You may not think about your calf muscles regularly, but you use them every day when you stand or move around. They're important for overall balance as well as ankle stability, so having strong calves can help you exercise (or even walk across the street) more effectively, without constantly worrying about hurting yourself.
Even though many workouts use your calves, calf raises specifically target that muscle group, and the benefits extend to other parts of your lower legs as well. Of course, proper form is essential to maximizing any exercise, so we asked a few experts just how to do proper calf raises, the benefits of the exercise, and how to modify them for your needs. Read on for what they had to say.
Meet the Expert
What Are Calf Raises?
Calf raises are a lower leg exercise that strengthens the calves and the muscles around the ankle. Our calf muscle is made up of two muscles, explains Jonathan Tylicki, a master trainer and director of education at AKT. “The main muscle of the calf is the gastrocnemius, which is the most superficial ‘meaty’ part of the calf and controls flexion of the foot as well as flexion of the knee. The soleus is the other muscle that makes up the calf, which is a more deep-lying muscle that controls flexion of the foot,” he says.
Calf raises stretch and flex the calf and are best performed with a full range of motion, adds Mike Thomson, a certified personal trainer and running coach at Life Time Overland Park. There are many variations to try: You can do them with a straight or bent knee, with equipment—using dumbbells, a leg press machine, a standing calf machine, a seated calf raise machine, or a step—or without.
Keep in mind, though, no matter how you exercise them, calves are very much genetic and there are great individual differences in the shape of them, says Johry Batt, head of athletics at F45. He says there are essentially two types of calves:
- Long calf: The tibia and fibula are proportionately shorter, and the gastrocnemius and soleus are bulky and travel very low down.
- Short calf: The muscle of the calf is short, slender, and high with a long tendon.
What Are the Benefits of Calf Raises?
Training your calves is important because of the wide use of those muscles, including during walking, running, jumping, and moving your body during functional movements. “Your calves are an extremely powerful and tough muscle group that propels you forward and raises your entire body many times a day when you walk,” says Batt. “Training your calves is particularly important to build calf strength, endurance, and explosiveness. It’s great for improving ankle stability and overall balance. Calf raises are also excellent for stretching the plantar muscles of the foot and making it more supple.”
Beyond the calf muscles, the benefits of calf raises carry over to other parts of your leg. If done correctly, you could have a more resilient Achilles tendon, says Thomson. And they can also help strengthen the smaller muscles around the ankle and knee joint, says Tylicki.
Most people are safe to do calf raises, unless they have a calf or ankle injury. However, “calf raises and strengthening the balance muscles around the ankle are extremely important to prevent injury,” says Tylicki. “Having strong calves also helps the body execute plyometric and power exercises properly, as the main muscle that initially absorbs impact from the landing is the calves.”
Performing Calf Raises
- Place your feet on the ground or elevated surface, about hip-distance apart, with the toes and knees straight ahead. Your foot should be in line with your ankle and your bodyweight be pressing evenly on the ball of your foot.
- Extend the ankle and rise up on the toes, flexing your calf muscle.
- Lower down with control and return to the initial position.
By placing your feet on an elevated surface like a step or block, you can perform a greater range of flexion at the ankle targeting the deeper calf muscles, says Batt. He advises including a warm-up routine and dynamic stretching before working your calf muscles, avoiding the use of excessive weight, and, if you experience any issues such as calf knots, treating them immediately.
Do not bounce when you do these movements, adds Thomson. “Contract hard and if you want extra credit, pause at the bottom and top. The Achilles is a tendon that has a lot of stored energy. To ensure the muscle is doing the work and not the tendon, pause at the bottom of the movement for one to two seconds and pause at the top for one to two seconds.”
How Often Should You Do Calf Raises, and How Many Reps Should You Do?
Reps will vary depending on the weight you add, but Batt says optimal results are obtained through long sets until you feel a burn, thus via high reps. He suggests doing 15-30 reps in a set and adding calf exercises into your workouts two or three times per week. “Calf raises are isolated single-joint exercise, so I would aim to include them with other lower body supersets or as a finisher at the end of your workout,” he says.
Calf Raise Modifications
There are lots of ways to mix up your calf raises to keep your workouts fresh and interesting.
- You can hold onto a wall or stable surface and not raise up as high. But a full range of motion should be the goal for all clients to achieve before advancing the exercise, says Tylicki.
For a Challenge:
- Add a weight or elevated surface: This will increase the challenge of simple standing calf raises.
- One-legged calf raises: Perform the movement on one leg at a time. You may need to hold on to a wall or stable surface when starting out, but doing single-leg raises is a fantastic core and balance challenge, says Tylicki.
- Isometric calf raises: Hold at the top of your calf raise for 10 seconds before lowering down.
- Eccentric calf raises: Slowly lower down from the top of your calf raise for four counts while maintaining control and alignment.
- Deficit calf raises: Stand on the end of a box or step with just the toes on the platform. Let your heels drop down lower than the level of the platform, and press up into your calf raise from this lowered starting point.
- Vary up your position: Externally rotate your feet (e.g., dancers first position: turned out from your hips, with knees and toes pointing outward, ankles together; or dancers second position: turned out from your hips, with knees and toes pointing outward and feet apart wider than your hips), or perform a calf raise at the bottom of a squat or lunge.
- Resistance band calf raise: Holding a resistance band across both hands, step onto the middle of the band with both feet, making sure the band is directly under the line of the ball of your foot. Pull the band upward so there is tension (or wrap it around your hand to create more tension), then press up into your calf raise.
- Seated calf raise (done on a machine): Bring feet back so your heels are just behind your knees. Then slowly lift your heels up onto your toes and slowly lower back down.
- Straight leg calf raise (done on a leg press machine): Sit on the machine and put your feet so your toes are just resting on the bottom of the platform. Push back as far as you can while keeping your toes on the machine. Return to starting position in a controlled manner.
- Donkey calf raises: Step up to a platform and hinge at the waist to bend over and hold onto a stable object. Slowly lower your heels to the floor, pause, and then raise them back up slowly.