The best calf exercises (and why you should be doing them)

Posted by for Strong Women

Calf training isn’t just for bodybuilders. A fitness trainer explains how and why to do it.

When you’re piecing together your leg day workout, you probably factor in some strengthening work for the hamstrings, glutes and quads. Which sounds like a well rounded workout, sure – but you might be neglecting an essential muscle.

The calves may be the smallest muscle in the leg, but they’re more important than you might think. “Your calves actually help stabilise the knee and increase your mobility and strength in your foot and your ankle,” explains Strong Women ambassador Alice Miller. “You’ll know if you have limited ankle mobility if when you squat your chest comes all the way forward and you can’t really get very low.”

That’s also crucial if you’ve been running more recently, as the foot strike can strain your knee and ankle joints.

So how do we strengthen them? While they will be worked in compound lifts, like squats, try adding these isolation exercises to your weekly lower body workouts and reap the benefits…

Single leg calf raise

Put the balls of your feet on the edge of a step or stair. Lower the heel down slowly, around three to five seconds, and then come up onto the ball and squeeze to that tip-toe position. Really focus on the stretch. Avoid bouncing – for strength, you want to really focus on the eccentric movement and squeeze. However, Alice suggests doing this bodyweight move for very high reps: around 100 on each leg, perhaps in 10 sets of 10.

Woman doing a kettlebell squat
Strong calves will help with ankle mobility in your squats.

Seated dumbbell calf raise

Sit on a chair so your feet reach the floor – you can always stack some books under your feet them if needed. Then place a dumbbell or kettlebell on top of your thighs, close to the knee. Start lowering that heel down and then pushing through the ball of the foot so your heel comes up. Again, go slow and squeeze at the top position. Go for around 8-12 reps with minimal reps.

Calf press

If you’re at the gym, you can do calf work on the leg press machine. Place the balls of your feet at the end of the footplate and flex the foot by pressing through the ball. If you’re on a lying leg press machine you might not need to add weight as these already weigh a lot. If you’re on a seated machine, start light and work your way up. Aim for a couple of sets of 20 reps.

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