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Diamonds in the Rough: The Ultimate Workout for Bigger, Better Calves

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Cracking the Code of Your Most Stubborn Muscle

A version of this article was previously published at T-Nation.com.

When did it first happen to you—when you first noticed the lack of size? How long has it been since you began adding that imaginary inch when somebody asked? Have you been telling the lie so long you actually believe that you’re bigger than you truthfully are?

Grab a tape measure — stop acting like you don’t keep one in that drawer. Now look down, drop your pants, and measure your calves.

You didn’t think I was talking about something else, did you?

Of all of the muscle groups which bodybuilders gripe about, calves may be at the top of the list. The baby cows are frustrating, notoriously “stubborn,” and probably the muscles most often accused of being victims of “poor genetics.”

This madness must end! Calves are an important body part and should be trained with as much diligence as any other. The calves are responsible for a great many things of which you may not be aware: They help to protect the knee from injury, and the gastroc (short for gastrocnemius, the larger of the two calf muscles) is heavily involved in knee flexion, so stronger calves may result in stronger hamstrings.

Finally, big calves are cool.

So why are they such a problematic muscle for so many people?

Last Things First

Many people will vehemently deny it, but one of the more common reasons for stalled calf growth is sheer laziness: Calves fall pretty low on the average guy’s list of priorities. A solid tibialis anterior is just not as glamorous as bulging biceps or sweeping quads. Calves are often awarded the dubious moniker “ancillary,” and — much like forearm or ab work — get thrown in at the end of a workout.

Is this an effective way to achieve great lower leg development? I submit that it is not. First off, as any gymrat worth his salt will tell you, if you want to bring up a lagging muscle (or encourage significant growth in a muscle that’s not lagging), you need to treat it as a priority, not an afterthought that sometimes gets skipped altogether! This means you should be training those cows first, during your first workout of the week, not as a way to take a break from hitting double bi shots in the mirror.

By training a muscle at the end of the workout, you run the risk of compromising form, load, and/or volume. Despite what you may think, the likelihood of the aforementioned occurring is just as high with calves as with any other body part, and the consequences are equally detrimental. After your sixth set of ass-to-grass squats, paying attention to anything — even the simple action of plantarflexing your ankle  — is a bit challenging.

“It’s not my fault, I was born like that!”

This is an excellent way to sell yourself short.

Make no mistake; genetics will be a factor (a limiting factor, in many cases) in how much you can actually achieve in terms of muscular development, and ain’t nothin’ gonna change that. Indeed, who your parents are will determine where your muscle attachment points are, not how you train. However, just because you may not be able to have the football-sized, diamond-headed gastrocs of Dorian Yates does not mean you cant greatly improve upon what you were given and build some impressive cows! Calves were once a problem for Arnold. He overcame, and with this program, you can, too.

dem calves.

Why Your Calves Aren’t Growing

The body itself can occasionally interfere and act as an impediment to muscle growth. The human body is, for the most part, an organism whose functioning is based around the principles of symmetry and balance. These same principles extend and apply to individual systems, including muscle groups, and above all else, the body attempts to maintain homeostasis. While muscle imbalances can and often do occur, things will only be allowed to get so far out of whack.

However, some insight should be given on how this affects muscle growth — or lack thereof. In the calf training context, assume for a second that you primarily perform standing calf movements. Resultantly, the development of your gastrocnemius will by far outshine the underlying soleus, as standing movements prioritize the former. This will eventually result in two things: first, the obvious muscle imbalance; and second, a cessation of growth.

As your body becomes aware of the disproportion, it’ll downregulate the hypertrophic training response to exercise in an attempt to prevent any further imbalance. In short, growth in the gastroc will slow — almost to the point of a complete stop — until that soleus catches up. This phenomenon is known as regulatory feedback between muscle tissue and the brain and is an integral part of the homeostatic process.

The Real Culprit

The calves already work much harder than you give them credit for.

Research and empirical evidence show that your calves are literally at work nearly all day long. Every stair you climb works your calves. Every step you take is like doing a partial-ROM, body weight, standing calf raise. Every hop, skip, and jump? Hell, every second you spend just standing there gaping at co-eds on the adductor contributes to the overall daily workload your calves receive. Sure, the training load is pretty low, but the volume is phenomenally high! As such, these muscles are “accustomed” to tremendous volume, much more than many of your other muscles.

Now, the calf is made up of several muscles, the most important of which are the soleus and the gastrocnemius. Although it’s not necessary to train the gastroc and the soleus completely independently of one another, it’s important that we alter the training slightly for each muscle. Here are a few things to consider.   

  • The gastroc and soleus have three identical anatomical goals: to plantarflex, adduct, and invert the foot. However, they do not often contract with equal force, depending on the extent to which the knee is flexed. The gastroc has the added function of knee flexion, and is worked in many traditional “hamstring” movements. (This is one reason a variation of the lunge is included in the program).
  • The diamond-shaped gastrocnemius is the primary mover when the leg is in a more or less straight position. The soleus, on the other hand, takes over as the angle of knee flexion changes and the leg is in a bent position.
  • Consider the fact that the legs are straight during the daily activities that contribute to calf work (sitting at your desk does not involve the calves). This means the gastroc is exposed to higher daily volume than the soleus. Training must be adjusted accordingly.

Now that we’ve got that all settled, are you ready to start growing again? Excellent! Then read on, young apprentice, and grow ye shall.

The Diamonds In the Rough Training Program

Day 1: Gastroc Dominant Day

On this day, the gastrocnemius will be trained with fairly high volume, using low reps and heavy weight. The soleus will receive low overall volume, although the reps per set will be quite high.

