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13 Best Calf Exercises for Bigger Calves

best calf exercises header image

If you’re here looking for the best calf exercises because you’re struggling to build bigger calves, you aren’t alone. The truth is, calf exercises are often overlooked even though most gym-goers are openly envious of those with sculpted lower legs.

Unfortunately, compound movements alone aren’t enough to properly build big calf muscles. Your calves are the hardest working muscles in your body because they take on almost all of your full bodyweight with every step that you take. So, if you want to know how to get bigger calves, the first thing to note is that it takes a little more work to challenge them enough to see serious increases in their size.

Typically, you’ll need to do a few more reps per set for calf exercises than you would for other movements. Luckily for you, we're about to guide you through exactly how to do the best calf exercises and advise you on how many reps you should be doing.

There are obviously the aesthetic benefits of adding definition to your lower legs but trying these calf exercises will also have advantages for running, jumping, and tons of cardio sports like football, tennis, swimming, and basketball. Stronger calves will also reduce the likeliness that these sports will result in an injury. 

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To see how to strengthen your calves, keep reading for our list of the best calf exercises. 

 

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What Muscles Make Up the Calves?

When we talk about the calf muscles, we’re talking about the muscles on the back of your lower leg. Your calves are made up of two main muscles: The Gastrocnemius, and the Soleus. 

The Soleus is a flat, long muscle that lies underneath the Gastrocnemius and runs down your lower leg from your knee to your heel. It is involved with endurance, so standing, walking, and other high rep movements recruit this muslce. This is because the Soleus has a high proportion of slow-twitch muscles fibres, around 70%.  This means that the Soleus is highly resistant to fatigue, hence it benefits from high rep movements. Calf exercises which target the Soleus will benefit walking and hiking, and they have major aesthetic benefits for making your calves look bigger.

Calf muscles image

The Gastrocnemius is the muscle that you can see at the back of your leg, building this muscle will give your calf that desired rounded shape. The Gastrocnemius has two muscle bellies, you can better isolate the muscle bellies by performing the Gastrocnemius-targeting exercises below with your toes positioned at a slight inversion or eversion. The Gastrocnemius is made up of more type 2 fast-twitch muscle fibres than the Soleus, the Gastrocnemius is made up of around 50% slow twitch fibres so it is better engaged by high power movements, like box jumps. The Gastrocnemius will benefit from calf exercises that involve acceleration, speed, and power, like sprinting or jumping.

Both muscles are responsible for plantar flexing the foot at your ankle joint. Basically, the calve muscles job is to pull the heel up whilst your walking or running to allow you to move forward. The Gastrocnemius is also responsible for flexing the leg at your knee joint. 

The Gastrocnemius is the visible muscle but working the Soleus muscle is equally important if you want to bulk up the back of your lower leg.

When it comes to targeting particular calf muscles, moves where your knee is straight will mainly use the Soleus. Bent leg calf exercises where the knee is flexed are better at targeting the Gastrocnemius muscle.

Want to know how to get bigger calves? Here are the best calf exercises.

Standing Calf Raise

Standing calf raises (also known as heel raises) are a classic move, even bodyweight calf exercises are an effective way of strengthening your calves because the calf muscles take on so much of your bodyweight. This is a straight knee exercise, so it mainly uses the Soleus. For standing calf raises and the weighted variations, we advise that you do higher reps.

Starting Position: 

standing calf raises image

Stand up straight with your feet facing forward and placed hip-width apart. Keep a slight bend in your knee and hold your hands by your sides.

Execution:

standing calf raises image 2

To execute the move, raise your heels by pressing the balls of your feet into the ground. You should move your body upwards until you’re stood on your toes. Hold this position and then slowly lower your heels back to the ground.

The standing calf raise is a really easy exercise to do. They only use bodyweight so they’re a really convenient calf exercise that you can do that home, or pretty much anywhere. A lot of runners need to strengthen their calve muscles but aren’t keen on spending time on strength-training exercises, so bodyweight calf exercises are handy to exercise your calves without having to set foot in the gym.

Reps:

12+ reps per set.

Standling Calf Raise from OriGym Personal Trainer Courses on Vimeo.

Dumbbell Calf Raise

To work your calve muscles harder than a bodyweight standing calf raise, you can add resistance to the move. There are multiple variations of weighted calf raises, you just need to grab a barbell, a pair of kettlebells or a set of dumbbells.

For kettlebell or dumbbell calf raises, all you need to do is hold a weight in each hand. Hold the weights down by your sides, and then follow the guide to the standing heel raise (above) for the starting position and the execution of the move. Or, check out our exercise video below.

Reps:

12+ reps per set.

Dumbbell Calf Raise from OriGym Personal Trainer Courses on Vimeo.

