How to Build Strong, Sexy Calves!
Are you paying enough attention to your calves in your exercise routine? Many women focus on typical “problem areas” such as the belly, butt, and thighs while neglecting the lower leg. It’s a mistake to neglect the calves, as they play a large role in posture and joint health, not to mention that a well-formed pair of calves is sure to turn heads during shorts weather.
The good news is that you don’t need to spend a ton of time on your calves to make them look and feel great. Many fitness activities you may already be doing can work the calves with no extra effort, however, a few simple calf exercises and calf stretches that are super easy to add to your current routine can truly optimize your calf area.
Additionally, there are a few key points I’ll go over about how your calves affect your posture and overall leg health that you will definitely want to read up on.
Keep reading to find out everything you need to know to exercise your calf muscles, including calf anatomy, calf muscles and posture, calf stretches for relieving excessive tension, exercise information and tips for maximizing calf workouts, and the best calf exercises for women, including videos.
Jump to the Videos of the Best Calf Exercises or continue reading to learn more.
Basic Calf Anatomy
Two muscles comprise the calf: gastrocnemius and soleus. These two muscles work together to plantarflex the ankle, which is the action of pointing your toes downward. Gastrocnemius also helps other muscles to flex the knee, bringing the calf toward the back of the thigh.
Gastrocnemius: The Larger Outer Calf Muscle
Gastrocnemius is the larger and fleshier muscle of the two. It has two heads, a lateral head toward the outside of the calf and a medial head closer to the midline of the body. Both heads of gastrocnemius arise from the bottom back side of the femur. Gastrocnemius is made up of mostly type II or fast-twitch muscle fibers, meaning it is most effective and powerful during short bursts of activity.
Soleus: The Smaller, Deeper Calf Muscle
Soleus is located directly underneath gastrocnemius. It’s smaller and shorter, originating on the lower leg bones rather than the femur. In contrast to gastrocnemius, soleus is comprised of mostly type I fibers, which are made for endurance, thus slower to fatigue, making soleus a postural muscle. Without soleus’ sustained efforts at pulling your lower leg backward, you would fall flat on your face!
The Achilles Tendon: The Calf Muscles’ Connection to the Heel
Gastrocnemius and soleus join forces to form the Achilles tendon, which crosses over the ankle joint and inserts into the back of the heel bone. The Achilles tendon is the strongest tendon in the body, yet the most frequently injured, especially in women. Read the following information on calf muscles and posture problems to find out why and what you can do about it.
Calf Muscles and Posture Problems
Ladies, my hope is that the following information makes you want to seriously reconsider ever wearing high heels again.
Research studies have shown that wearing high heels causes significant shortening and tightening of the calf muscles and the Achilles tendon. The body will begin to permanently reflect any position it is forced into day after day. Why does this matter? Excessive tension in muscles and tendons makes them much more prone to injury.
A rigid Achilles tendon drastically changes the joint mechanics of the entire lower leg. Additionally, the muscles across the front of the ankle joint become elongated and weak, further disrupting normal ankle and foot function. The side effects of high-heel wearing echo throughout the kinetic chain, contributing to postural issues as well as plantar fasciitis, bunions, and foot problems such as overpronation, also known as flat feet.
If you’re a habitual heel-wearer, when you take off the heels to don your running shoes, the excess tension in your calf area combined with the weakness across the front of the ankle predisposes you to all kinds of nasty injuries, including strains and sprains. You may also experience muscle and connective tissue problems traveling up the leg to the knee, hip, and even lower back.
The issues caused by high-heel wearing can be reversed with time and care. Read our article on high heel posture problems to learn more about this issue.
Also, check out our article on Foot and Ankle Exercises to learn stretching and strengthening exercises for your whole foot and ankle complex.
Calf Muscle Stretches for Relieving Excessive Tension
If you read the section above, you will have learned that women who wear high heels tend to have excessively tight calf muscles. However, you don’t have to wear high heels to have tight calves; it’s quite a common problem for many women and men.
To perform a quick self-test to determine your level of calf tightness, simply perform a simple squat exercise. If your heels try to rise off the ground at all, your calves are excessively tight. This means you need to prioritize loosening your calf muscles through corrective flexibility exercises.
The best way to address tight muscles is through a combination of self-myofascial release and static stretching. Self-myofascial release is a flexibility technique in which you use a foam roller or other implement such as a tennis ball to give yourself a deep tissue massage. Watch the following video to learn how to use self-myofascial release to relieve tension in your calf muscles.
