Calf Muscles: Anatomy and 5 Strength Exercises

The calf muscles are often the most under-trained in the body and are regularly overlooked in a bodybuilding program. 

Most people don't understand the importance of keeping this muscle group strong and growing. If this is your case or if you just want to know more, read on!

You will learn a lot about the anatomy, pathologies and exercises related to this part of your body.

NOTE : I'm talking about the calf muscles here, but really I should be talking about the leg muscles. The problem is that in everyday language, we include all the lower limbs in this word, from the buttocks to the feet. In reality, the leg normally only includes what is around the tibia and fibula. You will therefore find in this article information concerning the calf muscles themselves, but also the tibialis anterior and the long fibula.

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Calf muscle group functions

What is the calf for? This large block of muscle supports you when you're standing and allows you to move your foot and lower leg.

Assisted by the muscles in the shin, it propels you forward when you walk or run. It also allows you to jump, rotate your ankle and lock your knee.

The different leg muscles

Calf muscles in action

As you will see, this part of the anatomy includes 2 bones between 2 complex joints and 5 muscles, one of which is made up of 2 bundles. So there are people jostling 😅

The calves or front part

The calf muscles consist of two main muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. As these 2 muscles meet above the heel and attach to the Achilles tendon, some specialists consider the gastrocnemius and soleus to be a single large muscle with 3 sections, hence its name triceps surae:

Soleus: A large, flat muscle located deep to the gastrocnemius. 

Gastrocnemius or twin muscles : It is the upper part which gives its curve to the calf. We can detail them by talking about the inner twin and the outer twin. Their shortness or retraction is a very frequent and often misunderstood pathology. It is involved in many foot and calf pathologies. This is where the majority of muscle cramps and pain occur during sports or at night.

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The tibia

At the front of the legs and around the tibia and fibula are 3 muscles:

Anterior tibial (anterior tibialis): You use this leg muscle when you lift the sole of your foot off the ground keeping your heel on the ground. It is the flexor of the foot on the leg (dorsiflexion), adductor and supinator.

Posterior tibialis (posterior tibialis): It used to be called the tibialis posterior muscle. Located at the back of the tibia, it plays the role of extensor of the talocrural joint, and incidentally of internal rotator and adductor.

Peroneus longus (Peroneus longus): Previously called the peroneus longus lateral, it is a muscle located on the outer side of the leg made up of 3 bundles. It is a plantar flexor of the foot on the leg, abductor and lateral rotator (for eversion of the foot). It especially supports the outer arch of the arch of the foot.

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Exercises to strengthen the calf muscles

My goal is not to give you all the possible exercises to strengthen your legs, but some must-haves for your sessions at home. You will find other possibilities in the Bodybuilding Exercises section.

1. Standing calf raise

This is one of the foundational movements for calf development. With your hands at your side or resting on a wall, toes pointing forward and knees straight, lift your heels off the floor while pushing off on the balls of your feet. Control the movement, with a slight pause at the top of the contraction.

Ideally, you should place the balls of your feet on a step or stepper to stretch your calf muscles as much as possible on the way down. This exercise can be made more difficult with a dumbbell in each hand or by using elastic bands and a door anchor fixed at ground level.

2. One leg calf raise

Calf extensions

This is a more advanced variation of the previous exercise. The reason I like it is because it helps prevent muscle imbalances. Indeed, your weaker side must provide as much effort as the stronger one.

As with the simultaneous extensions of the 2 calves, this movement can be performed with or without weight or resistance, on a flat surface or an elevated platform. The idea is to perform the movement correctly with only one calf, always in a controlled way. 

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3. Seated Calf Raise

Pour cet exercice, vous devez disposer de charges libres comme des dumbbells, une barre ou des disques. Vous devez placer le poids sur les quadriceps, juste au-dessus du genou, en position assise. Les pieds doivent être écartés de la largeur des épaules, les orteils pointant vers l’avant.

The heels should be suspended and the soles of the feet should be supported on an elevated support such as a stepper. You have to press the soles of your feet on the platform to slowly raise your heels, contract your calves as much as possible, then slowly come back down in a controlled manner. 

4. Skipping

C’est un excellent exercice pour solliciter les muscles des mollets. Vous devez choisir une jumping rope de la bonne dimension (ou réglable) ainsi que la surface appropriée. Les sauts doivent être petits et contrôlés, les genoux légèrement pliés pour éviter les blessures.

Jump up and land on your tiptoes with each rep. Although a weighted vest is an option, body weight is sufficient for plyometric movements. 

5. Half squat calf raises

This exercise is a good way to shift the effort from the gastrocnemius or twin muscle to the soleus, ie from the outer side of the calf to the inner part.

Stand with your toes pointing forward and your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees to find yourself in a half squat position. In fact, instead of forming a right angle at the knees, you will form a 45° angle.

While keeping the balls of your feet on the ground, slowly raise your heels as high as you can, pause at the top by contracting your calf muscles, then slowly lower back down. The knees should remain bent throughout the movement.

If you have trouble keeping your balance during the set, place the index finger of each hand against a wall. That should be enough...

Most common calf injuries

The anatomical characteristics of the calf as well as the stresses to which it is subjected most of the time in many sports make this muscle group conducive to muscle damage and other pathologies.