Barbell Calf Raises (Free-weight)

You can start stood in the same starting position as you would for regular calf raises and hold a barbell so that it’s rested on your upper back. Holding the barbell, execute the move as you would for the standard version of the move.

Reps:

Because the standing barbell calf raise targets the Soleus calf muscle this is another high rep exercise. We advise 12+ reps per set.

Barbell Calf Raises (Squat Rack) 

Alternatively, barbell calf raises can be done in a squat rack. If you’re not used to weight training, this is one of the safer weighted calf exercises you can try. Here’s how to do it:

Set-Up and Equipment:

Set a barbell on the squat at the level that matches your height.

Starting Position: 

barbell calf raise starting position image

Step under the barbell and position it on your upper back. Grab the bar with both hands and lift it off the rack by pushing it up with your knees. Straighten your upper body and position your feet hip-width apart. Stand with a slight bend in your knee.

Execution:

barbell calf raise image

Raise your heels to move your body straight upwards until you are positioned on your toes. Keep the bend in your knees throughout the movement, never hyperextending your legs. At the top of the move, hold for a second and then lower your heels back down in a controlled manner.

Reps:

12+ reps per set.

Barbell Calf Raise from OriGym Personal Trainer Courses on Vimeo.

Elevated Calf Raise 

You can also make the standing heel raise more difficult by performing it on an elevated platform. Elevated calf raises are more effective at working your calf muscles than standard raises as they allow you to exercise a greater range of motion. They’re one of the best calf exercises for stretching your muscles and flexing the ankle joint.  

Set-Up and Equipment:

Grab a step or a step-aerobics platform. Any raised platform that is sturdy and can hold your bodyweight will work. If you can’t find a step, you can use a weight plate.

Starting Position:

elevated calf raises image

Stand on the edge of the step with your feet hip-width apart. The balls of your feet should be on the platform. Your heels should be hanging off the back of the step.

If you haven’t tried elevated raises before you might struggle with your balance. Try holding onto a wall of something sturdy, like the bar of a squat rack, until your balance improves.

Execution:

elevated calf raise image

  • Press the balls of your feet into the step to raise your heels and push your body up.
  • Slowly raise your heels until you feel a stretch in your calf muscles.
  • When you’re stood on your toes, hold the top position for a second and then lower your heels back down below the level of the step.
  • That’s one rep.

Reps:

The standing elevated calf raise mainly uses the soleus muscle, so we recommend that you go for high reps for this exercise, too. See how you get on with 12+ reps per set.

Elevated Calf Raise from OriGym Personal Trainer Courses on Vimeo.

Single Leg Calf Raise 

Bodyweight, kettlebell and dumbbell calf raises can all be done on one leg to increase the intensity of the move.

Single leg calf exercises are more intense than the movements that use both legs as all of the resistance is working one of your calves instead of both.

To get used to the single leg calf raise, execute the move near a wall or next to something sturdy that you can hold on to keep your balance. Bear this in mind if you want to try an elevated calf raise on one leg especially.

Single leg calf raises are the best calf exercises for unilateral training. Unilateral movements train both sides of your body equally so they have benefits for improving your balance and preventing you from injuries that might result from muscle imbalances.

By doing heel raises on one leg at a time you stop the calve muscles on the dominant side of your body from taking on more of the stress of the move. This unilateral exercise will force both sides of your body to work equally which will stop you from developing muscle imbalance.

Starting Position:

single leg calf raise image

Stand on one leg with the other leg bent behind you. Make sure that the foot you are balancing on is pointing forwards.

For a single leg weighted calf raise, hold a weight in each hand with your arms extended down your sides.

Execution: 

single leg calf raise image 2

  • Push on the ball of your foot to lift your heel, raising your body upwards.
  • Once your calf is stretched and you are positioned on your toes hold the position for a second.
  • Then lower your heel down in a controlled manner until it is flat on the floor.
  • That’s one rep! Repeat the move on the same leg for your first set and then swap legs for the next set. 

Reps:

Because single leg calf raises are more intense, pick a set of dumbbells that are slightly lighter than those you would use for normal weighted calf raises. Because this move targets the soleus muscle which is mostly made up of slow twitch fibres, you’ll benefit more from high reps than a higher weight. We advise 12+ reps per set.

Single Leg Calf Raise from OriGym Personal Trainer Courses on Vimeo.

Donkey Calf Raises 

Donkey calf raises are arguably the best calf exercise because the position fully stretches the muscles in your calves and builds even more growth than standard calf raises. You can try donkey raises as bodyweight calf exercises, or you can make the move more difficult by wearing a weight belt to add resistance.

Set-Up and Equipment: 

You’ll need a step or block to stand on, something sturdy like a weight plate will work. You will also need something about waist height to lean on, we usually grab a bench or a plyo box, but anything that will stay in place whilst you hold it and execute the move will be fine.

