Take Your Legs to Whole New Level by Sculpting Your Calves
A great set of calves is always eye-catching. Whether in heels or flip flops, skirts or skinny jeans, the curve of your calf goes a long way toward defining the line of your entire leg. Strong calves will also help your functional activities such as walking, running, hiking, dancing, and much more. Developing your leg muscles also helps prevent injuries.
Good news for you: you don’t need to spend a ton of time working your calves to build, define, and tone those lower leg muscles. When you focus on the major lower body lifts such as squats, deadlifts, and lunges, and add in a of couple effective calf isolations, you’ll be well on your way to developing and defining your calf muscles. There are different approaches for toning and defining versus bulking the calf muscles, so read the article thoroughly to ensure you are taking the best approach to achieve your specific goals.
In this article, we will detail a lower body workout that places special emphasis on the calves while also working the glutes, hamstrings, and quads to allow you to get more done in less time. We will also go over calf anatomy, tips and guidelines for getting the most out of your calf workouts, foam rolling and stretching exercises to keep your calves from getting too tight from your workouts, as well as detailed descriptions of each and every best calf exercise in the best calf workout. Keep reading!
Basic Calf Anatomy
The gastrocnemius is the larger, more superior muscle that you can see when you stand on your tiptoes. This two-headed muscle attaches to the back of the heel via the Achilles tendon and also crosses the knee joint to attach to the back of the femur, meaning it can move both the ankle and knee joints. The gastrocnemius’ action on the lower leg is to flex the knee, bringing the back of the calf to the back of the hamstring; its action on the ankle is to plantarflex the foot, or point the toes downward.
The other muscle that makes up the calf is the soleus, which is underneath and below the gastrocnemius. Like the soleus, it attaches to the back of the heel via the Achilles tendon. While the soleus is less fleshy and prominent, it is a strong and important postural muscle for your lower leg. The action of soleus is to plantarflex the foot, pointing the toes downward.
Tips and Guidelines for the Best Calf Workout for Women
Check out each and every tip in this list to make sure you are being smart about your calf workouts so you can get the most efficient results and waste no effort.
- If you are beginning strength training for the first time or after having some time off, work on the endurance of your muscles and connective tissues; aim for a high rep range of about 15 reps per exercise at a light weight that produces a good burn but not total fatigue
- After about a month, encourage your muscles to continue making progress by cycling through a strength phase of 8-10 reps per exercise at a weight that produces fatigue within that number of reps
- A simple scheme to keep the progress going is to cycle between the two lifting styles described above every month to two months; you will notice the weight you are able to lift in each rep range increases each time
- For the best results, work your calves, thighs, and glutes two to three times per week on the same day
- Any muscle needs about 48 hours rest between workouts; calves are no exception, so work your calves/lower body on alternating days
- Perform at least two sets and up to four sets of every exercise in the workout, resting 30-60 seconds between sets
- When choosing a weight, pick one that is difficult enough to produce a good burn and a feeling of fatigue by the last rep or two
- If you are unsure of your starting point, always err on the side of too little weight and add more next time if the set was too easy
- Especially at the very beginning, be careful with your calves; don’t go too crazy seeking muscle fatigue…you will risk ankle and knee injury if the weight is too heavy and your form falls apart because you’re not ready
The Best Calf Workout for Women: Overview
Here is an overview of the exercises that make up the best calf workout that you can print and take to the gym with you. Do the exercises in the order they are written, starting with a warmup, moving from the largest compound movements to the smaller isolations as the workout progresses, and finishing with a stretching cooldown to help your muscles relax back to their normal resting lengths and avoid excessive soreness.
- General Cardio for 5 minutes
- Active Warmup: 15 bodyweight squats, 10 lateral lunges each direction, 15 bodyweight calf raises
- Deadlifts – 2 to 4 sets
- Squats – 2 to 4 sets
- Lunges – 2 to 4 sets
- Seated Calf Raise – 2 sets
- Standing Calf Raise – 2 sets
- Stretch Calves, Hamstrings, Quads, Hips
Details on Perfect Execution of Each Best Calf Exercise
Now that you have seen the overall structure of the workout, let’s dig into the details of each exercise to make sure you understand how to perform each move safely and for maximum effectiveness.
Warmup: General Cardio for 5 minutes
Many different activities that elevate your heart rate to a moderate feeling of exertion for a solid 5 minutes count for your general cardio warmup. You can walk, jog, climb stairs, ride a bike, use an elliptical, ARC trainer, or other cardio machine. The purpose of the cardio warmup is to get blood pumping to your muscles and connective tissues so you can do the tougher exercises to come safely.
