of great exercises to target the soleus:
Calf Raises Seated Machine Feet Outward
Calf Press Downs Seated Machine Feet Neutral
The soleus is a tonic muscle, also called an anti-gravity muscle. This means it acts to counter gravity and prevents us from falling face down. It does so mostly thanks to the stretch reflex. The soleus’ fibres are predominantly slow-twitch – as the anti-gravity muscles often are.
- It is best trained the 40+ sec TUT range.
- And can be trained more frequently than the gastrocnemius – as often as every day for specialization phases.
And finally, the last muscle, the tibialis.
- It originates from the lateral condyle of the tibia, the inferior 2/3 of the lateral side of the tibia, the interosseous membrane and the crural fascia.
- It inserts at the plantar side (sole of the foot) of the medial cuneiform and the first metatarsal bone.
The 2 functions of the tibialis anterior are:
- Dorsi flexion of the foot. (antagonist to the triceps sural)
- Weak inversion of the foot (since the tendon goes under the foot)
Best Training Recommendations:
The best exercises are Tibialis Raises Machine Seated or Standing
It’s best to:
- stretch the calves before working the tibialis.
- use pauses 1-4 seconds at the bottom of each reps.
- train it before the calves.
- and, like the gastrocnemius, train it every 5 days.
- use a TUT of 20-40 sec since the tibialis is predominantly fast twitch.
Let’s move on to the 11 Gems for Calf Training
1- Don’t let your ego get in the way of your progress
Many trainees want to tackle loads that lies far off the range of their current ability. Remember both soleus and gastrocnemius prolongs into the Achilles tendon. Now, the Achilles tendon acts like a spring. This phenomenon is called elastic recoil and it means that the tendon stores up kinetic energy on the eccentric portion of an exercise and then releases it to help during the concentric portion of the life. It can limit the actual work done by the muscles and thus negate the overload. The worst offenders are the guys with the long tendons, as they usually drop down super fast, don’t pause at the bottom and end up bouncing up like rabid kangaroos. The actual contribution this creates toward hypertrophy is a big zero.
How to fix and prevent this? Slow down!
- Use a 5050 tempo
- Make a pause at the bottom, the pause should last about 1 to 4 sec to dampen the stretch reflex. Begin with 4 seconds to re-educate yourself and then you can diminish the length of the pause.
A variation on this theme is the use of the quadriceps and glute muscles. This is often seen with straight legs exercises. The solution? Just keep the knees locked. Always use proper technique, hypertrophy training means you want to make the exercise as hard as possible. Tension is key!
2- Make the Most of Unilateral Training
Unilateral training is an amazing tool to optimize muscle recruitment and ultimately growth. When doing single leg exercises, the neural drive is focused on one limb. This will help optimize the load. Unilateral training also helps improving proprioception if this is an issue. So, go ahead and have fun with all single leg calf raises.
3- Make Sure You Don’t Have Tissue Restriction
As we have seen in the anatomy portion, about a dozen muscles are crammed in the lower leg. So, as you will have guessed, adhesions and scar tissue build-up can become an issue pretty quick.
According to Dr. Michael Leahy, inventor of Active Release Therapy©, there are different kinds of adhesions:
- Intra-muscular adhesions
- Inter-muscular adhesions
- Nerve to muscle adhesions
- Muscle to bone adhesions
From a mechanical perspective, muscle fibers either fuse together, forming “knots” or muscles adhere to one another. When this happens, both growth and range of motion are negatively impacted. Muscle growth can also be limited by fascia (which is one type of connective tissue.) Fascia is an envelope that surrounds and isolates anatomical structures. Under normal circumstances, this tissue allows muscles, blood vessels and nerves to glide past one another in a smooth fashion.
From a neural perspective, nerve to muscle adhesions or nerve entrapment are a huge problem. Charles always insisted that the nervous system was the forgotten component of strength training. And it is true that adhesions compromise the nervous influx.
Now, the good news is that soft tissue techniques can fix this. Actually the results are instantaneous and you could gain a few inches after one session. It is also not uncommon to see your 5-rep max turn into a 8-rep max. From one treatment. It is an avenue worth investigating.
4- Make the Most of the ROM
As a rule of thumb the longer the distance your heels travel when doing any calf exercise, the better the results. Now, calves exercises have a small ROM from the start, so let’s not diminish it even more. This can happen for three reasons:
- You are as flexible as a crowbar.
If this is the case, do your homework, get help from a manual therapist. Or stretch your calves, the best technique being weighted stretches in this case.
- You did not pick the correct set-up.
You need to allow space for the heels to drop below the horizontal. Use 6-7 inches blocks. Train barefoot.
- You forgot about the 1+1/2 reps.
1+1/2 reps are an excellent way to increase TUT on small ROM exercises. Plus it will force you to control the motion.