Starting Position:

donkey calf raises image

  • Stand on the step facing the plyo box.
  • The balls of your feet should be on the step and your heels should be hanging over the edge at the back.
  • Bend your upper body forward at your waist and reach your arms out to lean on the plyo box.

Execution: 

donkey calf raise image

  • Raise your heels until you feel the stretch in your calves.
  • Pause once your heels are raised as much as they can be.
  • Lower your heels back down until they are just below the level of the step.
  • Repeat.

Reps:

During this move, your legs are extended but the knee is partially flexed so we advise that you do 8-12 reps per set.

Donkey Calf Raises from OriGym Personal Trainer Courses on Vimeo.

Bent Knee Calf Raise 

To really target the Gastrocnemius, you need to add bent knee calf exercises into your exercise routine. The Gastrocnemius isn’t made up of as many slow twitch fibres as the Soleus, so you won’t need to do as high reps for the movements that mainly use the Gastrocnemius.

Set-Up and Equipment:

You can grab a dumbbell or a barbell if you want to add resistance to this exercise.

Starting Position:

bent knee calf raise image

  • Stand upright with your feet facing forward, hip-width apart.
  • Bend your knees to move your body down into a partial squat position. 

Execution:

bent knee calf raises image

  • Whilst keeping the bend in your knee, raise your heels as high as possible by pushing on the balls of your feet.
  • Hold your body and heels raised for a second.
  • Lower your heels back to the ground in a controlled manner.
  • Repeat. 

It’s vital that you keep the bend in your knee throughout the movement so the exercise recruits the Gastrocnemius.

Reps:

To get the most out of this exercise, grab a heavy weight and do 8-12 reps per set at a slow tempo.

Bent Knee Calf Raise from OriGym Personal Trainer Courses on Vimeo.

Seated Calf Raise 

The seated calf raise is one of the best calf exercises to recruit the Gastrocnemius because you sit with your knees bent as you execute the move.

Set-Up and Equipment:

Find a sturdy chair. For a weighted variation grab a heavy pair of dumbbells. Or, for an elevated variation, find a sturdy step or block to rest the balls of your feet on.

Starting Position:

seated dumbbell calf raise image 1

  • Sit on the chair with your feet flat on the ground. Your feet should be facing forward and positioned hip-width apart.
  • Position your knees directly above your feet.
  • Lean your upper body forward slightly and place your hands on your thighs at the top of your knee.

Pushing down on your hand during the calf raise will add resistance to the move. To add more, you can try a seated dumbbell calf raise. For this weighted variation, place a dumbbell on top of each thigh, just above your knee, and hold them down. 

Execution:

seated dumbbell calf raises image 2

  • Press down on the balls of your feet to raise your heels until your calves are fully stretched.
  • As you raise your heels, push down on your thighs for resistance.
  • Hold the calf raise for a second, continuing to push on your hands.
  • Slowly lower your heels until your feet are flat.
  • Repeat the move. 

Reps:

We recommend that you do 8-12 reps for each set.

Seated Calf Raise with Dumbbells from OriGym Personal Trainer Courses on Vimeo.

To increase the intensity of this movement, you can do an elevated seated calf raise. For this variation, all you need to do is sit with your feet on a step platform and position yourself so that your heels are hanging over the edge of the back of the platform. Then, exercise the dumbbell seated calf raise as explained above.

This slight tweak will work your muscles even more thanks to the extra stretch, and it will increase the range of motion of your joints.

Reps:

With a heavy weight on your lap, we recommend 8-12 reps per set for the seated elevated calf raise.

Seated Calf Raise Machine 

If you’re at the gym, you can also execute a seated calf raise on a calf raise machine. Using the machine will make it easier to perfect your form if you’re new to calf exercises, and it’s easy to increase the weight to add more resistance to the movement.

Set-Up and Equipment:

Set up the seated calf raise machine and adjust the resistance so that the weight is heavy but manageable. 

Starting Position: 

seated calf raises on calf raise machine starting position image

  • Sit on the machine with your knees under the pads.
  • Place your feet hip-width apart and facing forwards.
  • Position the balls of your feet on the edge of the platform so that your heels are hanging off.

Execution:

seated calf raise machine image

  • Push your knees up by pressing the balls of your feet into the platform.
  • Raise your heels until your calf muscles are fully flexed.
  • Hold the calf flexion for a second.
  • Lower your knees back down until your heels are lower than the level of the platform.
  • Repeat the movement.

Reps:

Using a heavy weight, do 8-12 reps per set on the seated calf raise machine.

Calf Raise Machine from OriGym Personal Trainer Courses on Vimeo.

