The Science of Growing your Calf Muscles

Calves are one muscle group that so many of us find hard to grow. They’ve been labelled as stubborn and some people theorise that good calves come down to genetics. But with consistency and some of these science backed tips, you’ll be well on your way to growing a good set of calves. 

One thing that is important to think about is how much we actually use our calves. They’re active during daily activities such as walking and jogging and even used for extremely basic tasks like standing. So, they’ve effectively been “trained” for most of our lives. Which is why calves often don’t benefit from “newbie gains” in the same way other muscles do. 

Like all muscles, one of the most important things to keep in mind when trying to grow your calves is diet. Being in a calorie surplus (eating more than you expend) will help, but you also need to think about protein, carb and fat intake, as well as protein timings that can help with hypertrophy and protein synthesis

In this article


The main muscles of the calves are the Gastrocnemius and the Soleus. Both of these muscles are used for pointing the toes down (plantarflexion). 

The Gastrocnemius is a biarticular muscle. This means that it crosses both the ankle joint and the knee joint, so it can also flex the knee. So during a lying leg curl it will activate, as well as in squats and deadlifts. 

However the range of plantarflexion is small on squats and deadlifts. Due to this, to target the Gastrocnemius it is optimal to use straight leg calf raises. 

In contrast to the Gastrocnemius the Soleus only crosses the ankle joint. This means that it is better targeted with a bent leg calf raise. 


Due to the fact that both of the muscles are best targeted through different variations, it is most optimal to perform both variations. 


Dahmane et al has suggested that both the Gastrocnemius and the Soleus are dominant with type 1 fibers. This means that they may benefit from the use of higher reps. Although, because the way the ankle stays in a biomechanically strong position throughout the movement, if you really want to grow your calves it is good to have one lower rep higher weight day (6-12 rep range) and one higher rep lower weight day (12-20 rep range). 

It is important to ensure you are using proper form when using heavier loads as it can be easy to “cheat” on the calf raise (particularly standing) and end up squatting the weight. 


In 2011, an independent EMG found that the 90 degrees bent donkey calf raise showed the highest muscle activation out of the six exercises tested. This therefore suggests that this might be the best straight leg calf raise to incorporate into your routine. 

It is important to do a couple of bodyweight sets as primer sets to help with ankle mobility, particularly if this is something you already struggle with. You will also get a better range of motion performing the exercise barefoot or in low top shoes as opposed to shoes like high top converse. So if you normally train calves in high top converse it is wise to take them off at this point in your training. 

It is also really important to pause for 1-2 seconds at the bottom of the movement. This makes it less explosive and can help prevent achilles injuries. 

In terms of foot position studies have found that there is no difference between turning your feet out or having them straight on, so it is best to do whatever you find most comfortable.  


For the seated calf raise, as it targets the Soleus it is most optimal to perform with a lower weight and higher rep range. 

If using a machine, it’s a good idea to grip the underside of the seat rather than the part you are pushing up. This will mean that you stay using your calves and don’t pull the machine up. 

Charlotte Wilson
My name is Charlotte Wilson and I am a writer specialising in fitness and nutrition. I am extremely passionate about both of these things due to personal experiences. I have had a significant weight loss journey which also helped me to build a healthy relationship with food and exercise, which is something I now aim to share through my writing. I want my articles to help others build a healthy relationship with food and exercise and step away from yoyo dieting, diet fads and unsustainable exercise. I am a big believer in eating food to fuel you that you enjoy, but making sure it is still nutritious, and doing exercise that makes you feel good physically and mentally.