5- Don’t Neglect Antagonist Work
If your antagonists are dismally weak, you start with a serious dent in your potential for growth. There is an optimal length at which the muscle can produce the most amount of force. Muscle imbalances disrupt the joint kinematics. If the length-tension relationships around the joint are less than optimal, then force production will be compromised, ROM will be diminished and all kinds of other biomechanical wrongs! This happens to protect the joint. There is a constant cross-talk between nervous system and efferent messages from proprioceptors in the joints. The Sherrington’s law states that “when a muscle contracts, its direct antagonist relaxes to an equal extent allowing smooth movement.” For the knee joint this means that the extensors must match the flexors. Take a pre-emptive strike and work the tibialis anterior.
6- Master the Loading Parameters: Play Around With Frequency
If you want to be conservative you will be happy to learn that one good calf workout consisting of 8 to 12 sets every 2 to 4 days should be enough to bring about impressive calf development.
If you want to take massive action, you could choose to train the soleus as often as every.single.day. Just make sure to monitor your progression. As a rule of thumb, specialization phases should bring you close to overtraining (which is manifested by loss of strength, joint pain, and loss of size) by then it is time to recover and reap the benefits from that phase.
7- Learn How to Accommodate Calf Training Within your Split
- You can couple your calf training with a strong body part. For instance if you have huge arms, you would reduce arms training volume by 60% and train your calf during this session.
- You can change the exercises’ order. Let’s say you usually do calves after legs, then switch it around. You could train calf first in the usual workout. The muscle first trained reap the most benefits from the session.
- Or you can just allocate one training day uniquely to calves. You will see some sample workouts later.
8- Don’t be Afraid to Go for High Reps
Muscles with small ROM tend to grow very well on higher reps schemes. For most individuals, the hypertrophy golden ratio is 40-70 sec within the 70% RM. This is why, with small ROM muscles 20+reps are in order. I can hear you protest that it contradicts what have been said about fast twitch muscles.
Grastroc are more fast twitch! You can’t train them with higher reps!
Yes and no.
You should train the gastroc in the 20-40 sec bracket 90% of the time. The other 10%, it is time to go explore your pain threshold guys!
9- Keep your Body Guessing
A great way to achieve this is to mix heavy and light reps. You can use the heavy-light principle which pairs two exercises in sequence.
Another option is the triple drop set principle. You would begin with a heavy weight for 10 reps, then reduce the weight three times, and by the time the set is over you probably will have done 35 to 50 reps. (see the Luke Sauders’ Routine)
10- Make Every Detail Count.
Here’s a few of Charles’ Jedi Tricks. None has a major effect but every little help is welcome when you are struggling with tiny calves. Plus knowing you do the absolute best is a nice boost on your motivation!
- When doing standing calf raises, squeeze the glutes, it will lead to a better contraction. The reason being that it pulls the fascia.
- When executing standing calf raises, push through the big toe. You see, the Peroneus tertius (inconstant) the fibularis longus, and the fibularis brevis are muscle of the deep posterior loge. Their job is to evert the foot. Eversion of the foot is a motion best described as a plantar flexion + pronation + adduction of the foot. When you stimulate several muscles in close proximity the training effect increases. It’s called the irradiation effect.
- It’s usually never a good idea to try and reinvent the wheel in the gym. And using the equipment for absolutely different purposes that the intended one is a big pet-peeve. But, try performing standing calf raises on the hack squat. The 45º forward lean will do wonders for the exercise in terms of proprioception and tension.
11- Vary Feet Position and Stance Width
Most people have a favourite stance for calf exercises and they never change it. Muscle hypertrophy requires tapping into as many motor unit pools as possible. Varying stance width is an easy way to achieve this. The most bang for your buck for blasting through plateaus, will most likely be having a very wide stance, which is the one people avoid the most, as it is the weakest position.
Here is a quick recap of what feet positions you have at your disposal:
12 possible exercises.
And now, let’s review 3 advanced techniques you wish you had known about from day 1!
1. Jumps and Accentuated Eccentrics
Look at the calf development of gymnasts or basketball players. Yes! Impressive! All the jumping and landings is what developed their calves. The landing portion of jumps is like accentuated eccentrics kicked in high gear. Calves absorb the force on the landing portion of the jump, this causes a great deal of muscle damage and hence promote hypertrophy – like nothing else.
Here a classic Poliquin brutal fix:
A1- Standing Calf Raises 6-8 reps on a 23X0 tempo
Rest 10 seconds
A2- Jump Squats
Pick a barbell (not dumbbell unless you don’t care about your shoulders) load it with about 25% of your body weight. Jump up and down. Take care to allow only the least possible knee bent, and don’t let your heels more the one second in contact with the ground. Do 12-15 reps.
Rest 120 seconds
Repeat 4-5 times.
2. Doublé Training
Doublé training is a method that Charles learned from Pierre Roy. It consists in doing an exercise twice- once first and once last in the workout. It can work very well if you couple your calf training with a stronger bodypart. For instance, you can do ten sets of calves at the beginning of the workout, then train biceps and triceps for two sets, then do ten sets of calves at the end. It is a great plateau buster.
3. Heavy Partials
Another excellent method for calves is super-setting heavy partials with full range movements.
