Dad Bod

Supercharge Your Calves With This Simple But Serious Workout

The calves are one of the most injury-prone muscles. Strengthening them is your best protection.

Originally Published: 
A man doing walking lunges while holding kettlebells in a gym.

Every spring, the phenomenon of too much, too soon pops up in physical therapy offices across the country in the form of well-meaning weekend warriors who hobble in with their first injury of the season. If that’s you, there’s a decent chance that the injury is to your calf, one of the four most common sports-related muscles to injure (hamstrings, quads, and adductors are the others, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine). What’s more, calf strains typically happen to younger adults, more often happen to men, and have a roughly one in four chance of recurring.

Moral of the story? Steer clear of the sidelines and start off your spring training — or any training — on the right foot by giving your calves a little extra love.

Before you start buffing them up, it helps to know what we really mean by the word calves. Short version: Your calves are composed of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. Your gastroc is a large muscle that sits in the middle of your lower leg with two prominent heads at the top (the classic runner-envy muscle that pops out with every stride push-off). Your soleus is a narrow band that runs from your knee along the outer side of your lower leg to your Achilles tendon.

Either of these muscles can be strained, so when you’re looking for a workout that builds leg strength and fends off injury, make sure the moves encompass both the gastroc and the soleus.

The most important thing as you dive into a new leg workout is that you don’t overdo it — that’s a recipe for the very injuries you’re looking to avoid. “One of the more common reasons for calf injury is incorporating too much volume, too quickly, and not easing into the training,” says Eric O’Connor, a CrossFit trainer in Park City, Utah. “Strive to perform consistent efforts at a lower volume and intensity first, while focusing on appropriate technique for a period of a few weeks or a month before increasing intensity levels and volume.”

The calves, O’Connor points out, take the brunt of the impact when starting up a workout program, especially if you’re getting back into running after a winter layoff. For that reason, he advises mixing in some low-impact cardio like rowing and biking to get your heart rate up without stressing out the calves in the initial stages.

So, what exactly are the moves to get you killer, injury-proof calves? For best results, start here.

Warm Up

What to do: Go for a dynamic mobility drill that focuses on the hips, knees, and ankles (the grapevine, for example), followed by some low-intensity drills (high-knee jogging), especially if you’re building into a running workout, says O’Connor.

Side Squats

Why do it? Get your gastroc firing as you lower into a squat while your soleus kicks in with the push-off back to the start.

What to do: Grab 20- to 25-pound dumbbells. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes slightly turned out. Bend elbows to raise weights to your chest. Lift your right foot off the floor and take a wide step sideways, landing with a bent right knee and straight left leg. Bend right knee until right quad is parallel to the floor. Push through your right heel, transfer weight back to the center, and straighten into starting position. Repeat on left side. That’s one rep.

How many: 3 sets of 8

Walking Lunges

Why do it? Lunges work most of the major muscles in your legs, including the quads and hamstrings, so although here you’ll focus intensely on your calves, you’ll be building overall lower leg strength.

What to do: Holding your dumbbells in either hand, let your arms hang by your side. Stand with feet together. Take a large step forward with your right leg, landing with a soft knee. (Keep left leg straight.) Center your weight between your two legs. Deepen the bend of your front knee. Press through the ball of your left foot and push off the ground, feeling your calf muscle engage. Swing your left leg forward, bend your left knee, and lower into a lunge, keeping your back (right) leg straight. That’s one rep. Repeat.

How many: 2 sets of 10

Tibialis Raises

Why do it? This move is the opposite of a calf raise. It works the muscles along your shin bone that help your feet flex. Adding strength here is important to balance the work of your calves.

What to do: To start, lean your back flat against a wall and walk your feet out two feet in front of you, legs straight, feet flat on floor. Keeping your back pressed against the wall, engage your tibialis (the muscles on either side of your shin) and flex your feet so that you raise your toes as high off the floor as you can. Lower.

How many: 2 sets of 10

Kettlebell Swings

Why do it? Kettlebell swings are a great full-body exercise, working the calves, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back all at once.

What to do: Holding a 15-pound kettlebell in front of you with two hands, stand with feet slightly wider that hip-width apart, toes pointed outward. Bend your knees, let your hips drift back, and lower the kettlebell between your legs, keeping your arms straight. Gently swing the bell backwards, then in one explosive movement, straighten your legs and swing the bell forward and up, until your arms are straight out in front of you. Lower to the squat position and repeat.

How many: 3 sets of 8 swings

Romanian Deadlifts

Why do it? Known as a compound movement, Romanian deadlifts strengthen multiple muscle groups at once. The calves are actually not a primary target of this exercise, but by making your hamstrings, glutes, and core work more efficiently, it can help reduce the load your calves absorb during activities like running, thereby protecting them from injury.

What to do: Place a barbell on the floor in front of you. Stand about a foot behind it, feet shoulder-width apart. Keeping your legs straight, let your hips drift back, and bend forward to grab the barbell. Place hands shoulder-width apart, overhand grip, on the barbell. With your back straight, engage your core, glutes, and hamstrings to straighten your legs and raise the barbell to your hips. That’s one rep.

How many: 2 sets of 10

Donkey Calf Raises

Why do it? Standard calf raises are fine for strengthening the gastrocnemius and soleus, but this version — in which you hinge forward at the waist — provides a deep gastroc stretch, increasing the move’s intensity and improving range of motion for your calves.

What to do: Stand on a ledge or step with your heels hanging over the edge. Hinge forward at the waist and reach your arms forward, either grabbing a bar in front of you or resting your hands against a wall so that your back is parallel to the floor. Raise and lower your heels, keeping your legs straight and back flat.

How many: 2 sets of 15-20

Mini Jumping Jacks

Why do it? This shallow version of the big jack shifts the work from your quads and glutes to your calf muscles. It also elevates your heart rate, giving your workout a dose of cardio.

What to do: Stand with feet together, arms by your sides. Slightly bend knees, then jump your legs slightly apart (less than shoulder-with). As you jump, raise your arms overhead. Slightly bend knees again and jump your legs closed, lowering your arms.

How many: 5 sets of 20

Sled Push/Pull

Why do it? Load up your calves and test their strength while strengthening your lower legs with this functional movement.

What to do: Use either the sled at your gym or load up a wheelbarrow in your driveway. Grab the handles, bend your elbows, lean forward while keeping your back flat, and push for 20 seconds. Turn your sled around. Tie a rope or band in a U-shape between handles. Face away from the sled and loop the band over your shoulders, either holding it in each hand or letting it rest across your chest. Lean away from the sled and start pulling it back to the start.

How many: 3 sets of 20 second push/20 second pull

Cool Down

What to do: “Take 10 minutes to foam roll and gently stretch the areas of the ankles and hips,” says O’Connor. “Incorporating effective cool downs will help to improve recovery and reduce the risk of injury.”

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