The Secret to Calf Training

One of my most popular articles to date deals with calf training. It’s been discussed in many forums and I still receive questions on that particular method of training. One that I get regularly involves the speed of movement: “Is it really necessary to go that slow when training calves?”

Yes, it is. You see, the Achilles tendon is the largest and strongest tendon in the human body and the ankle joint has a small range of motion (ROM). If you go too fast when you train calves, the stretch reflex will do almost the entire ROM so you get nearly no muscle contraction. The secret to really work the calves is to remove the stretch reflex and to do that you must pause for a good second or two at the bottom of a calf raise and then raise the heels slowly. If you bounce out of the bottom, you get the spring from the Achilles tendon but very little effect on your calf muscles. At the top of the movement, hold the peak contraction for a second or two to increase the time under tension since the ROM is so short.

This advice was advocated by fellow strength and conditioning coach Christian Thibaudeau during an episode of the Under The Bar Podcast. During that discussion, Thibaudeau revealed some interesting observations regarding calves:

  1. The calf has the highest genetic component of all human muscles and thus the lowest trainability. You’re either born with them or your not! The group with probably the best calves are obese people. Their calves need to sustain a large load for a long period of time. In other words, a high amount of tension and a high time under tension will lead to big calves!
  2. Some bodybuilders look like they have small calves compared to the rest of their muscles. Many of these athletes have long Achilles tendons which may be great for speed but not as aesthetically pleasing as those with lower insertion points. When you have small joints everything looks bigger, but with long tendons, everything looks smaller. If, however, you were to cut out the calf muscles of a professional bodybuilder with a long Achilles tendon, that would be a pretty large hunk of meat! It just looks small relative to the other muscles on his body.

Bottom Line: Do your calf raises slowly up and down with a pause at both ends to get more from the calf muscles and less from the Achilles tendon.

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