Our calves make up a good percentage of our leg muscles. It is made up of two primary muscles: the soleus muscle, the deeper muscles which are responsible for ankle stability and plantarflexion; and the gastrocnemius muscle, the two-headed muscle that achieves plantar flexion as well as knee flexion.

Calves are tricky muscles to hit unless you intentionally work on them during your workout routine or you run a lot by default. Weak calves result in common injuries such as Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis. 

The good news is that calf exercises such as calf raises are sleek exercises that you can easily sneak into your ordinary everyday activities. In general, our calves assist in our gait. Calf raises are easy and simple enough for anyone. They are also low impact so you don’t have to worry about joint pains.

You could do them while waiting for your coffee to brew or while in the grocery line. You can even do them under your desk while working. Since calf raises are perfect bodyweight exercises that you can do anywhere and anytime, they make great finishers at the end of your workout.

In this article, we’ll help you explore the benefits of calf raises, the muscles worked during this exercise, and the proper way to perform them. We also list some excellent variations of the calf raises and alternatives that nonetheless effectively hit your calf muscles.

This Ultimate Guide Will Cover:

  • How To Do Calf Raises
  • Calf Raises Benefits
  • Common Calf Raises Mistakes To Avoid
  • Calf Raises Muscles Worked
  • Standing Calf Raises vs Seated Calf Raises
  • Our Trainer’s Suggested Reps, Sets, & Programs
  • Calf Raises Variations
  • Calf Raises Alternative Exercises
  • FAQs About Calf Raises

How To Do Calf Raises

What You’ll Need: 

  • Dumbbell: You can perform calf raises conveniently with bodyweight. It’s optional to hold dumbbells to elevate the weight and feel more burn on your calves.

Alternative Equipment: 

  • Exercise step/weight plate: You may perform calf raises on an exercise step or weight plate to increase the gap between the bottom and top of the movement. This allows you to dig your heels further below your standing surface for more challenges.

Step 1: Stand Upright Holding Dumbbells

This variation focuses on the standing calf raise. 

Go to your starting position by standing upright with your shoulders pulled back and your chest tight and front. Position your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell of your preferred weight in each hand. For a heel elevated variation, you may step on an exercise mat or weight plate with your heels afloat.

Step 2: Raise Your Heels

Start to raise your heels and stand on the tips of your toes as high as you can while remaining balanced. Keep a firm grip on the dumbbells on each side. Lift only what you can carry for a prolonged period especially since calf raises are ideally done with high reps.

Step 3: Contract Your Calves

As you raise your heels, maintain balance on the balls of your feet. Remember to contract your calf muscles at the top of each repetition. Hold the contraction for at least 2 seconds before bringing your heels down towards the ground again.

Step 4: Lower Back Heels To Starting Position

There are two ways you can count repetition when performing the calf raise. You may either touch the ground with your heels or remain your heels suspended to keep tension on your calf muscles. 

The latter variation provides more challenge and is best performed by experienced lifters. For beginners, you may lower your heels fully to the ground and achieve tension during the contraction.

3 Calf Raises Benefits

1. Athletic Mobility and Stability

The calf muscles work in close proximity to the ankles. It protects the ankles and provides stability and balance. Incorporating calf raises into your workout, whether the seated or standing calf raises version, can decrease the risk of ankle and foot injury most commonly found in individuals with weak calf muscles.

2. Explosive Sports Performance

Stronger calves mean stronger performance inside and outside of the gym. If you do outdoor sports like jumping and sprinting, you’ll greatly benefit from doing calf raises as part of your training regimen. This exercise increases agility and therefore can be optimized by many athletes and even non-professionals who simply want to enjoy their chosen sport and be better at it.

3. Better Muscle Mass

Let’s face it, a great-looking calf muscle perfectly complements the rest of your leg physique. It balances out your lower extremities and doesn’t leave you with chunky thighs and stringy calves. Not to mention, your calf muscle fills in your jeans nicely so even when you’re wrapped in clothing, people can tell that you lift.

Common Calf Raise Mistakes to Avoid

Not Stretching Prior Calf Raises

Warming up your legs before the calf raises can help prevent injury, avoid cramping, and increase flexibility. If you always opt-out of warming up beforehand, you’d most likely struggle with the beginning reps and exhaust your muscles quicker.

Hastening The Reps

Keep in mind that the calf raise is not a cardio exercise. As simple as it looks and as much as high reps are utilized, calf raises belong to weight training and should be treated as such. 

In essence, the goal of doing the calf raise is to strengthen your calf muscles and perhaps also build mass along the way. Repping out each set not only compromises your form but also misses the whole point of targeting your soleus muscles and the gastrocnemius muscle.

A good rule of thumb is to follow the 1-2-1 ratio. Allot one second to raise your heels, two seconds to do an isometric hold, and one second to lower your heels. You could also try out other tempo training variations to hit a greater range of motion. 

