Why You Should Be Doing Calf Workouts—Plus One to Try
Your calves have more of an impact on movement than you realize. Here, the best calf exercises for strengthening and improving your calf muscle mobility.
If you're like most people, your leg-day lineup probably looks something like this: reverse lunges, goblet squats, thrusters, and deadlifts. Sure, these exercises fire up the entire leg, but they aren't necessarily giving your calves the undivided attention they deserve.
"Squats and lunges will work your calves, but they don't specifically target them. You need to do exercises, like calf raises or heel drops, to treat your calf muscles like a squat treats your glutes," explains Sherry Ward, an NSCA-certified personal trainer and CrossFit Level 1 coach at Brick New York.
Because your calves are a smaller muscle group, you're not going to see tremendous growth from them (i.e. they won't be bulging out of your jeans), but that shouldn't deter you from shining the spotlight on these lower-leg muscles. Here's why you should dedicate time and energy to your calf muscles, including a specific calf workout and the best at-home calf exercises and lower-body mobility drills to try.
Calf Muscles 101
Your calves comprise two main muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
- The gastrocnemius—the two-headed outermost muscle—is activated when you raise your heels. It's recruited mostly when your leg is extended or knee is straight. You probably notice it peeking its heads out (pun intended) every time you do a step-up and straighten your leg or wear a shoe with a heel.
- The soleus is the muscle beneath the gastrocnemius that runs down the length of the lower leg. The soleus is activated more when your knee is bent.
Both muscles aid in plantar flexion, or the pointing of the foot/toes. "The gastrocnemius and soleus work as a shock absorber and a powerful plantar flexor of the foot," says Yolanda Ragland, D.P.M., a podiatric surgeon, and founder and CEO of Fix Your Feet. The gastrocnemius functions mostly in locomotion (walking, running, even biking) since it crosses multiple joints (the ankle and knee), she explains. And the soleus is an anti-gravity structure—meaning, it's a muscle that primarily works to maintain an upright stance and is important for movements where you have to work against gravity (like jumping), she says.
Why You Should Care About Your Calves
Your calves may be small compared to your quads or glutes, but they are—in many ways—an important powerhouse muscle. They serve as the foundation of strength for basic everyday movements, such as walking, running, and jumping. Here are some of the benefits of building strong and mobile calves.
You'll boost fitness performance.
"All sports benefit from stronger calves; they are in part responsible for creating movement at your foot," says Jason Loebig, a Chicago-based Nike training and running coach and co-founder of Live Better Co., a wellness coaching platform. When performing locomotive movements like running or jumping, your calves help receive and produce force, alongside other areas of the foot, ankle, and supporting tendons, like the Achilles tendon (the band of tissue that attaches your calf muscles to the heel bone), explains Loebig. By strengthening the calf muscles, you condition your legs to handle more load.
"Strong calves, in tandem with a good range of motion and control of the ankle, can aid in receiving and producing more force through the ground, leading to potentially faster running speeds and higher vertical jumps when combined with proper movement at the knee and hip," he says.
So if you want to increase the height of your box jumps or shave seconds off your 200-meter dash, then it's time to focus on building better calves through calf workouts and mobility drills. "By strengthening the calf muscles, this is another opportunity to activate more [muscles] through the movement," says Ward. (Related: How to Run Faster Without Training More)
You'll reduce your risk of foot injuries.
In addition to the performance benefits, your calves assist with movement in the feet and affect your ability to balance. "The calves play an important role not only for the upper leg and maintaining posture but also have significant impacts on the feet," says Dr. Ragland. "Our body's center of gravity is towards the front of the body, which causes the body to lean forward. However, we do not naturally lean forward due to the counteraction of our continuous state of plantar flexion [by the calf muscles], providing upright stability and supporting posture," she explains.
Because the calves are interconnected with multiple joints, including the ankle and knee, they affect many of the tendons in this area. When you have shortened (aka tight) or weakened calves, it can indirectly or directly lead to a multitude of foot ailments, including plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis (an overuse injury of the Achilles tendon), and ankle sprains and fractures, among other foot issues, says Dr. Ragland. (Related: The Best Recovery Tools to Help Ease Pain from Plantar Fasciitis)
"Strengthening the calf muscles is important for injury prevention and developing one's proprioception, or body awareness, as it prepares in various planes of motion (front, back, side to side, etc.)," says Ward. (More here: Why All Runners Need Balance and Stability Training)
You'll improve your lower-body range of motion.
By firing up your calves, you can increase your range of motion, says Ward. Why? Tight calves from inactivity or overuse can make your ankles less flexible, making it harder to do weight-bearing exercises with a full range of motion, according to the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine (AAPSM). "If you have tight calves and you do a front squat, for example, you'll notice that your heels are lifting off the ground or your ankles are caving in. This hinders your range of motion and overall alignment in your squat," says Ward.
Here's the thing: Your body moves in a kinetic chain, meaning the movement of one joint affects the movement of other joints. So if you have tight calves, then you're not building enough power from the ground up to activate your glutes and hamstrings in a squat. Dr. Ragland says that the lower portion of the calves that forms the Achilles tendon inserts into the calcaneus, the largest bone of the foot, which reinforces ankle stability—something that plays a big role in squatting, too.