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Static stretching is the classic stretching technique in which you assume a specific pose and hold it for at least 20 seconds. After using a foam roller, use the following calf muscle stretch to finish loosening the calf muscles. To further target the soleus muscle, bend your knee and hold the basic position shown in the video for an additional 30 seconds.
To learn more essential stretches for your lower body, read our article on Static & Dynamic Leg Stretches. Before doing any exercises, even stretches, it’s best to warm up by doing 5-10 minutes of light cardio exercise, such as walking, jogging, or biking.
Exercises Information on the Best Calf Exercises for Women
You’ll be pleased to learn that there’s not a ton of extra work required to build your calf muscles. Your calf muscle size and shape is largely determined by genetics. It’s unlikely that you will ever build large calf muscles unless it runs in your family. That being said, there is a lot you can do to improve the strength and muscle tone in your calves.
Gravity is your best ally when it comes to calf exercises. Think about it: your calves are already helping bear up your entire body weight any time you do any sort of exercise. Exercises in which your body is vertically positioned are the best for your calves. Some of the best calf exercises for women are activities you may already do as part of your active lifestyle.
Common activities that strengthen calves include:
- Running, especially uphill
- Climbing stairs
Other more specific activities that can be included as the best calf exercises for women:
- Cycling with clip-in cycle shoes, allowing you to work your calves when you pull the pedal upwards
- Weight lifting
One of the very best ways to work your calves is through plyometric exercise. Once thought to be only for elite athletes, plyometric exercise is quickly catching on among exercisers of all types because it’s super effective and fun! In plyometric exercises, you will hop, leap, bound, jump, crouch, and more. You will work many muscles, including but not limited to calves, in new ways that quickly improve strength and power. Check out our article plyometric training exercises to learn how to add plyometrics to your workout routine. This video here will also show you how to do jump squats, a plyometric exercise that is great for your calves.
If you lift weights (which essentially every woman exerciser from every age group should be doing!) the calves are being worked any time you are in a standing position.
Best Calf Exercises for Women
So now you have seen that many activities you are may do as part of your active lifestyle are already included in the list of best calf exercises for women. If you want to give your calves some extra love, add this one excellent calf toning and strengthening exercise to your lower body workouts.
As I said above, calf exercises are pretty basic, really requiring nothing more than your body weight. Ignore the calf raise machine at the gym, as it can put excessive pressure on your spine. You can achieve great results with the activities described above and with the simple body weight exercise I’ll describe below.
Be sure to warm up with 5-10 minutes of light cardio and do the calf stretches described above before performing the following best calf exercise for women.
Single-Leg Calf Raises
This is the only calf-isolating exercise you’ll ever need if you are an active woman. There are many variations of the calf raise, but I think the best one is the single-leg calf raise since you can be sure both of your calves are lifting the same amount of weight, which is not really the case when you have both feet on the ground.
To perform a single-leg calf raise, tuck one foot behind the standing leg so you’re balancing on one foot. You may want to be next to a wall or rail to lightly touch with your hands for balance. Stabilizing through the ankle, simply rise up slowly onto your toes, and then sink back down even more slowly. The lowering phase is just as important as the raising phase in strengthening your calves. Maintain an upright posture with all checkpoints in alignment: ear, shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle. Shoot for 20 reps, switch sides and perform on the other side, and you’re golden!
If single-leg calf raises are too challenging at present, it’s perfectly acceptable to put both feet on the ground so both calves are working together to lift your body weight.
As you get stronger, feel free to increase the challenge of the single-leg calf raise by performing a negative calf raise. A negative calf raise simply means that your heel starts lower than your foot. To perform a negative calf raise, all you need is a stair step. Start with the same body position described above for the basic single-leg raise, but let the back half of your foot hang off the stair step. Lower your heel as far as your range of motion allows, then rise up onto your toes just like a regular calf raise.
Again, with the negative calf raise, it’s totally fine to start with both legs and work up to one leg as your calf strength increases. Watch the following video to see a demonstration of negative calf raises.
As a final note, I want to point out the importance of balancing out your calf workouts with shin workouts to encourage muscle balance in the lower leg. Check out our shin exercises article to learn how to work out the fronts of your legs. If you want to learn more about lower body workouts in general, a great starting place is our Leg Workouts page.