No muscle group is as stubborn to grow as calves. Years of little-to-no progress compels plenty of lifters to neglect their lower legs entirely and basically put their calves out to pasture. They become the ”my calves don’t grow” type of person.
There is hope for your lagging gastrocs! Here are six common but preventable muscle-growth mistakes that get in the way of calf gains, as well as a calf workout that’s brought me incredible results.
Mistake 1: Training Calves at the End of Your Leg Workout
Much like the rear delts on shoulder day, calves are often saved for the last part of a killer leg workout. At this point, you’re tired and barely able to muster up the energy for a couple of half-assed sets.
If you really want to make your calves stand out, train them the way you train your back or chest: fresh and to complete exhaustion.
A Better Way: If calves are a high priority, then treat them that way! You can train them first on leg day, or if you’re trying to hit your upper legs super-hard as well, do calves on a different day. For example, four-time Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler likes to hit calves with chest to start his week.
Mistake 2: Limiting Your Reps
Conventional lifter wisdom says to limit yourself to no more than 10-15 reps for muscle growth. However, ”conventional lifters” also wish their calves were bigger! My advice: When training calves, throw convention out the window.
A Better Way: Embrace high volume! I never do less than 20 reps per set when I train my calves, and usually it’s more like 25-30. This opens up a lot of different possibilities of how to arrange your workout. A few include:
- Straight sets with a single weight
- Double or triple 10-rep dropsets, like in the workout below
- A 100-rep ”death set“ with a weight you can handle for 20 reps
Take a pre-workout 30-45 minutes before training to help control fatigue during high-rep leg days.
Mistake 3: Only Training Standing or Seated Calf Raises
Plenty of people only do one type of calf raises: either standing or seated. If you want sock-stretching calves, you need both. Why? Because your calves are made up of two muscles:
- Gastrocnemius: Upper/outer part of calves, primarily stimulated by standing exercises.
- Soleus: Lower/deeper part of calves, primarily stimulated by seated exercises.
A Better Way: Include one standing and one seated exercise per calf workout. That’s the approach you’ll find in the Lean Body 12-week workout plan created by my father, champion bodybuilder (with monstrous calves) Lee Labrada. Going for extra gains? Perform one seated, one standing, and one with knees slightly bent, like in the workout below.
Mistake 4: Using Too Much Weight
Plenty of lifters swear you have to train calves heavy to make them grow. I completely agree, as I explain in ”3 Moves to Bigger Calves.“ However, if you use weight that’s so heavy you can’t do an exercise properly, you’re just robbing yourself of gains.
Not sure if you’re going too heavy? Here are a few ways to tell:
- Your ankles get forced out of line with the rest of your leg during any portion of the rep.
- You can’t perform standing calf raises without bending your knees, or seated calf raises without using your arms to pull the weight up.
- You feel pain in the arch of your foot or your Achilles tendon.
A Better Way: Use a weight you can manage with strict form and focus on perfection with each rep: a full contraction, slow negative, and a full stretch.
On heavy straight-leg calf movements like Smith machine raises, Hunter wears a leather lifting belt to protect his lower back.
Mistake 5: Not Contracting the Muscle Hard Enough
I can spot a half-ass calf workout from across the gym. It looks one of two ways: Just bouncing the weight in the bottom position or wiggling up and down in the middle 50 percent of the range of motion.
Sure, bouncing reps will make you sore, and doing mid-range partials will make your calves burn like crazy. But don’t confuse either of those with growth! If you want size, you need to focus on the squeeze and contraction—i.e., the top part of the movement.
A Better Way: Optimize the top of each rep by pushing as high up onto the balls of your feet as possible. It takes a conscious effort and mental focus. Those who have tried my Awesome Arms Workout know the difference a big squeeze at the top will make in the quality of your workout.
Mistake 6: Focusing Too Much on Details
We’ve all heard that pointing your toes in, out, and straight ahead will hit your calves from various angles. Here’s how the logic goes:
- Point toes in: Shifts focus to outer gastroc
- Point toes out: Shifts focus to inner gastroc
- Toes straight ahead: Equal focus on inner and outer gastroc
There’s definitely some truth to this approach, but it’s a minor detail—far lower than picking the best exercises and doing them well. And the downside of placing your toes at extreme angles is it puts unnecessary stress on the connective tissues in your ankles and knees.
A Better Way: Don’t get too fancy with your toe angle. An inch in or out is plenty! Focus on doing the big things right for weeks or months straight more than on the details.
Hunter Labrada’s Killer Calf Workout
I’ve performed this workout religiously twice per week over the last year and have seen incredible results. Yes, I’m a pro bodybuilder, but it can work just as well for everyday lifters if you dial back the volume to your abilities.