How to get your calves to grow

by Ryan Wagner

If there’s one singular body part that all of us wish was better developed, it would probably be the calves. These are the muscles that are often a true reflexion of athleticism. Big arms may be nice, but strong calves suggest a person who can really move. So, how can you get your calves to grow?

Whenever I see someone in the gym training calves it’s usually on the Smith machine and it’s typically for far too few reps. Training calves has become a filler exercise in so many people’s workout programs. We throw a few sets in here and there, but usually towards the end of our workouts. Or, when we caught a glimpse of our calves in the mirror on the day we wore those baggy shorts!

There are a couple of reasons why developing your calves is always a challenge.

First, genetics. We all know someone who just has big calves and never seems to do a thing to them. Whereas others, ectomorphs especially (yours truly), have a higher percentage of slow twitch muscle fibers combined with short muscle bellies, making building enviable calves a lofty goal.

Secondly, your calves see their fair share of exercise each and every day. Americans take around 5,000 steps a day. I should note that this is around half of what many health professionals recommend. Nevertheless, it’s clear that your calves are used to working. They see about 5,000 repetitions a day! Albeit the range of motion is shorter than what you may put them through in the gym, this amount of work is not something we can ignore.

Arnold Schwarzenegger even had a tough time getting his calves to grow. As the story goes, back in the 1960s, European bodybuilding didn’t put much emphasis on the lower body, and certainly not the calves. Consequently, it was normal for many European bodybuilders to focus on only the upper body. When Arnold entered his first international competition in 1966, he was beaten by an American who had a much more well-rounded physique.

Humbled from this loss, the young Schwarzenegger developed a laser focus on his lower legs. He cut his sweatpants at the knees and otherwise wore only shorts – all to remind himself of his weakness. And his training was intense. He would hit the calves six days a week and he lifted heavy – really heavy.

I remember reading once upon a time, that when asked by a young bodybuilder how to get your calves to grow, Arnold responded with a simple “500.” He went on to explain that he had spent somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 hours of training, just on his calves, to get them to look the way that they did.

Now, before you get too depressed and never wear shorts again, remember, Arnold was a champion bodybuilder. He was out to compete and to win. He also devoted several hours a day to training.

I don’t think you have to spend 500 hours to build better calves. However, I do think that you need to reconsider your approach if you’re trying to grow this area of muscle. And it’s probably more training than you would like to do. Because the gastrocnemius and soleus are postural muscles, they can be very, very stubborn. And I think it’s unlikely that 3×10 on the calf raise machine, twice a week, with 45 lbs, will do anything for you.

There’s no silver bullet when it comes to calf training. Everyone’s different. You just have to try different things and up your volume.

Speaking of volume…

A word of caution as you work to get your calves to grow: Be careful on the range of motion as you start out. As you may recall from my last post, your calves are probably already tight. And lifting heavy and lifting often will probably make them tighter if you don’t keep an eye on them with the right balance of stretching, foam rolling, etc.

Plus, your Achilles is one hell of an important tendon. It’s invaluable in how you walk and run and dance, and do just about everything else on two feet. Suddenly loading it up real heavy and going through a full range of motion can lead to problems. So, take your time and train safe.

Remember, Arnold was a bodybuilder. Don’t do too much too soon. There’s no rush to get to those 500 lb calf raises :).

How to get your calves to grow by