A1) Calf Raise in Leg Press, Medium Foot Spacing

257widelegpress1Sets: 6
Reps: 4
Tempo: 2113
Load: Use a 5RM load
Rest Interval: 30-60 seconds

A2) Calf Raise in Leg Press, Narrow Spacing

257closelegpress1Sets: 6
Reps: 4
Tempo: 2113
Load: Use a 5RM load
Rest Interval: 30-60 seconds; 3-5 minutes after final set

Note: Perform A1, rest 30-60 seconds, and perform A2. Charles Poliquin has always maintained that foot spacing is the key to full fiber recruitment in the medial and lateral heads of the gastroc. By constantly varying foot spacing, you’ll achieve an even workload distribution for each head over the length of the set. This is superior to working only one head first, as doing so does not allow for sufficient stimulation of the latter targeted head.

B1) Heel-Toe Farmer’s Walk

Sets: 2
Reps: 30 Steps per leg
Tempo: 1X2 (1 second pause at the heel, explode to toe, pause in the “tip-toe” position for 2 seconds.)
Load: Heaviest dumbbells in the gym (use straps, if necessary)
Rest Interval: 60 seconds

B2) Seated Calf Raise, wide spacing, toes pointing out.

257seatedcalf2Sets: 2
Reps: 20
Tempo: 21X3
Load: 50-60% Body Weight.
Rest Interval: 60 seconds

Day 2 – Soleus Dominant Day

The soleus is our prime target here and will be trained with moderate volume. Heavy weight, low reps and numerous sets is the name of the game. The gastroc, on the other hand, will take a high rep beating.

A) Seated Calf Raise
Sets: 12
Reps: 3
Tempo: 2115
Load: Use 5RM
Rest Interval: 30 seconds between sets

Note: Vary foot spacing every two sets.

B) Siffie Lunge

Here’s a painful little gem I picked up from Coach Christian Thibaudeau. A Siffie is identical to a regular lunge, save for one important exception: You stay on your toes the entire time. At no point during the set are your heels to touch the ground. You can use dumbbells or a barbell.

Sets: 8
Reps: 5 (per leg)
Tempo: 2311 (2 second descent, 3 second holding in the lunging position)
Rest interval: 60 seconds; 3 minutes after final set.

Gastroc Superset

C1) Donkey Calf Raise 

257dcr02

Clip on a loaded dip belt, make like a horse (bend at the waist) and hold onto something that is roughly waist high for support. With your toes on blocks, proceed to do calf raises. Feel free to substitute the dip belt for a hot girl sitting on your back.

Set: 1 set to Failure, you shouldn’t reach 50 reps.
Tempo: 1112

C2) One-Legged Standing Calf-Raise

Set: 1 set to failure

Note: As with any unilateral movement, respect the weak side rule. That is, train the weaker leg first; also, terminate the strong leg set at the same number of reps you were able to perform on the weak side.

Additional Notes:

Day 1 and Day 2 are to be performed 72 hours apart. Monday and Thursday will fit into most training schedules, but if you train three days per week (MWF, for example) then Monday and Friday will suit just fine.

Diamonds in the Rough (DIR) is to be used for a period of six weeks, after which a two week detraining period should follow. During these two weeks, no direct calf work is to be done. Upon the completion of the detraining weeks, you may begin the DIR program again.

If calf growth is your first priority, place all other body parts on a maintenance program to ensure optimal gains.

If you’re a wise guy who’s asking why this program has no direct training for the tibialis anterior incorporated into it, the simple answer is that many of these movements will heavily recruit the tibialis (e.g. the Heel-Toe Walks and Siffie lunges).

There has been some interest regarding keeping a slight bend in the knee during gastrocnemius dominant movments, based on MRI studies that found  following quote from John Paul Cantanzaro’s T-Nation article, “Pop ‘Em Out Muscles“:

MRI studies show that the standing one-leg calf raise hits just about every muscle below the knee. This exercise is usually performed with a straight leg. While in theory, 180 degrees may be the optimal angle for maximal recruitment of the gastrocnemius, it’s been found that a straight leg generates less torque than when the knee is slightly bent 160 degrees. To take advantage of this information, I want you to unlock your knee and keep it slightly bent throughout the exercise.

There’s merit to this, and I have tried it myself. If you want to take this idea and extrapolate that keeping a bent knee will be beneficial on all straight-legged movements, feel free. I recommend that you only use this variation if focusing on keeping the bend does not detract from performing the exercise in good form or with appropriate load.

Last, but most certainly not least, please make sure to drink plenty of water. Calves may be number one on the list of “Muscle Most Likely to Cramp up on You and Leave You Screaming in Pain on the Floor Like a Little Sissy Girl.” I recommend at least one liter of water per 50 pounds of body weight, as hydrated muscles are much less likely to cramp.

Well, that’s it!  If you follow the program as laid out, in a few short weeks you’ll have diamonds so big you’ll be “iced out like a pimp,” to coin a phrase.  Give the program a shot, and let me know how you do!

About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

  • SC

    Hi Roman,
    Can you explain the tempos? 2113 and 21X3? The fourth number is lost on me. I’d assume 2113 is down 2, pause 1, up 1, but what’s the 3?

  • Well done, Roman. My calf girth is pretty good – dating back to my “heavier” days – but I hear if you don’t use them you lose them. I’ll definitely be trying out some of these exercises… my calves could use a good jelqing.

  • Ivan Jaquez

    Great! Thanks John ;)