Calf Training for the General Population Client

CalvesWhile calf training articles for the serious bodybuilder are a dime a dozen, serious bodybuilders themselves, however, are not.
The average gym-goer probably doesn’t need to be doing pre-exhaust sets of seated calf raises with a double drop, straight into standing calf raises with slow eccentrics or top range partials. At least, not yet.

We have no fixed plane machines at Melbourne Strength & Conditioning. Despite what some “functional” gurus might try to have you believe, there’s nothing wrong with fixed exercise machines (aside from taking up a lot of floor space and being prohibitively expensive) we just don’t have them as they’re not a priority.

So for calf work, we do a lot of single leg calf raises, hanging the foot off a step/ledge.

I should make a note at this point, that while calf training, like many isolation exercises, might not be a top priority in most people’s training programs, they certainly have their place.

For the average person who has never trained calves before, you need to be particularly conservative with volume, as calf DOMS can be crippling.

Too, the average member at MSC trains three times per week, which tends to make it simple in prescribing a calf training protocol, though it still works fine for either two or four sessions per week as well.

Session 1: 2 x 12/side.
Session 2: 2 x 15/side.
Session 3: 3 x 12/side.
Session 4: 3 x 15/side.

We want all of our clients to be able to perform 3 x 15/side without pulling up sore. This includes female clients who usually don’t have a goal of growing bigger calves. maintaining this conservative amount of volume and intensity won’t do a whole lot in terms of hypertrophy (growing) the calves.
What we have found however, is that being able to consistently perform 3 x 15/side tends to help with ankle mobility (full ROM during every rep is a priority) and ankle stability. And while we have no direct proof, we have reason to believe it could help in other areas of strength, power, and injury reduction.

We’ve found that this set/rep/frequency protocol almost always works very well to get them there.

Once someone is performing the 3 x 15/side, we encourage them to start alternating these traditional sets (isotonic contractions) with iso holds (isometric contractions).
A growing body of literature, as well as discussions with my physiotherapist colleagues, seem to indicate that isometric work is particularly useful for both rehabilitation from calf/ankle/Achilles injuries, as well as for injury reduction. And Achilles ruptures are no joke, and there tends to be more risk with increased age.

We have our members alternate between the isotonic and the isometric calf raises every second session. With the iso holds, we start at 3 x 30 seconds per side, holding the very top position (plantar flexion), and add 5 seconds per session until reaching a maximum of 60 seconds. Once 60 seconds can be held fairly comfortably, we’ll reduce this to once per week, and increase the isotonic work again.

So in practice, taking a two week slice out of their training, this might look like the following:

Monday: 3 x 15/side
Wednesday: 3 x 30 seconds/side
Friday: 3 x 15/side
Monday: 3 x 35 seconds/side
Wednesday: 3 x 15/side
Friday: 3 x 40 seconds/side

For members wanting to grow their calves, we then have them progressively overload these calf raises with a KB/DB held on the working side (for isotonic work, not iso holds).

For the average person in a commercial gym wanting to grow their calves, I’d suggest one session per week be performed as a single leg calf raise as described above, one session be performed on both legs in a standing calf raise machine, and one session be performed on both legs in a seated calf raise machine.
Progress at those until you’re pretty much moving absurd numbers on those machines for high-ish reps, and then you can start getting fancy with supersets, drop sets, and other more advanced techniques.

Though, I do think there is probably value in spending some time building up the isometric endurance in this person too.

Nothing revolutionary here. But I feel like this is a fairly practical progression that many (i.e. the type of person who is more likely to read the fitness section on Yahoo than to read T-Nation) could benefit from.

Thoughts, questions, hate mail, or anything I missed? Feel free to drop a comment below. And of course, sharing this article will naturally help you jump the queue in your wait for karmic justice to start paying out.

7 thoughts on “Calf Training for the General Population Client”

  1. Great article and informative. I don’t have any clients who ask about calf exercises. If I did I would tell them to go for a run or go do hill sprints (steep hill!!).

  2. Thanks. That all makes sense to me. I have all my clients include “both-legs” and “one-leg” calf raises in their routines, on a 2×4 rather than a step. And I think now I’ll ask them to add the isometric “hold-at-the-top” at alternate workout sessions. A caution that could be added to the article: take care not to over-stretch the Achilles Tendon when performing these on a step, where the heel does not touch the floor at the start and end of a rep. (I prefer to have the heel touch the floor, limiting ROM to within a safe zone.)

    1. Glad you found it useful John. Re the Achilles stretch, I do tend to caution against an aggressive drop into the stretch (“bouncing”) initially, however if the Achilles is otherwise healthy initially, a full ROM under control should be beneficial, and allow for any increases in mobility through eccentric strengthening of the calf. For those coming in with a pre-existing Achilles injury, then yeah, we definitely control the ROM at the bottom, often eliminating it all together and starting from flat ground.

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