Do 6-8 reps on a 10X8 tempo, let’s say on the donkey calf raises, you would start the motion with your feet parallel to the ground. Go all the way up, pause 8 seconds at the top of the range of motion.
Then rest for 10 second just long enough to lighten the weight by 25%.
Then do a full range set on a 12X0 tempo.
Do 4 of those supersets.
Rest 2 minutes between those supersets.
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The speed at which you execute your reps is called the “tempo.” ‧ In combination with reps number, tempo will dictate time under tension, and ultimately the outcome of your workout. ‧ Playing with tempo will unlock a whole new avenue of creativity for your workouts. ‧ Ian King introduced the world to the idea of tempo in the 90s (even if the concept itself predates this.) At this time a 3 digit template was used. ‧ Charles adopted and improved the concept by adding the 4th digit. He felt the need to control the missing parameter – The pause at the end of the concentric part of the rep. ‧ A few more precisions ‧ This lowering of the weight must be controlled. The amount of control is a greater predictor of athletic performance when it comes to powerlifting. It is inversely proportional with the risk of injury. ‧ Don’t get mixed up! In some movements such a squat and bench press the movement begins with the eccentric part of the motion. Whereas chin-up and deadlift have you do the reverse. You lower the weight or your body back to the starting position of the lift.
Finally, the sample workouts that you have been waiting for.
The High Volume/ High Frequency Workout
The first workout capitalizes on the idea that you need both high volume and high frequency to develop legendary calves.
Charles advised training the calves twice over a five-day cycle. The first workout was the high volume workout and the second one was the lighter volume workout. This set-up gives you the best of two worlds.
Here is a sample split over 5 days for calf size:
Day 1 (high volume; up to 450 reps)
A1- Standing Calf Raises, feet narrow 10 x 8-10 on a 22×0 tempo, rest 90 seconds
A2- Tibialis Raises 10 x 8-10 on a 2012 tempo, rest 90 seconds
B1- Donkey Calf Raises or 45 Degrees Sliding Calf Presses 5 x 20-25 on a 11×0 tempo, rest 10 seconds
B2- Seated Calf Raises 5 x 20-25 on a 10×0 tempo, rest 90 seconds
Day 4 (low volume, up to 120 reps)
A- Standing Calf Raises, feet wide, 3 x 10-12 on a 13×0 tempo, rest 45 seconds; you will need to drop the weight every set.
B- Seated Calf Raises 2 x 30-35 on a 10×0 tempo, rest 45 seconds; you will need to drop the weight every set.
Most trainees report at least 1.5 cm in 30 days of this system.
THE ONE HOUR CALF WORKOUT
Charles was a huge fan of this method. It is extremely simple, yet extremely hard! Here’s the gist of it.
Find a workout partner.
Pick one exercise, do as many sets as possible in 15 minutes. You rest when your partner works and vice-versa.
Repeat with 3 other exercises.
Say thank you to your workout partner – if you are still on speaking terms -limp back home.
Paul Carter’s added a twist to it, he added a 5 second pause in the stretched position, lest you’d be tempted to cheat and bounce.
A. 15 minutes of 45 degrees Calf Extensions
B. 15 minutes of Wide Stance Standing Calf Raises
C. 15 minutes of Seated Calf Presses
D. 15 minutes of Seated Calf Raises
LUKE SAUDER’S ROUTINE
Charles developed this calf routine for Luke Sauder who was one of his athletes in the National Alpine Ski Team. He was fond of saying that following this workout regimen the ski company was very upset because they had to remold all of Luke’s boots.
Day 1: High-Volume
A1- Seated Calf Raises 3 x 10-5-5 at a 1010 tempo 10 seconds rest
(one set of 10 reps, followed by two drop sets of 5 reps)
A2- Donkey Calf Raises 3 x 30-50 at a 10X0 tempo 120 sec rest
B- Standing Calf Raises 10 x 10-30** at a 11X0 tempo, 90 seconds rest
**This is one, long, extended set, resting ten seconds between each mini-set and lowering the weight in between.
Day 2: Low-Volume (to be done 48 hours after Day 1)
Exercise A: Triple Drop Standing Calf Raises
A1- Triple Drop Standing Calf Raises 3 x 10/10/10 at a 1210 tempo,*** rest 90 seconds
*** three drop sets
Big calves can make a huge difference in your physique. They will make your quads appear bigger. They flag you as a freak. Either a genetic freak that is a pure mesomorph. Or as the type of individual that relentlessly work on their weaknesses. If you’ve overcome the odds, you are smart and a tough cookie too!
Mind you it not all about aesthetics, even athletes benefit from a well-developed pair of calves. In the case of alpine skiers, the meat of the calf muscles provide a mechanical buffer for the knee joint. It prevents the knee from reaching too acute an angle when skying down the slopes or absorbing shocks.
So commit to it! As Arnold said it, commit to 500 hours of training exclusively your calves. That amounts to 660 45 minutes workouts. He adds with tact: “if you are not willing to put in the time, forget about it.”
So, time to GROW THOSE CALF INTO COWS!