Calf exercise challenge

Fitness challenge: “I did calf raises every day for two weeks and improved my 5km PB”

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Want to run faster and stronger? Then it’s time to strengthen those calf muscles, says writer Priyankaa Joshi. This is a fitness challenge that only requires three minutes of movement a day.

Want to run faster? Stick of having brutal calf DOMS after a casual 5km? Then you’re probably like me – weak calved. Like many people, my leg day workouts tend to focus on strengthening my glutes, with some hamstring and quad exercises thrown in too. My calf muscles, however, rarely get a look in.

It was only when I started running regularly during the lockdowns that I had a calf problem. I was struggling to power up hills and for days afterwards, I’d be hobbling around with tight, painful calves.

“The calves might be small but they’re incredibly important,” explains physiotherapist and fitness influencer Lilly Sabri. “Think about how often you use these muscles – they’re responsible for powering you up off the ground every time you walk, run, skip or jump, and they absorb some of the shock as you land.”

They also act to stabilise the ankle and knee, help increase mobility and strength in the feet, and they keep our alignment in check. According to Sabri, having strong, stable calves won’t just help you run faster or jump higher, it will also reduce your risk of injury.

With this in mind, I decided to set myself a goal of building some serious calf strength. The internet is awash with videos and articles on how to build your glutes but there’s much less out there for the lower leg muscles. So, I asked Sabri if she could design a simple two-week programme to help get me started. Here’s how I got on. 

THE TWO-WEEK CALF CHALLENGE

Sabri sent over a plan consisting of daily exercises to do over the two-week period with a couple of rest days scheduled in each week.

“If your goal is to develop strength and power in your calves, working them in isolation, as well as building them into compound movements like squats and lunges is key,” Sabri told me. “After a couple of weeks of isolated calf exercises and stretching, you should start to see some change.”

The exercises included double calf raises, single-leg calf raises, and elevated calf raises with some skipping thrown into the mix. She suggested adding the short, snappy routines to the end of my usual workouts. 

Looking at the programme, I didn’t think it seemed particularly challenging. “Wait until you try it!” said Sabri. “The calves are a small muscle group so when you isolate them, even for a short period, trust me, you’ll really feel the burn.”

Outside of the plan, Sabri suggested incline walking and skipping with or without a rope to work on my calves. “These are great ways of building strength because your calves are initiating the movement to propel you upwards,” she explained. 

HOW TO DO CALF RAISES

To make sure my form was correct, over Zoom, Sabri gave me some pointers on how to perform calf raises:

Double leg calf raises

  1. Start with both feet facing forwards, shoulder distance apart. Make sure your core is engaged and you’re squeezing your glutes.
  2. Push up through the balls of your feet so your heels come into tip-toe position. Squeeze.
  3. Lower your heels back down for the count of three. To build strength, it’s crucial to focus on the eccentric movement and go really slowly here.
  4. Repeat.

    Single-leg calf raises

    “These are exactly the same as double leg calf raises, but you’re focusing on one leg at a time to make sure you’re improving the strength of both lower legs equally,” explained Sabri. “You’re also working on your balance with these, but do hold on to something if you need to.”

    Elevated calf raises

    Stand on the very edge of a step or a box with your heels hanging off the edge.

    With your belly pulled in and your glutes engaged, raise your heels up for the count of one.

    Lower down slowly and go as low as you can manage. According to Sabri, this increases the range of motion and makes the exercise significantly harder. 

    Calf raises are the go-to exercise for strengthening calf muscles.
    Calf raises are the go-to exercise for strengthening calf muscles.

    STRETCHING IS KEY

    Before getting started, Sabri told me I must remember to do some stretches post-workout. “Stretching is absolutely key but so many people neglect it, particularly when it comes to the calves. You’re using those tiny muscles over and over again and if you don’t stretch, they can’t recover properly, and that could lead to injury.”

    According to Sabri, it’s important to stretch both the calf muscles. Firstly, there’s the gastrocnemius, the large muscle which runs from behind your knee to halfway down the back of your lower leg. Then, there’s the soleus, the small muscle towards the lower end of your calf, closest to your Achilles tendon. 

    Here’s how to stretch your calves:

    Lunging calf stretch

    1. Step one leg forward and bend your front knee as far you can.
    2. Keep the leg behind you straight and keep both heels on the floor. You should feel the stretch down the side of your calf and into your heel.
    3. Hold this position for around 20 seconds.
    4. Repeat the stretch on the opposite leg.

      Standing single-leg calf stretch

      1. With both feet facing forwards, take one leg behind you slightly, bending the knee and coming up into tip-toe position.
      2. Bend the front knee, keeping your foot close to the floor. You’ll feel it down the back of your calf.
      3. Hold for 20 seconds before repeating on the other side. 
      Stretching out the calves is crucial for strengthening and lengthening. Here's what a your standing calf stretch should look like.
      Stretching out the calves is crucial for strengthening and lengthening. Here's what a your standing calf stretch should look like.

      CALF CHALLENGE: WEEK 1

      I kick off the challenge by tackling Sabri’s exercises after my usual workouts. On the first day, that means following her short calf routine of wide squat calf raises, and double/single-leg calf raises following a full-body dumbbell session. After just three minutes, my legs are shaking; Sabri was right, isolated calf exercises aren’t as easy as they look.