Box Jump

The box jump is a really easy plyometric exercise that will strengthen and tone the muscles in your calves, particularly the Gastrocnemius.

Set-Up and Equipment: 

In the gym, find a plyometrics box. Start off with a shorter box and increase the height of your jump as your calf muscles get stronger and you become more confident.

Starting Position:

  • Position yourself behind the box, stood upright with a slight bend in your knee.
  • Place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Your feet should be flat on the ground facing forward. 

Execution:

  • Bend your knees further down into a squat position whilst swinging your arms backwards to push yourself into a jump.
  • Land on top of the box.
  • You should land with a slight bend in your knee. This position should be the same as the starting position.
  • Step backwards off the box, reposition yourself, and repeat. 

Reps:

This is a pretty explosive movement, so the number of reps and sets you’ll be able to manage really depends on your fitness. Aim for 8-12 reps.

Box Jumps from OriGym Personal Trainer Courses on Vimeo.

Calf Press 

As well as the standing calf raise machine, the leg press machine can be used for one of the best calf exercises. As well as the a calf press, this exercise is commonly known as a toe press or a calf raise on the leg extension machine.

This is definitely our favourite exercise for building bigger calves. The knee is partially flexed during the movement, but it mainly uses the soleus muscle.

Wondering how to get bigger calves on the leg press machine? Here is our step-by-step guide: 

Set-Up and Equipment:

We’d recommend using bodyweight on this machine, so there’s no need to add resistance to the leg press machine for this movement. If your leg press machine has safety bars, we recommend that you put them in place. 

Starting Position:

  • Sit on the leg press machine with your bum flat on the seat and your head and back resting against the back of the chair.
  • Position your feet hip-width apart.
  • Your seat should be positioned so that there is a 90° angle between your thighs and your lower leg.
  • Similar to the position used for elevated calf exercises, place the balls of your feet on to the bottom of the platform so that your heels are hanging off the edge.

Execution:

  • Press the balls of your feet into the platform, raising your heels as they move towards your body.
  • When the platform is lowered and your heels are raised as much as possible, hold the position for a second.
  • Push the platform back up to extend your legs but keep a slight bend in your knee at the top of the movement.
  • Hold this position for a moment and then repeat.

Reps:

When using bodyweight for this exercise we’d recommend that you do 15-18 reps per set.

Farmer’s Walk on Toes

This heel raised variation of the farmer’s walk is one of the best calf exercises but there also tons of other reasons you should try the farmers walk. You can read more about the farmer’s walk benefits here.

farmers walk on toes calf exercise image

Set-Up and Equipment: 

All you’ll need for this exercise is a set of dumbbells and some space to walk around in. 

Starting Position:

  • Grab a dumbbell in each hand and extend your arms positioned either side of you.
  • Stand upright with your feet together.
  • Brace your core to keep a strong posture.
  • Stand on the balls of your feet with your heels raised as high as possible. 

Execution:

  • Walk forwards with small steps, keeping your heels raised throughout.
  • Take about 30 steps for your first set.
  • Rest your heels on the ground for a brief moment and then repeat for another set.

Farmer's Walk on Toes from OriGym Personal Trainer Courses on Vimeo.

What Other Exercises Strengthen Calf Muscles? 

Above are some of the best calf building exercises that target the Soleus muscle and the Gastrocnemius. There are also some more generic movements that are really effective for building and benefitting your calf muscles.

Jumping rope is a really effective cardio workout that targets the majority of the muscles in your leg, including your calf muscles. Jumping rope is a really good way to build your endurance, and so it’s a nice exercise to compliment your training if you need to build and strengthen your calves for the benefit of an exercise like running, hiking or a cardio sport.

Step-ups are another compound move that mainly targets your leg muscles. As well as being really effective for muscle building and toning, step-ups are really versatile meaning there are tons of different ways that you can change them up. For the runner who needs to build their calves but isn’t keen on any exercise that isn’t running, have a look at these 27 step exercises and you’ll never get bored of calf exercises again. 

Finally, as well as the benefits of calf exercises for running, jumping and sports like football, these exercises have benefits for your calf muscles, too. Swimming is an especially effective way of building calf muscle as it’s a low impact exercise that still builds muscle. We recommend swimming for anyone who is looking for calf exercises that they can keep up with whilst recovering from an injury.

Before You Go!

Now you know how to get bigger calves, try these exercises for yourself! Let us know how you get on by giving us a shout on Facebook or Twitter.

For more exercise inspiration, check out our guides to:

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Written by Abbie Watkins

Qualified Personal Trainer & Fitness Blogger

Abbie is a work-hard, play-hard qualified personal trainer and blogger. She loves a scenic run and a good upbeat exercise class. You can usually find her on the front row of a spin class on a Saturday morning.