Performing Low Reps

Calf raises are famously convenient for not requiring additional weight or dumbbells unless you’ve already surpassed your own body weight. For this reason, the calf raise is ideally performed as a bodyweight exercise with high reps. You may also hold weights or dumbbells – just make sure they’re light enough for a prolonged exercise session. An idea set counts 10 to 30 reps.

Calf Raises Muscles Worked

There are two muscles highly involved in performing calf raises:

  • Soleus muscle
  • Gastrocnemius muscle

The gastrocnemius muscles are the two-headed muscles found at the back of the legs. It functions for foot plantar flexion and knee flexion by working with the hamstrings. 

In conjunction with it is the soleus muscle, which is the flat wide muscle found in the lower section of the leg. It is the bigger muscle between the two. It is responsible for providing proper balance and pumping blood from the legs to the heart. Both muscles propel jumping and running for sports and everyday usage.

Standing Calf Raise vs Seated Calf Raises

In this section, we break down the differences between seated and standing calf raises, so you can choose the best variation that fits your goal. 

Standing calf raises primarily target the gastrocnemius muscles, which look like an upside-down heart shape on your calves. This creates meatier-looking calves; thus, individuals often mistake the gastrocnemius muscles for the “whole calf muscles”.

Meanwhile, performing seated raises with a Calf Machine focuses the tension on your soleus muscles, which can be found underneath the gastrocnemius muscles. This can be achieved since the knees are bent to a 90º angle.

Our Trainer’s Suggested Reps, Sets, and Programs

For Building The Calf Muscles

Progressive overload is the key to building muscle, regardless of the body part you want to tone. Choose a load that allows you to perform at least 10 reps. Make your muscles adapt to the fatigue by performing 30 reps. Take as many sets as you need. Rest for 45 seconds between each set. Add 5 reps every week on top of your total volume. Once you can perform 50 reps in 5 sets or under, increase your weight by 20 to 30 lbs and start at 30 reps again.

For Strength Training

Through everyday walking, our calves become immune to resistance which makes it harder to train for strength. For strong calves, focus on time under tension or TuT. Remember our 1-2-1 ratio? You can further increase the seconds of the isometric hold to increase the contraction of your calves. 

For Improved Stability and Balance

Perform the standard set of 10 to 30 reps, whichever you can do continuously with a full range of motion. Opt for bodyweight variations that will allow you to work on your balance using bodyweight and not relying on machines to provide support. You could also wear thin-soled shoes or go barefoot to gain more contact with the ground.

Variations on Calf Raise

Calf raises can start to feel mundane once you get the hang of it. Below are some effective variations that can help you work on your target calf muscle. 

Single-Leg Calf Raise (Bent-Knee)

As one leg rests, the other leg raises your calves to work on your soleus muscle. This provides an effective burn without the need to balance your upper body, which is mostly done in the standing calf variation.

Standing Barbell Calf Raise

As you increase the load, you also increase the difficulty. With a weighted barbell load on your upper back, you’re also inclined to incorporate core activation to stay upright. 

Squat Hold Calf Raise

Bending your knees to an isometric hold at 90º allows you to focus activation on the soleus muscles, which thereby creates more depth and dimension on your calves.

Seated Calf Raise

A great contender for the standing calf raise, the seated calf raises is an excellent variation for individuals with poor balance. This is primarily done in a seated Calf Raise Machine. This targets the soleus muscles without having to balance your body weight.

Calf Raise Alternatives

Box Jumps

At the thought of Box Jumps, you’d most likely think of this exercise as cardio or HIIT. Nevertheless, it effectively targets the calves, especially as you jump and when you land on the box. You’re not wrong that it also adds a dash of cardio into your training regimen. Just make sure to slightly lean forward to land on the front of your feet.

Plate Push

This exercise mimics a sled push but from a lower position. By keeping your back parallel to the floor and your hips down and tight, you are incorporating your calves, quads, and hips along the way.

Jump Rope

Yet another amazing alternative to calf raises, jump ropes help build resistance on your calves, as well as improve strength and coordination. They also come with their own unlimited sets of variations, so you can branch out and explore. There’s always something new to try. It also burns more calories than your typical calf raise, so if fat loss is your main goal, you ought to try this alternative.

Frequently Asked Questions

Calf raises promote ankle stability, better sports performance, and aesthetic muscle mass, among others. They also strengthen the Achilles tendon and prevent common injuries on the ankles and feet.

Calf exercises such as calf raise work on two major calf muscles:

  • Soleus muscle
  • Gastrocnemius muscle

Performing 10 to 30 reps per set of three can help strengthen your calves and build muscles. You can up the challenge by maintaining balance on the balls of your feet and keeping more tension on your calves throughout each set.

Feel free to explore variations like donkey calf raises and single-leg raises to keep your workout interesting.

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