Active Warmup: 15 bodyweight squats, 10 lateral lunges each direction, 15 bodyweight calf raises
After you complete a 5 minute general cardio warmup, best practice is to do some sets of light movements that mimic the joint motions of the more demanding exercises in the workout that is coming at you. This helps prevent injury by allowing you to practice, warming up your joints in those particular ranges of motion, and activating the muscles you will be using.
Do at least 15 squats just using your bodyweight as resistance, feeling your muscles stretch and your hips and knee joints warming up as you get more range of motion throughout the warmup set. Next, do at least 10 lateral lunges each direction by standing with a wide stance and shifting your weight to one side at a time, sitting back into your hips and sinking toward the floor as you keep the bending leg’s knee right above the ankle and feel a good stretch in the inner thigh of the other leg. Finish your active warmup with at least bodyweight calf raises: touching a wall or doorway for balance, rise up onto tiptoes, feeling a good pump as you flex and release your calf muscles.
If you are prone to muscle tightness in your calves, hips, or hamstrings, or you have corrective posture issues to work on, adding foam rolling and stretching to your warmup will be helpful. If you are biomechanically healthy, you can afford to skip foam rolling and stretching during the warmup and just do those activities during your cooldown to save yourself time.
1) Deadlifts – 2 to 4 sets
The deadlift is an amazing exercise that is deceptively simple. When you deadlift something, you are simply lifting the object from the floor to hip height in the most functional way possible. It’s exactly what people mean when they say “lift with your legs and not your back”. Deadlifts work the entire posterior chain including calves, hamstrings, glutes, low back, upper back, and even your neck. They are an efficient way to tone, sculpt, define, and add muscle mass to the back of your body. However, there is a lot that can go wrong in a deadlift so let’s discuss how to do them right.
How to do a Deadlift:
A kettlebell is a good starting form of resistance when you are learning to deadlift. They are more forgiving than a barbell because they won’t scrape up your shins or bang up your knees. Kettlebells are also easy to set up. Grab a kettlebell of your chosen resistance (remember to experiment with one that feels fairly light at first) and hold it by the top of the handle. Think “top down organization”; straighten your neck, squeeze your shoulder blades together, tighten your core, and hinge your hips back, pushing your butt behind you. Sit back into your hips, bending your knees and keeping your knees directly above your ankles as you lower the kettlebell toward the floor. Keep your back absolutely flat and your gaze leveled at the horizon as you go down. Hover the kettlebell right above the floor, then stand back up by straightening your hips and knees at the same time. Make sure to drive the movement by squeezing your glutes and pushing your hips forward. Stand all the way tall with hips “locked out” or completely straight at the top of every single rep.
2) Squats – 2 to 4 sets
You must deadlift, and you must squat. You can’t afford to skip either one if you want to develop your calves and lower body! While a deadlift is a pulling movement, a squat is a pushing movement. Like the deadlift, squats work calves, hamstrings, and glutes; the main differences are that squats also place a lot of emphasis on the quadriceps on the fronts of your thighs, and squats train the pushing movement pattern in contrast to the deadlift’s push dynamics.
How to do a Squat:
Work your bodyweight squats to perfection and full range of motion before you add resistance. Start standing tall, then reach back with your hamstrings and sit your butt back like you are going to sit into a low stool positioned a little bit behind you. Keep your core strong and your chest and gaze high. For a full range squat, get your hip crease to knee level or slightly below. If squats bother your knees, it is highly likely you are bringing your knees too far forward. Make sure your knees never push forward past your toes as you squat. As you stand back up, push the floor away and squeeze your glutes as hard as you can, tightening your core further. Like a deadlift, you need to “lock out” your hips at the top of the rep for maximum effectiveness.
3) Lunges – 2 to 4 sets for each leg
Lunges allow you isolate one side at a time to reveal and work on your weaknesses. You’ll strengthen, develop, and tone your butt, hips, thighs, and of course your calves. When you do lunges with proper form, you strengthen a lot of stabilizing muscles that are of great assistance in injury prevention.
How to do a Lunge:
Think of a lunge as a hugely exaggerated walking step. When you’re learning to lunge, try stationary lunges first. Choose one side to work first and take a stance wide enough that at the bottom of the lunge, your front knee forms a 90 degree angle with your knee directly above your ankle. At the bottom of the lunge, your back knee hovers right above the ground; when viewed from the side, you should be able to visualize a straight line from the top of your head, through your torso and down your thigh all the way to the back knee. It will take a little trial and error to find an optimal stance length for your lunge, as it varies by leg length. Longer legged people will require a longer stance. As you lower down to the bottom of the rep, keep your chest lifted, core tight, and torso straight up and down. As you stand up, push your weight into the front heel, making sure your knee doesn’t collapse inward or outward. If you need help balancing, put your fingertips against the wall until you get more comfortable. Once you are good with bodyweight lunges, try adding resistance by holding dumbbells in your hands at your sides, or holding a kettlebell to your chest.