Note: If your hip flexors are weak, it can negatively affect your calves. "A tight hip flexor can result in a tight and short hamstring that can cascade down to the gastrocnemius. This condition is called the 'reciprocal effect of tight hip flexors,'" says Dr. Ragland.
If your hamstrings and calves are tight, Dr. Ragland advises stretching the hips and strengthening your glutes, inner-thigh muscles, and core. "If you strengthen these other areas, the hamstrings and calves do not have to do all the work, and moderately lengthening the gastrocnemius will avoid injuries like a muscle pull and torn tendons," she explains.
How to Test Your Calf Strength
Not sure where your calves and the ligaments and tendons around your ankles stand? Ward recommends testing them out by balancing on one leg for 60 seconds with your arms out to the sides. You want to try the same drill with your eyes closed, too. "See how long you can balance with the eyes closed and opened. Make sure you have a clear space when performing this exercise," she says. If you can't balance for 10 seconds (without significantly moving the foot that's on the floor or touching the other foot to the ground), then you might be at high risk for an ankle sprain, according to Advanced Physical Therapy Education Institute. Meaning, you should absolutely dedicate some time to your ankle and calf strength and mobility. (Also try these other balance tests to gauge your ability.)
The Best Calf Exercises & Drills
Ward says calf exercises that focus on eccentric loading (when the muscle is lengthening under a load vs. shortening) are best for strengthening these muscles. Calf raises and heel lifts are go-to calf exercises for strength, as well as toe lifts to help counter them and work the shin (the muscle on the front of the lower leg). In terms of dynamic calf exercises, jumping rope helps isolate the calves and works proper ankle flexion.
"When you fire up your calf muscles, that force of energy will transfer to the hips to jump higher," says Ward. "Doing agility drills on a speed ladder or playing hopscotch will work the calves, too. These exercises increase body-mind awareness and provide a challenge in different directions."
One of Loebig's favorite compound calf exercises is a reverse lunge to standing knee raise to calf raise. "It's a unilateral exercise with a finish in a single-leg standing position focused on strength and balance," says Loebig. Try this exercise with just your body weight and then add weight once your strength and balance improve.
"To target the gastrocnemius, which should be the primary focus for building size and strength in the calves, perform standing calf raises in a straight-leg position," says Loebig. Training in a split stance position to load the rear ankle with a straight leg (as you might do in single-arm rows) can also help build strength in the ankle, he says. The soleus gets most of the action when your knee is bent, so Loebig recommends performing calf raises in a seated bent-knee position to target it.
To help you strengthen your calves, try these mobility drills and this calf workout designed by Ward.
Calf Mobility and Stretching Drills
Sitting in a low squat.
Internal and external hip rotation (aka 90-90 stretch): Sit on the floor with the left leg bent at a 90-degree angle in front of the body, thigh extending straight forward from the hip and shin parallel to the front of the room or mat. The right leg is bent at a 90-degree angle, thigh extending sideways away from the right hip, and the right calf is pointing backward. Both feet are flexed. Hold this stretch for 30-60 seconds and then switch sides.
Static heel drop: Stand on the edge of a step or box and drop one heel towards the floor, keeping the ankle neutral. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch sides and repeat. Try variations of this stretch by turning your foot inward and outward to target different angles of the calf muscles.
At-Home Calf Workout for Strength
2-1-2 Calf Raises
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart and toes facing forward. Hold a medium-to-heavy dumbbell in each hand with arms by sides.
B. Counting to two, slowly lift heels off the floor to balance on the balls of feet. Hold this position for one second before slowly lowering back down for a two-second count. Avoid rolling ankles in or out while performing the exercise.
Do 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps.
2-1-2 Heel Drop to Calf Raise
A. Stand on the edge of a step or box with just the forefoot on the step, so heels are off the step.
B. Counting to two, slowly drop one heel towards the floor. Hold this heel drop for one second and then lift the heel up to come to the ball of the foot for two seconds.
C. Repeat on the other leg. That's one rep.
Do 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Seated Calf Raise
A. Sit on a chair or box at an appropriate height so knees form 90-degree angles. Hold a medium-to-heavy dumbbell vertically in each hand, so each weight is balancing on one end on top of each thigh. Keep core engaged and torso tall throughout the entire movement.
B. Lift heels off the floor as high as possible, coming to the balls of feet.
C. Slowly lower heels back down to the ground.
Do 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps.
Seated Inversion and Eversion with Resistance Band
A. Sit on the floor with legs fully extended, and wrap a long resistance band around the arches of both feet. Hold the resistance band with both hands.
B. Turn feet slightly inward and flex your feet with toes pointing up, then pull your toes toward your shin, moving against the resistance of the band. Hold this position for a few seconds before returning to the starting position.
C. Next, turn your feet outward and flex your feet with toes pointing up, then pull your toes toward your shin. Hold this position for a few seconds before returning to the starting position.
Do 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.