Muscle in Focus: Calves by Shawn Vint

The calf muscle is the common name given the two muscles that work to flex the bottom of the foot (the plantar), allowing elevation on our tip-toes. The proper name given these muscles are the underlying soleus muscle, lying close to the bone, and the gastrocnemius, the outer, larger of the two muscles giving well shaped calves a nice diamond-shaped look.

If you’re wondering where the common term ‘calf’ came from, it is from the Latin name given for these two muscles combined as a unit, the triceps surae. Sura means calf in latin, giving training enthusiasts an easy time naming this muscle group. The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles (aka triceps surae) attaches to the bottom of the foot via the Achilles tendon, located at the back of an ankle at about the place where a high loafer makes contact with the back of our ankle.

It is the strongest tendon that we have and although tremendously powerful, it also works with the calf muscle in an amazing demonstration of fine motor skill control when we perform a balance on one foot. The brain, receiving innumerable signals from thousands of sensors located in the bottom of our balancing foot, as well as the middle ear and hundreds of other locations around the body, sends thousands more ‘movement demand’ signals to the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles to contract and relax in synch with one another, stabilizing the ankle and helping us to stay upright. It is an amazing demonstration of the thousands of complex signals and movements required for one single, co-ordinated action to take place within us.

Strong calf muscles enable us to hike, balance, and run on a treadmill. Well developed calf muscles add to the overall attractiveness of the human body. In classical times, a well proportioned body was represented in art as having the circumference of neck, upper arm, and calf muscle as close to equal as possible. It is still a good way to gauge your body proportions, giving you a goal to reach toward in a quest for a better physique.

Calf muscles, like abdominal muscles and the spinal erectors lining each side of our backbone, are slow twitch, red muscle cells. Slow twitch fibres are able to withstand sustained contractions with less tiring, unlike the fast twitch, white muscle cells found in most of the muscles we regularly train such as chest or arms. These slow twitch fibres allow you to stand or walk for extended periods without experiencing severe muscle fatigue, muscle ‘pump’, or muscle failure. This characteristic also requires that we train our calf muscles a little different than their white twitch fibre counterparts.

I train calf muscles once per week, as I do for every other muscle group. I don’t have a ‘dedicated’ day for training them, rather, I include 15 minutes of calf work on a training day where I have additional time on my hands at the end of the workout. The calf muscles are being ‘trained’ every day whenever you spend a great deal of time on your feet, so when I plan to train them, the workout is fast and intense.

My calf workouts have changed over the years. Years ago, fresh out of anatomy class, I would try training the gastrocnemius and soleus separately. In theory the underlying soleus muscle works optimally when the hamstring is in the contracted position; in other words when your leg is bent at the knee. The gastrocnemius, on the other hand, functions optimally when the leg is straight. Hearing this, I split my calf training between seated calf raises and standing calf raises, hoping to better my results.

Almost everyone I knew trained calves two or three times per week, as the role of rest and nutrition were just beginning to be properly understood at that time. Today, my once per week calf training sessions reap greater results then my thrice weekly calf training sessions of old, though I’m now in my forties. I rely almost exclusively on one legged calf presses. Placing my toes on a slightly raised platform or block, I perform toe raises, or calf presses as they are often called, on one foot until I can do no more, then switch to the other foot, until failure. With no rest I continue with the first calf directly to the other calf, each foot in succession for 6 minutes by the clock. Resting for a minute and a half or so, I repeat for another 6 minutes. Some days I perform this double set with a dumbbell in the same hand as the ‘working’ calf, and some days I do not. On the days when I add the extra poundage of the dumbbell, the number of repetitions I am able to perform before having to switch legs will naturally decrease because of the added resistance. When I use just my body weight as the resistance, I can manage 50 or 60 repetitions with each leg during the first minute and thirty seconds of the 6 minutes, whereas with a dumbbell in my hand I might only manage 15-20 repetitions before reaching failure and having to switch legs.

It is a wise idea to perform a 1 or 2 minute warm-up set followed by an easy stretch before getting to your two, 6 minute ‘working sets’. Calf training effectiveness is largely determined by recruiting muscle throughout the entire range of motion of the calf, necessitating a full stretching of the calf muscle at the bottom and a full contraction in the top position for optimum training effectiveness.

Like all the exercises we do, make sure that you ‘go slow through the transition’; that point at the bottom of the movement transitioning between the negative or stretch portion of the movement (down), and the contracting (up) portion of the movement. That transition point is the range of greatest vulnerability to incurring injury to the calf muscle itself, and also the Achilles tendon.

Once you’ve fully stretched the calf muscle in the negative portion of the movement, and have gone slow through the transition, you are ready for the most productive portion of the movement. Once you are through the transition and are on your way back up, (after going slow through the first half inch of contraction or so), accelerate! Once the calf muscle has been loaded with the weight you are lifting, it is safe to increase the speed of the movement. Not only is it safe, it’s by far the most effective way to train. It’s worth remembering the physics lessons of high school when trying to understand this. Force is generated by moving a mass (weight) through distance, over time. Force can be increased by increasing the mass (weight) while leaving the distance the weight is moved and the time it takes to move it. But going heavier isn’t usually the best answer when training, so it’s good to understand that you can also increase force by reducing the time it takes to move the same weight through the same distance. Taking this lesson back to the gym, when we increase the speed of our movements, we also increase the force. This lesson is sometimes not introduced to individuals new to training, because of the tendency to wrongly interpret when to initiate the increase in speed. When we begin to increase our speed on the negative portion of any movement, we create a ‘jerk-load’ on our muscles and tendons through the bottom of the movement as we ‘bounce’ through the bottom. This is a sure road to sudden or chronic injury.

Done correctly, increasing the speed of the movement is begun only after you have went through the transition stage of the movement and have already begun the upward movement slowly for an inch or so, fully loading the muscle you are working. Try this the next time you train your calf muscles; it’s worked well for me the last several years, and it may give your calf training a jump-start.

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