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The cure for thin calves

Das Heilmittel für dünne Waden

When it comes to training the calves, most exercisers don't maximize the potential of their training in terms of hypertrophy.

I'll be the first to admit that the lower legs are the muscle group most influenced by generic predispositions in the sense that some people barely train their calves and still have excellent calf development, while others can't seem to achieve useful calf development no matter what they do.

The guy with the really long Achilles tendon, high-set calves, short muscle bellies and a higher percentage of slow-contracting muscle fibers will have a much harder time when it comes to building his calf muscles than the guy with a shorter Achilles tendon, low-set calves, long muscle bellies and a higher percentage of fast-contracting muscle fibers.

However, with hard, consistent work, most exercisers can overcome their genetic curse and achieve at least balanced lower leg muscle development. If you're the type of person who doesn't care about all the science stuff, then you can skip the following section, but it's important to understand a little of the functional anatomy and biomechanics of the lower legs in order to put together the best possible program for calf growth.

What the science tells us

  • If you're an American male, you walk about 7,000 steps a day. If you think of each step as a repetition with limited range of motion and body weight as resistance, you'll quickly realize how accustomed your calves are to low-intensity work. To make a long story short: If you want to make your calves grow, you have to make them do something they're not used to.
  • The triceps surae is made up of the gastrocnemius, soleus and plantaris, which share a common tendon known as the Achilles tendon.
  • The plantaris is only about 5 to 10 centimeters long and is completely absent in 7 to 10 % of all people, which is why it is not important to talk about hypertrophy of this muscle.
  • The difference in the function of the gastrocnemius and soleus is related to differences in muscle fiber length, muscle fiber type and anatomical insertion points
  • The gastrocnemius begins behind the knee on the femur. It crosses two joints and comprises a lateral and a medial muscle head. The primary function of the gastrocnemius is to lift the heel (also known as plantar flexion). The gastrocnemius is also a knee flexor or knee flexor. The gastrocnemius shortens during knee flexion, but has an improved lever arm for ankle joint function when the knee is extended. The gastrocnemius produces a weak knee flexion torque when the knee is extended, but the lever arm is improved when the knee is flexed to 90 degrees
  • The soleus is a muscle that crosses only one joint. Its primary function is also plantar flexion (downward movement of the forefoot). The soleus only crosses the ankle joint and is not mechanically affected by the knee angle.
  • Regarding muscle fiber distribution, one study showed that the soleus consists of 70% slowly contracting muscle fibers and both heads of the gastrocnemius consist of 50% rapidly contracting muscle fibers (Edgerton et al., 1975). Another study showed that the gastrocnemius consists of 56% slowly contracting muscle fibers (Khan et al., 1978). Yet another study concluded that the gastrocnemius consists of 51% slow-contracting muscle fibers (Green et al., 1981), while a final study showed that the gastrocnemius consists of about 80% slow-contracting muscle fibers (Gollnick et al., 1974).
  • Depending on the knee angle, it is possible to recruit the soleus or the gastrocnemius more strongly (Signorille et al, 2002; Price et al, 2003; Tamaki et al, 1997; Arampatzis et al, 2006; Cresswell et al, 1995; Kennedy et al, 2001; Miaki et al, 1999). In addition, soleus and gastrocnemius appear to adapt differently to exercise depending on genetic predisposition (Goldfarb et al., 2007).
  • There appears to be a large genetic variance in muscle fiber distribution. For example, a study of world-class shot-putters showed that the athletes had between 13 and 67% slow-contracting muscle fibers in the lateral gastrocnemius, with the average being around 38% slow-contracting fibers (Coyle et al., 1978). So it is not wise to assume that you fit the norm and not one of the extremes in terms of muscle fiber distribution
  • The medial and lateral gastrocnemius muscle heads function differently from each other - the medial muscle head works much harder than the lateral muscle head to eccentrically counteract knee extension (Andriacchi et al., 1984). One would assume that the involvement of the lateral and medial gastrocnemius muscle heads would be altered by medial or lateral rotation of the hip, but MRI studies by Dr. Per Tesch suggest that an inward position of the toes activates both muscle heads, while an outward position of the toes activates the medial head to a greater extent.

There is also research to support this view, as it has been shown that turning the feet outward increases activity in the middle gastrocnemius and soleus (Campbell et al., 1973).

  • There are several muscles that produce plantar flexion. These are the gastrocnemius, soleus, plantaris, peroneus longus and brevis, flexor hallucis longus, flexor digitorum longus and tibialis posterior.
  • There are several muscles that produce knee flexion (bending of the knee). These are the leg flexors, the gastrocnemius, the plantaris, the gracilis, the sartorius and the popliteus.
  • If you try to bend the knee and perform a plantar flexion of the ankle at the same time, this significantly increases the activity of the gastrocnemius, while the activity of the soleus decreases (Gravel et al., 1987).
  • The soleus initiates slow contractions, while the gastrocnemius initiates fast contractions (Cordo et al., 1982). The lateral gastrocnemius has the fastest contracting muscle fibers, the middle gastrocnemius has the second fastest contracting muscle fibers and the soleus has the slowest contracting muscle fibers (Vandervoort et al., 1983).
  • EMS studies by Bret Contreras show that heavy standing calf raises activate the gastrocnemius on average more than standing single-leg calf raises, explosive calf raises with a lighter weight and standing calf raises with a 10-second isometric pause at the lowest point of the movement.

