Welcome to the very frustrating world of calves, although more specifically, welcome to my article about bodyweight calf exercises.
Calves are notoriously difficult to grow. In fact, so much so that many of us completely avoid training them.
However, merely catching sight of someone with a set of toned, well-developed, and muscular calves is often all the inspiration we need to start banging out a few calf raises in the gym.
But, in truth this rarely works, and within a few, short weeks we’re back to ignoring our calves once more.
So, today I’d like to discuss why calves are so difficult to grow.
I’d like to introduce you to the calf strength test, which will allow you to assess where you are with your current calf development.
You’ll also have a 2-week plan to follow, which will take less than 5 minutes a day.
And finally I have a fantastic video of some of the best bodyweight calf exercises you’re definitely not doing.
Why Are Calves So Hard To Grow?
I’ve often read that calves are down to genetics, and that if you come from a family that typically has skinny calves, well then you’re stuck with your sparrow legs for the rest of eternity.
Not great news for me, as my father’s calves were extremely small, as were just about everyone else’s on his side of the family.
However, this got me to thinking.
Genetics obviously will play some part in our overall build, not just our calves.
All of us are the product of two people, so it makes sense that we will take on many of their traits, physically, emotionally and mentally.
With that said, the calf is a muscle, and we know that we are able to grow our muscles, often to a far greater capacity than either of our parents, or anyone else in the family.
But still, calves never seem to grow at the same rate as say the development we get in our pecs or our quads from pumping heavy weights.
Okay, I’m not completely ruling out genetics, and this is definitely a factor, but as I say – the calf is a muscle, so surely if we train a muscle (correctly) it should eventually grow.
The other reason that calves may be so difficult to grow actually makes a lot of sense.
Believe it or not, your calves are already fairly well-developed from all the walking around you do every day.
It is estimated that the average person walks between 5,000 to 7,000 steps per day (and let’s not forget the obsession with taking 10,000 steps every day that has become a phenomenon of the 21st century).
So, in reality is throwing in a couple of half-hearted sets of 10-15 calf raises at the end of your leg workout once a week really going to make all that much difference?
Go on admit it, are you really doing much more with your calves currently?
I once read that our calves are developed to around 80% of their potential size just from the amount of walking we typically do.
Therefore, any additional calf training is really about gaining as much of that last 20% as possible.
This means that for most of us we shouldn’t expect more than 1-2 inch gain in calf circumference, irrespective of how much calf training we’re doing (I suppose we could blame genetics for that again).
It still hurts me to see people walking around with truly impressive calves, only to discover that it is all completely “natural”, and that they don’t do anything other than walk around and keep themselves in decent shape.
Then there’s mere mortals like me (and possibly you, as you’re here reading this) that have got to work extremely hard in the hope of adding an inch or two to our feeble lower legs.
The Calf Strength Test
I spend a lot of time reading articles on T-Nation, and I would recommend the same for anyone looking for exercise, fitness, and nutrition advice.
Admittedly, many of the articles are aimed at “gym bros”, “meatheads”, and those who want to get huge.
However, it is still a wonderful resource for anyone looking to get into great shape.
Anyway, I digress.
I recall reading an article a few years ago about bodyweight calf exercises and about how most of us don’t need weights to train calves.
I remember at the time getting really excited about finally perhaps being able to produce a set of calves I could be proud of, but admittedly (as with many things in my life) I didn’t properly follow through on what I had learned.
So, I’ve decided to give it another go, and actually complete the method (even if it does take me weeks or months to produce a beautiful pair of diamond-shaped calves).
Okay, back to the strength test.
It is said that the normal person off the street should be able to perform 20, full range of motion, single-leg calf raises while standing on the ground.
Unfortunately, in reality not many people can achieve this feat, even if they exercise very regularly, and are huge and strong.
We’ve probably all seen some massive guy in the gym performing single-leg calf raises, on a platform, while holding a 50lb dumbbell in their hand.
However, there will generally be some form of knee or trunk movement going on here, and they are not reaching the peak height to properly train the calf.
Basically, they’re cheating.
The strength test requires you to initially do as many single-leg calf raises as possible.
You are able to support yourself by having your fingertips on a platform (a chair, wall, shelf, etc.), but your knee must not bend at all, and there should be no upper body movement whatsoever.
