Calves of steel: how to get better legs

I was on a date last week with mild weather on a pub night, so I was sporting shorts with a nice shirt. Some time into the second drink, she complimented: "Nice calves, Mike."

I shy away from physical compliments, but ultimately, we're all a bit chuffed when we get them. Maybe it's your arms, bum, or shoulders. But today's column is about calves. If you're the poster boy/girl for that "don't forget leg day" meme, here's what you need to know about building healthier calves:

Muscles

The calf is made up of two muscles: the soleus (smaller, interior) and the gastrocnemius (larger one that forms the bulge). They taper and merge at the bottom of the muscle and connect with the Achilles tendon. Calves pull the heel upward to allow for movements such as walking, running, and jumping.

Debate and science

Group A believes building bigger calves is about low reps and max weight. Group B believes it's lower weight and high reps.

You'll have to figure out what works for your body. Some bodybuilders with big calves use the low rep, high weight methodology, yet you'll find soccer players with built legs that do little to no calf isolation work but rather thousands of daily reps via start-stop running after the ball.

Scientific results just released last week prove you can build and strengthen muscle just as well by using lower weights and high repetitions – no matter the method, it's all about working a muscle group to exhaustion.

Stairs

Running the stairs is not solely cardio work – it's also strength training, and the calves get a serious workout. Run hundreds of stairs, and that's hundreds of reps your calves are propelling your body upward – a load of work and a lot of muscle strengthening. A quality test is running 500 stairs each week, and try to beat the time from the week prior.

Skipping rope

My favourite piece of fitness equipment is the simple, inexpensive jump rope, and they work your calves a treat. Get good at skipping, and then up the intensity by working your calves with double under-jumps. Or, try this routine: single skip for a count of 10 on the left leg, single skip for 10 on the right leg, and then skip both legs for 10. Repeat for 5-10 rounds (150 to 300 skips).

Gym work

A host of machines / equipment can be used to isolate calves – Smith Machine calf raises, seated calf raises, standing calf raises, donkey calf raises, and more. Just remember to work both muscles in the calf – soleus (seated exercises) and gastrocnemius (straight legged exercises).

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Body weight work

You don't always need a gym. Exercises like single leg hops (self-explanatory) and elevated calf raises (let the balls of your feet hang off a step, then lift your heels as high up as you can, pause, then lower) also build and strengthen muscle.

Try lunges or bodyweight squats with an elevated calf raise at the top. Concentrated calf activation can be performed at a home session and even while walking to work.

Hill running

As we enter our winter/spring running festival season, having strong calves is an asset for crossing the finish line with a personal best time. Any incline or hill run requires a slight lean forward, heels lifted off the ground, and strong calves to support that running style. When the untrained with weak calves hit a hill? They hit the wall and walk.

Practice hill running/walking outdoors (preferred) or use the incline setting on your gym's treadmill.

Stretching

You use your calves all day with virtually every movement, therefore stretching them is incredibly important. Remember, calves are attached to the Achilles tendon – the body's largest and strongest tendon. Strain or rupture that tendon, and you'll be walking like a zombie for some time. Healthy calves equal healthy Achilles!

Develop your own 'calves to cows' strategy, because summer is coming. Take the above on board to be fully functional, look better in a skirt/shorts, move quicker to catch Pokemon creatures ... or better calves might just mean more success in your dating life.

(Disclaimer: there was no date number two)

Got any tips for leg day? Let Michael know in the Comments section.

Passion for lifestyle change is the cornerstone for everything Michael Jarosky does. A Sydney-based personal trainer, he cajoled thousands of Executive Style readers to undertake his 'Cut The BS' diet, and champions a charity weight-loss event, Droptober.

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