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Some of the calf pathologies can be a persistent cause of frustration for any athlete if not promptly diagnosed and taken care of. If you've had calf issues, whether it's pain, regular involuntary twitching, or cramping and squeezing, it's time to fix it.

There are many causes of leg pain, with diagnoses varying in frequency and severity. The most common causes are: calf sprains, shin splints, compartment syndrome, deep vein thrombosis, stress fracture, edema, Achilles tendon rupture and popliteal artery syndrome. There are of course cases of varicose veins, a phenomenon that is more pronounced in the elderly.

Here are some explanations of some calf injuries:

Medial tibial stress syndrome

More commonly called shin splints, it involves changes in the periosteum (membrane on the bone surface) of the lower inner edge of the tibia. This pathology often affects runners who put excessive pressure on the balls of their feet.

Tibial stress fracture

Beyond shin splints, the next step in the bone stress continuum is a stress fracture. This can occur along the medial or posterior edge of the tibia.

Chronic compartment syndrome

Compartment syndrome is characterized by recurrent, often bilateral and intense pain in the muscle compartment. The pain occurs with exertion and subsides with rest. We often have a feeling of pressure or compression in the front of the leg.

Often there are no other significant signs such as loss of movement or decreased strength. Usually, unless compartment pressure decreases rapidly and symptoms resolve, a fasciotomy urgently is needed.

Peroneal nerve entrapment

Cases are quite rare and are often preceded by trauma. Burning pain, sensory and/or motor changes may occur.

Calf muscle cramps

Refers to an involuntary contraction of one or more leg muscles. Muscle cramps are often intensely painful and sudden. They can be associated with stiffness and a visible knot.

Although this uncontrollable contraction of the muscle is usually short-lived, calf muscle pain can persist for several days. These contractions mainly affect the triceps surae or calf muscle, but the other muscles of the leg can also suffer. I know something 😥

achilles tendon and calf muscle
Achilles' tendon

However, there are other causes of calf pain, including serious medical conditions such as blood clots or a Achilles tendon rupture. If you experience acute calf pain that does not pass, it is important to consult a healthcare professional in order to receive a prompt diagnosis. A clinical examination may be necessary if it is serious or to determine the causes of the pain.

How to build calf muscles?

Now that you have the basic knowledge about calf muscles, here are some additional steps you can take to help them grow. Adjusting the frequency of workouts, duration, weight, number of reps and rest will make a big difference.

Here are some helpful recommendations to promote the growth of your calf muscles…

Regularly train your calves

Make them work regularly. Incorporate calf muscle training into your regular workout routine.

Working them every day is not recommended, but you can safely do it 2-3 times a week. For example, you can train them at the end of the session, after the thighs and hamstrings. 

Start at bodyweight

Start with bodyweight exercises. The gastrocnemius muscle is a fast-twitch muscle that requires controlled exercise to be effective.

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Fast-twitch muscles are used for explosive movements like sprinting and vertical leaps. They support many repetitions, but you must reduce the length of sets if you use loads. However, it is not necessary to use heavy weights because they are used in almost all lower limb exercises.

Do enough sets

Choose 2 calf exercises per workout and perform 3-4 high sets per exercise. If you're a beginner, start with around 12 reps per set.

If you are experienced and use free weights, you can go down to 5 reps after the warm-up sets. When using dumbbells, use common sense and don't increase the weight if you're having trouble completing sets. If it's too easy, don't be afraid to add weight between sets. 

Improve your stamina

Calf muscles

The soleus muscle is made up of 88 % of slow-twitch muscle fibers. It is therefore very enduring and you can increase the number of repetitions to develop your endurance. Slow-twitch muscles take longer to fatigue and respond better to high reps.

If your goal is endurance rather than volume or strength, choose 2 more calf exercises. Do 3-4 sets of 20-40 reps for each calf. 

Shake up your habits

Change the order of the exercises every 2 weeks, or change them completely every month. Introducing a new movement or movement in a different order frequently will help you achieve better results and decrease the risk of your calf muscles adapting to training.

Don't bounce

It's a rule in bodybuilding, you should almost never use kinetic energy to facilitate a movement. Force should be controlled by muscle, not momentum. This is especially important if you want to build calf muscles without the risk of injury.

For example, when doing calf raises, bouncing up and down will work the Achilles tendon more than the gastrocnemius or soleus muscles. For the tempo of short series, one repetition should take about 6 seconds by mastering the rise and fall. For faster sets, one rep should take about 4 seconds round trip.

Analyze your results

Write down what your body is telling you and the results you get. If you follow what is written here and you get great results, keep it up.

But if you follow these steps and you don't reach your goal, try changing exercises, slowing the pace, or using heavier weights. You will inevitably find the combination that will work best…

In any case, if you take care of your calf muscles by keeping them flexible and strong, you will achieve these results:

  • You will reduce the risk of injury
  • You will improve your endurance and athletic performance.

Calf Muscles: Conclusion

Before you start applying these tips, keep in mind that everyone is different. So be sure to train safely and listen to what your body is telling you. 

If you're in too much pain to work your calves, skip a day or two and let them recover before working them again. Quality rest is just as important as quality training.

Leave a comment below to tell me what you think of this article and to share your own experience. Thank you !

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