Five exercises to build bigger and stronger calf muscles with or without a gym

You can tell a lot about someone by looking at their legs…

I once interviewed a bodybuilder who lamented off-the-record that he was unlikely to ever win a high-level competition because he had (relatively) puny calves — not ideal when you're judged on overall proportions and aesthetics.

It's a hard-to-swallow fact that some people are just stuck with slender calves, no matter how big their quads or glutes are. Others might find that their calf muscles don't attach in the "right" places, consigning them to a log- rather than hourglass-shaped calf.

There's not a lot you can do to fix it — but learning to love your calves is a lot better than resorting to implants. (Yes, it's a thing.) 

But if it's not genetics, and purely down to an out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach to training, attaining decent set of calves can signify a well-rounded strength and cardio routine.

Every day is leg day

We've said it before and we'll say it again — leg training is one of the best muscle groups to get both a strength and cardio routine in the same session. 

But legs don't just stop at the quads and hammies. They happen to go all the way down, which means adding in some more muscle-targeting moves to really get those calves firing.

Strength work

Even basic gyms usually have a calf-raise machine — either standing or seated. Each one targets a slightly different parts of the (beautifully named) muscles in the calves: standing hits the gastrocnemius, basically the big fleshy bit of the calves; seated hits the soleus, the flatter muscle underneath.

Whichever one you pick, focus on controlling the eccentric phase of each rep — that is, when you're lowering the weight.

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No machine? No problem. You can do calf raises with a barbell across your back, holding dumbbells or kettlebells at your side, or just by standing up on tippy-toes. For a killer burn, do calf raises with your toes elevated on a step so you can lower your heels deeply.

I don't advise spending too much time on isolation exercises like calf raises — if you're doing lower-body work like deadlifts, squats and lunges, you're already whipping your calves. And honestly, calf raises are up there with wrist curls on the list of most tedious resistance exercises. I doubt any gym bros ever back-slapped each other about their sick calf pumps.

(Don't forget to stretch your calves, and batter them with your foam roller! Mobile, flexible calf muscles will dramatically improve your form on those deadlifts and squats.)

Cardio work

These are way more interesting methods to build calf strength than churning out reps in the gym.

Hill or stair sprints. Find a nearby hill or set of stairs. Sprint up them as fast as you can on the balls of your toes. Walk back down. Repeat that cycle as many times as your calves — and lungs — can bear it. 

Added bonus: this kind of interval-style workout is also really good at building fast fitness.

Box jumps, a staple of high-intensity interval training workouts. Google NFL player box jumps if you want to see some seriously ridiculous vertical leaps of strength.

Fitness beginners are often understandably hesitant to try box jumps. Start with a low box or step, and aim to get your whole foot up onto the box when you land — not just your toes. If you're nervous about jumping backwards, step back to solid earth.

Skipping rope. For a story I wrote a few years ago, I undertook the fitness test that Australian Ninja Warrior contestants have to pass to qualify for the show. The final component: five minutes of skipping.

If you don't think that sounds so hard, try it. Your calves will start burning almost immediately.

According to Sam Downing, the secret to wellbeing is just to keep it simple. A qualified personal trainer, fitness instructor and nutrition coach, Sam is also a writer focusing on everyday health.

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