Calf-Strengthening Exercises

Want great-looking calves? Try these simple, effective exercises for strengthening your calf muscles.

You'll target the two muscles that make up the calf:

  • The gastrocnemius muscle, which gives the calf its rounded shape.
  • The soleus, which is the flatter, longer muscle running underneath the gastrocnemius and lower down your leg.

The Best Calf-Strengthening Exercises

Here are the four best exercises for strengthening your calves.

1. Double-Leg Calf Raise. Calf raises are the classic calf-strengthening exercise. They use your body weight to strengthen and tone the gastrocnemius and soleus.

Starting position: Stand near a wall for balance. Place your feet hip-width apart, and make sure your ankles, knees, and hips are in vertical alignment to protect your joints.

Action: Press down into the balls of both feet to raise your body upward. Keep your abdominal muscles pulled in so that you move straight upward, rather than shifting your body forward or backward.

Variations:

  • Start standing on a stair, or similar so your heels can drop lower than your toes. Keeping the balls of your feet on the stair, lower your heels as far as you can toward the floor. Then press your heels up as high as you can.
  • Add weight to add intensity. Repeat the exercise holding a dumbbell or other weight in one hand. Keep your hand on a wall for balance.

2. Single-Leg Calf Raise. You can increase the intensity of the calf raise by doing it on one leg. That way you can strengthen your calf muscle even more.

Starting position: Stand on one leg near a wall for balance with the other leg bent behind you. Be sure the ankle, knee, and hip of the leg you're working are in vertical alignment to protect the joints.

Action: Press down into the ball of your foot to raise your body upward. Keep your abdominal muscles pulled in so you avoid shifting forward or backward.

Variations:

  • Start standing on a stair or similar. Keeping the ball of your foot on the stair, let your heel drop down below the step. Then press up as high as you can.
  • Add weight to add intensity. Hold a dumbbell or other weight in one hand. Place the other hand on the wall for balance.

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3. Seated Calf Raise. You can do this exercise at home or at the gym on a calf exercise machine. The exercise works both the gastrocnemius and soleus.

At home.

Starting position: Sit on a firm, sturdy chair with your feet flat on the floor. Keep your knees aligned directly over your feet. Don't let your knees turn in or out. Lean forward placing hands on thighs near knees pushing down to add resistance.

Action: Press slowly down into the balls of your feet to raise your heels as high as you can. Next, slowly lower your heels. Repeat.

At the gym.

Starting position: Set yourself up in the calf press machine with the balls of your feet on the platform. This will let you lower your heels toward the floor. Undo the machine's safety latch and release the weight onto your calves.

Action: Drop your heels as far as you can toward the floor to lower the weight, and then press into the balls of your feet to raise your heels as high as you can.

4. Calf-Building Sports: Taking part in the following sports will help you both strengthen and tone your calves.

Running, walking, and hiking are excellent calf-strengthening exercises, especially when you go uphill. The steeper the climb, the more your calves have to work.

Running sports such as soccer, basketball, and tennis demand that you run, jump, and push off your calf muscles to accelerate or change direction quickly. So they're great for toning calves.

Step class and other kinds of dance will work your calves every time you step up and down or bend your knees and push off going from high to low positions.

Swimming works the calves along with the rest of the legs muscles. It also avoids the impact of running or jumping. Because it's low-impact, it's also a safe way to strengthen calves if you're recovering from an injury.

If you're overweight and want the look of toned calves, you may want to add a safe weight loss program that includes diet and exercise. You can't spot-reduce any part of your body.

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Safety Guidelines

Follow these guidelines so your calf-strengthening exercises are safe and effective.

  • Do the exercises consistently two or three times a week to build strength.
  • Move slowly through each exercise so you stay aware of your body alignment. Press up for a slow count of two to four. Then lower back down for a slow count of four.
  • Customize your exercise to match your level of fitness and avoid injury. And check with a fitness professional if you're not sure how much weight is safe for you to use. A general rule of thumb for strength training is to aim for eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise for one to three sets. Your muscles should feel fatigued, but you should be able to finish your repetitions.
  • Increase the load on the muscle gradually over time. For instance, add 10% to 15% to the weight every 2 weeks.
  • Check with your doctor first if you've had a foot, ankle, or calf muscle injury in the past. Depending on your health or physical condition, certain exercises may not be recommended.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Ross Brakeville, DPT on June 21, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Manocchia, P. Anatomy of Exercise, Firefly Books, 2008.

American Council on Exercise: "Will toning shoes really give you a better body?"

American College of Sports Medicine: "Strength Training for Bone, Muscle, and Hormones."

Massachusetts General Hospital: "Strength Training for the Knee."

Georgia State University, department of kinesiology and health: "Lower Body Strength Training Exercises." 

Georgia State University, department of kinesiology and health: "Alternative Strength Training Exercises."

University of South Carolina, Healthy Carolina Task Force: "Strength Training Basics."

University of North Dakota Wellness Center, Virtual Trainer: "Gastrocnemius/Soleus."

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