      Afterwards, I take the time to stretch, and I can really feel it in my calves. The stretches only take a couple of minutes and I wonder why I don’t do this usually. I’m always complaining about my tight calves and painful Achilles but I never bother cooling down after my runs or strength workouts.

      On the following couple of days, I try skipping intervals and incline walking to fire up the calves before dedicating time to stretching them out.

      Day four is about calf raises. Firstly, I do 20 double leg calf raises, making sure to focus on lowering down slowly, and repeat this three times. By the final set, it really does burn. 

      Adding a couple of light weights can increase the intensity of calf raises.
      Adding a couple of light weights can increase the intensity of calf raises.

      I then do 10 single-leg calf raises on my right leg, and repeat this three times before doing the same on my left leg. The movement might be small but, wow, it’s killer. I find my balance is a bit off so I rest my hand on the wall beside me as I do these.

      All in all, the calf exercises and stretches take less than 15 minutes and I realise how easy it is to fit them into my routine.

      On day five, we take things up a notch as I have to do 30 elevated calf raises with my heels hanging off a step. As I do these after my leg workout, I find them particularly tough. As I lower my heels down slowly, I can really feel my calf muscles working. 

      At the end of week one, I decide to test my calves out with a relaxed 5k. Usually, as soon as I start running, I feel pain down my calves and in my Achilles but today they feel a lot less tight. The run goes well and afterwards, instead of hobbling home, I can walk properly. It seems like making the effort to stretch my calves is paying off. I’m 100% going to continue with this once I finish the challenge. 

      CALF CHALLENGE: WEEK 2

      For the second week of the programme, Sabri told me to repeat week one, but to make things more challenging by increasing the number of reps and adding some load to the calf raises. “Once you’ve mastered the moves and you feel confident with them, add some weight by holding on to dumbbells,” she said.

      Because Sabri’s calf workout is so short, I manage to squeeze in three minutes even when I’m running low on energy. I even hold onto some 3kg dumbbells as I perform the movements. It’s a lot more difficult – my calves are on fire within seconds. I don’t repeat the routine like last week, but I do make sure to stretch.

      On day two, we’re back to the 15-minute skipping workout and I find myself looking forward to getting my skipping rope out. I do the routine on my balcony, blasting a hip hop throwback playlist on Spotify, and it’s pretty fun. I can tell my skipping has already improved from last week and I’m excited to see how I’ll progress.

      My calves are feeling noticeably less tight by day three of the second week; I’m getting less niggling pain from my Achilles when I’m walking or exercising, and by day four, I’m able to challenge myself during the calf raises by using 5kg dumbbells. I do 20 double leg calf raises holding the weights, followed by three sets of single-leg calf raises. I can only manage the 5kg dumbbells for one set before dropping down to a 3kg dumbbell for the remaining two. Adding some load make it significantly harder.

      On day five, I’m supposed to do 30 elevated calf raises but with my 3kg dumbbells in my hands, I only manage 15. I have a short break, and repeat this twice, dropping the weights completely for the final set as my form was slipping. With or without extra load, these are tricky.

      The next day, my period arrives and I’m feeling rubbish so I skip my workout and spend the day resting. I don’t feel guilty as it’s what I need.

      The final day of the challenge involves doing the three-minute calf routine, which I repeat three times. I’m familiar with the moves so I feel pretty confident with this but it still burns, particularly when I add some load.

      Afterwards, I decide to see how far I’ve come by going on another 5k run. As I set out, I’m feeling good. Like my run from last week, my Achilles tendons aren’t so sore, which I feel really pleased about.

      I usually detest running up hills and avoid them for all its worth, but today, I give it a go. I’m not sure whether it’s psychological or I’ve actually developed some calf strength but I don’t find powering up the hill as awful as I usually do. This is great!

      As I end my run, I’m surprised to see my time is pretty speedy too, especially considering the inclines involved. I feel delighted. 

      2-WEEK CALF CHALLENGE: RESULTS

      Come the end of the two weeks, I feel like I’ve made a great start with building up some calf strength. Of course, 14 days isn’t enough to make significant gains but I have definitely noticed a difference already.

      I’ve done a few runs since completing the challenge and I’m feeling more powerful than ever. The same goes for explosive movements like jump squats and high knees during my HIIT workouts.

      Will I be continuing with my calf exercises? Absolutely. I’m looking forward to seeing how I can improve in time, and how building strong calves will affect my workouts. Plus, as the calf raises take a matter of minutes and it’s so easy to fit them into my usual routine, there’s literally no reason to stop.

      I’ll also be continuing with the skipping as I found it surprisingly fun. It’s perfect for those days when I can’t face going out for a run. And of course, I won’t be neglecting my stretches from now on. I’ve found stretching has made a huge difference in alleviating tightness and pain in my calves and tendons.

      If you’re guilty of neglecting your calf muscles when piecing together your leg workouts, this is your sign to start training them. I promise you won’t regret it. 

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      Images: Lilly Sabri; author’s own

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      Priyankaa Joshi

      @_priyankaajoshi