4) Seated Calf Raise – 2 sets
Now that we’ve completed the main lower body exercises (deadlift, squat, lunge), let’s give the calves some extra love with two effective calf isolations, starting with the seated calf raise. Your gym will likely have a seated calf raise machine. You’ll sit with your knees and hips at a 90 degree angle and press into the balls of your feet to push up onto your “tiptoes”. Being seated in this way takes the hamstrings and quads out of the equation and allows you to really isolate the calf muscles.
How to do a Seated Calf Raise:
Different gyms will have different styles of seated calf raise machines, so make sure you follow the directions on the individual machine. A form tip that holds true no matter the machine style is that you will need to hang the back of your foot off the platform and go for a good stretch at the bottom of the rep before pushing into the ball of your foot and contracting your calf to rise up to the top of the rep. Always keep your ankles straight and stable as you push up to the top of the rep. If you let your ankles roll in or out, you risk seriously injuring them at worst and working them unevenly at best.
5) Standing Calf Raise – 2 sets
Use the standing calf raise as a calf burnout at the very end of the best calf workout. This exercise will allow you to fully fatigue your calf muscles so you finish your session with the satisfying feeling that your calves have been completely worked out.
How to do a Standing Calf Raise:
Find a step and bring it next to something you can hang onto and use for balance. Tip: if your gym has a standing pull up/dip assist machine, that can work perfectly on its own (as long as you’re not tying it up if someone is waiting to use it for pull-ups or dips!). Stand on the step and hang on to whatever stable balance aid you’ve found. Hang the back half of your foot off the back of the step and lower down so your calf gets a good stretch. Then, push into the ball of your foot to rise up onto your “tiptoes”. Once you are comfortable, work one leg at a time by balancing on one leg and tucking the other foot behind the calf that is working. You may find that two sets of bodyweight calf raises are enough to feel a good burn at the end of your workout, or you may need to hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in your free hand to add extra resistance. Just make sure that your ankle works straight up and down and doesn’t collapse inward or outward.
Foam Roll and Stretch Calves, Hamstrings, Quads, Hips
To restore your muscles to their optimal resting lengths and prevent becoming excessively sore for the couple of days following your workout, it’s best to cool down after your calf workout by using the foam roller and doing some static stretching.
Foam rolling and static stretching utilized after every workout is going to be a godsend when it comes to muscle recovery, trust me on this one.
Do all your foam rolling first, 30 seconds per area, then move on to static stretching, also 30 seconds per area.
To use the foam roller, simply position it under the body part you would like to roll out and drop your body weight onto the area as you roll. For example, rolling your calves is best accomplished by sitting on the floor with straight legs and placing the meaty part of your calves on the foam roller. Roll up and down, hunting for any areas that feel particularly tender and lingering there.
The foam roller works in the same way as a deep tissue massage to relax tight muscles and break up any areas that are chronically tight or contain tissue adhesions. Don’t forget to roll both heads of the gastrocnemius: both the inner calf and the outer calf. You can also spend some time rolling right under the meatiest part, targeting the soleus and Achilles tendon.
After foam rolling, stretch the areas you have chosen to roll. The most effective calf stretch is performed by standing in a split, lunge-like stance with your palms against the wall. Straighten the back leg, pushing your heel into the floor. Ensure that your back toes are pointing straight at the wall and not out at an angle, otherwise you won’t receive an even stretch on both heads of the gastrocnemius.
Toning and Defining Versus Bulking the Calf Muscles
You will want to take a different approach to your calf workouts if you seek to simply tone and define rather than add bulk. If you fall into the first category, take it easy on the calf isolations. You can do them once a week but I wouldn’t recommend doing them more often, or else you may add unwanted bulk to the calves. If, on the other hand, you do want to add bulk to the upper curve of the calf, go ahead and do your calf isolations every lower body day (two to three times per week).
Some women build calf muscles easily with weight training and end up with more than they bargained for. Some women struggle to build the calves and have to work harder to make progress. Keep an eye on those calves and adjust your training approach depending on the results you are seeing versus the results you would like to see.
Best Calves Workout for Women: The Bottom Line
Thank you for reading my calf workout article all the way to the very bottom. My hope is that at this point, you feel confident and empowered with all the information you need to give your calves and lower body an excellent workout. If I missed any of your favorite calf exercises or calf building tips, or you find yourself with unanswered questions, be sure to let me know in the comments below!