Thanks to physiology and genetics, many people find that the calf is one of the hardest muscle groups to develop. Is there any hope?
Do you ever aspire so fervently to accomplish some goal that it occasionally feels as if you can’t think about anything else? For a lot of guys, that elusive set of gigantic calves falls into this category of sadness. At this point, you likely belong to one of two groups: the one that skips working them out altogether, or the one that tries incessantly to earn tree trunks but ends up with only saplings. What gives? And is there anything that can be done for the lesser-legged among us, or is the cause as lost as last week’s Tinder date?
Anatomy Lesson: Calf Raises
Let’s start with an anatomy lesson: The calf itself consists of two separate muscles, the soleus and gastrocnemius. The soleus—the flat muscle that canvases the entire backside of your leg—is made up primarily of slow-twitch fibers, which means that it is built for endurance, not for the explosive, powerful movements that are propelled by fast-twitch fibers.
Take a second and consider the components of your day-to-day life: Whether you’re walking to work, standing in line, or lugging yourself up the stairs, you’re engaging your calves in a sort of constant, low-intensity workout. As a result, those muscles need to be able to take a beating, and being bigger doesn’t help.
“Slow-twitch fibers just don’t get as big,” says Dr. Guillem Lomas, a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Health. “Their myocytes”—the cells that make up your muscles—“don’t get as much hypertrophy as fast-twitch fibers when you stress them. Even if you do all the sprints in the world, or a ton of strength training for your calves, you still might not see gains,” he says.
Another factor that plays into the size of your calves: genetics. Some people are naturally built with “high-riding calves,” says Lomas, where the gastrocnemius—the muscle that forms the bump at the top of the back of your lower leg, and that is made up of fast-twitch fibers—is super tight. These people are just naturally better at activities like sprinting, dunking basketballs, spiking volleyballs, and winning leg awards at bodybuilding competitions. The rest of us are stuck opening incognito tabs and Googling “calf implant costs” during our darkest, grimmest hours.
If you are not among the lucky ones, is there any point to cranking out all those calf raises at the gym? Maybe not! Zach Murray, MS, CSCS, says that if you want to develop calves that look and perform like an athlete’s, you are better off training them like an athlete does, which doesn’t involve a ton of calf-centric exercises. “Unless it’s completely for aesthetic reasons, there isn’t really any rationale for needing to increase the size of your calf muscles,” he explains. And while functional strength is important for preventing injury, that’s something you develop mostly thanks to regular movements like walking, running, and standing, not five sets of 12 reps twice a week.
Lomas provides some reassurances for the beleaguered “I’m just not going wear shorts ever again” squad. “You can definitely improve things—the results may just not as drastic as you hope,” he says. He recommends adding jump-roping and other plyometric exercises to more conventional weight room routines. “Don’t get frustrated if you don’t see your calves looking like Mr. Olympia.”
Murray also encourages gymgoers to diversify their routines, incorporating exercises like weighted jumps and windsprints alongside the standard-issue calf raises. (Think about it: If you want bigger legs, doing the same things that have not resulted in bigger legs is not going to cut it.) He also recommends varying the levels of intensity between different exercises to maximize muscle growth. And if you still find yourself channeling some variety of stork after all of this, just remember: That Tinder date wasn’t looking at your calves, anyway.