Additionally, you should push through the big toe and aim to get the highest elevation possible.
Plus you will need to squeeze your calf for maximum tension, and hold at the top of the movement for 2 seconds.
All reps should be performed slowly and if possible while wearing no shoes. That’s not to say that you can’t perform this movement with shoes on, but you’ll get the greatest benefit in just your bare feet or wearing socks.
Some people often experience cramp in their calf when performing this movement, but this in many cases is down to a compressed spinal nerve root.
You can counteract this by keeping your spine as straight as possible while doing your calf raises.
If you’re doing this properly I can guarantee you won’t get anywhere near 20 reps.
For my test I managed 9 single-leg calf raises on my right side and a pathetic 7 on my left side.
I could have carried on of course, but the test finishes as soon as there’s any flexion in the knee or upper body movement.
How To Use The Calf Strength Test To Your Advantage
Once you’ve completed the test you’re going to spend the next two weeks improving on this technique.
So, for the next 14 days complete the test again, 3 times a day, morning, afternoon and evening probably works best.
Your aim is to get to 20 single-leg calf raises (through a full range of motion – get as high as you can, and hold for 2 seconds at the top), but as you now know, as soon as there’s any knee flexion or body English, the test is over.
Take 30 seconds rest between each side.
Continue doing this, 3 times a day, for 2 weeks.
Then take a complete day off.
The following day (so 48 hours after your last set of calf raises) complete the test on each side again, and see if you can hit the coveted 20 reps.
For many of us this won’t be possible, but there will have been some great calf development over that 2 weeks.
You should continue using this method until you can finally hit 20 reps of full range of motion, single-leg calf raises on both sides.
It’s not over yet.
Once you have achieved this feat, you will need to perform single-leg calf raises completely unassisted.
So, no holding on to anything. No chair, no wall, no shelf, nothing.
On your first attempt you will usually stumble around like a drunken idiot.
However, you should very quickly adapt, as the previous 2 weeks of calf training will have had a huge impact on both your calf and ankle stability.
The ultimate test of calf strength will be to perform 10 full range of motion, 2-second pause at the top, single-leg calf raises, completely unassisted.
If you manage to achieve this then you’ll be a lot closer to that 100% calf development than when you first attempted the calf test.
Some of you may be able to get to the 10-rep mark within a couple of weeks (after your initial 2 weeks, 3 times a day training), whereas for others it may take months.
Top 5 Bodyweight Calf Exercises
I know exactly what some of you are thinking – there’s no way 2-3 weeks of single-leg bodyweight calf raises are going to get me huge calves.
I thought in exactly the same way, which is probably why I never followed through the first-time around.
However, unless you’ve completed the strength test and the daily training thereafter, you can’t really comment on its effectiveness. So, get to it.
I would also say that the calf development of any ballet dancer should prove that unassisted calf raises work.
With that said, for those of you wanting something a ”little extra” then check out the video below.
AJ Tucker demonstrates (in just two and half minutes) his top 5 calf exercises without weights (the first exercise can be performed with both legs or single-leg, so counts as 2 exercises).
I know for a fact that at least 3 of these exercises have been responsible for my improved calf development.
Additionally, I think AJ’s got a brilliant voice and accent, and I could listen to him talk for hours, but that’s probably just me, LOL.
So, there you have it.
A nice selection of bodyweight calf exercises (and tests) to get those lower legs growing.
If you’re looking for massive calves in comparison to what you currently possess then it’s important to realise that your calves are already approximately developed to 80% of their potential size.
You’re really aiming to just add that extra 20%, which for most of us is only about an inch or two in circumference.
You now have the calf strength test to try out and a 3 times a day program to follow for two weeks.
Remember no cheating, so as soon as that knee bends, or the upper body starts moving around, the exercise is over.
Eventually your aim is to perform 10 full range of motion, single-leg, unassisted, calf raises.
And for anyone looking for a little more (although I recommend you try the 2-week test, and no other calf exercises, first of all), you have a great selection of bodyweight calf exercises brought to you by AJ Tucker.
I would love to know how you get on with the calf strength test, so please let me know in the comments section below.
I’ll happily update my progress too (At the time of writing I’m only on day 3 of my 2-week calf training, they may not be any bigger yet, but they definitely feel more pumped already).
Thank you for reading.