Barbell squats, on the other hand, cause greater maximal activation of the gastrocnemius than any variation of the calf raise. It appears that the gastrocnemius must work very hard to stabilize the knee joint and maintain balance during squats. In other words, squats with heavy weights will work the calves quite hard.

What these studies don't tell us

Basically, these studies don't tell us much in terms of identifying the best methodology for calf growth. They give us some clues, but at the end of the day we have to go by anecdotal evidence to put together the best possible program for lower leg development.

Combined methods

On internet forums, we always see the "heavy vs. light reps discussions" when it comes to calf growth. I've always wondered why exercisers who want to maximize the growth of their calves should limit themselves to just one type of stimulus. Why do one or the other when you can do both?

In fact, there are plenty of exercisers who have built excellent calves using only heavy squats and heavy deadlifts, although this method has failed many others. There are also exercisers who have built great calves with high repetition calf training, while others have had no success with the exact same methodology.

As has already been mentioned, there is a huge genetic component to calf development. So if you are genetically cursed below the knees, your only option is to combine different methods and use a wide variance of exercises. For our program, we will use many different strategies, which are described below.

The legendary dictionary

  • Bodybuilding/HVT (High Volume Training) - lots of sets and reps, descending sets, paused sets, variety, tons of isolation exercises with medium and high reps.
  • HFT (High Frequency Training) - Three training sessions per week.
  • EDT (Escalated Density Training) - More sets within a set period of time.
  • Powerlifting - Heavy multi-joint exercises for the lower body.
  • Squats and deadlifts - trains the calves through their role as stabilizers
  • Glute-Ham Raises - trains the calves through their role as knee flexors - a very effective and underutilized calf exercise.
  • Heavy Calf Isolation Training - maximizes myofibrillar hypertrophy and recruits high threshold motor units.
  • High volume isolation training - maximizes sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and causes greater occlusion.

The program

The muscles of the lower legs are trained three days a week. The interval between training sessions is 48 to 72 hours.

Week one

Day 1

A. Squats 8 x 1 (increase the weight)
B. Glute-Ham Raises 5 x 10 (use the machine version and use the toe plate)
C. Standing calf raises (heavy) 4 x 6
D. Calf raises on the leg press (light) 2 x 30

Day 2

A. Single leg calf raise - 10 minutes EDT
B. Jump rope - 10 minutes

Day 3

A. Deadlift 8 x 1 (increase the weight)
B. Glute-Ham Raises 5 x 10 (use the machine version and use the toe plate)
C. Donkey calf raises 3 x 20 (perform one set with hips in neutral position, one set with hips rotated out and one set with hips rotated in)
D. Seated calf raises with pauses 3 x 10 (pause at the highest and lowest point of the movement for 3 seconds)

Week 2

Day 1

A. Squats 8 x 1 (increase the weight)
B. Glute-Ham Raises 5 x 10 (use the machine version and use the toe plate)
C. Standing calf raises (heavy) 5 x 5
D. Leg press calf raises (light) 3 x 20 (perform one set with hips in neutral position, one set with hips rotated out and one set with hips rotated in)

Day 2

A. Standing calf raises on the machine - 1 descending set from hell. Start with a weight you can perform about 8 reps with, reduce the weight by 50% and perform as many reps as possible and then perform as many reps as possible using only your own body weight.
B. Jump rope - 10 minutes

Day 3

A. Deadlift 8 x 1 (increase the weight)
B. Glute-Ham Raises 5 x 10 (use the machine version and use the toe plate)
C. Paused Donkey Calf Raises 3 x 10 (pause at the highest and lowest point of the movement for 3 seconds)
D. Seated Calf Raises 2 x 50

Repeat this cycle three times for a total of 2 months of calf abuse.

After this two-month calf-intensive program is over, go back to a less insane calf training rotation of one or two calf training sessions per week, continuing to use a wide range of exercises and repetition ranges, but keeping the total volume per training session low to allow for supercompensation.

You will likely see your calves continue to grow during this unloading phase, hopefully reaching a level of development that will allow you to go to the beach next summer without jeans.

Summary

Stubborn calves can be a tough nut to crack, as there is a huge genetic factor here that cannot be avoided. But even if you've pulled the ungrateful "calves like a flamingo" card, there's no reason to stop training your calves in frustration. A little science combined with smart program design - and a ton of effort - and you'll be proud to wear shorts without feeling that crippling insecurity. Calf training may not be fun but at least it's cheaper than therapy.

Source: https://www.t-nation.com/training/cure-for-cowardly-calves

By Bret Contreras

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