I don't know who needs to hear this, but your #legday needs to include your calves. Having firm thighs is coveted, but I am here to tell you that it's impossible to have healthy thigh muscles without also having strong calves. Yet, most of us have a tendency to neglect the lower leg entirely when it comes to our workouts.
We seem to assume that if we just generally work out our legs, the calves will take care of themselves. Unfortunately, that's not the case, as evidenced by multitudes of Achilles strains and rampant knee instability. Not only that, but if you want to walk or run faster or jump higher, calf strength is key.
Most of us know that having strength in the lower body improves balance and stability while walking, standing, running and performing everyday movements. Yes, we are strengthening the calves to some extent when we do those things, but it doesn't necessarily follow that we can leave them out when we plan our lower body workouts.
Most lower body workouts focus on the glutes and legs, but some simple shifts can helps us use those same — or similar — movements to target the calves. Integrating calf exercises into your fitness regimen can be easy and fun. In fact, you're probably already doing some of the best calf exercises without even knowing it! All you have to do is fine tune your movements to target those muscles.
Why is strength training your calf muscles important?
When most people think of leg strength, they tend to think about the bigger muscles in the thighs — the quads and hamstrings. Those muscles are obviously major players in both fitness and everyday life, but they can't do much without the calves.
The calf muscles push you forward when you run or walk, allow you to jump, help you rotate your ankles, keep your knees stable and flex your feet. So if you're skipping calf strength training, you are literally cutting yourself off at the knee.
Your calf muscles are responsible for supporting a lot of the load from your lower body, and they propel you forward when doing activities like walking and running. The stronger your calves are, the faster you’ll be able to run, the higher you’ll be able to jump, and the less likely you’ll be to get injured while working out.
What are calf muscles and what do they do?
The muscles that make up the calves are gastrocnemius and soleus. Each of them play a critical role in walking, running, jumping and supporting good posture.
Gastrocnemius comprises the bulk of the calf and is therefore the most visible. It connects from the femur — aka the leg bone — all the way down to the ankle by way of the achilles tendon.
Having strong gastrocnemius muscles not only gives the legs a shapely appearance, it also helps propel you forward. Gastrocnemius is the primary muscle that's activate when you lift your heel off the ground, so if it's strong and healthy you are able to move faster, easier.
Because gastrocnemius crosses two joints — the knee and the ankle — it is more prone to strain and injury than muscles that only cross one joint. Think of it this way: Because the gastrocnemius has multiple jobs in everyday activities like walking — stabilizing the knee and flexing the ankle — it has more opportunities for injury.
The soleus muscle is further away from the skin, underneath the gastrocnemius muscles, so you can't really see it. But that doesn't mean that it isn't important! It assists the gastrocnemius in flexing the ankle and helps to keep the ankle joint stable. That means that soleus is important for helping you move and stabilizing the lower leg in a way that supports good posture.
Which leg exercises are great for calves?
A lot of #legday exercises that are already in your fitness arsenal can be used to target the calves. Here are a few.
Lunges engage the calves in multiple ways. The soleus muscle helps stabilize the ankles while gastrocnemius helps stabilize the knees. If you want to level up the calf effort in your lunges, try lifting the heel of the front foot.
You can make any squat into a great calf workout by lifting the heels — called a plie squat. You can alternate which heel you lift or do both at the same time if you're feeling balanced.
Anything that involves jumping strengthens your calves — and you can add a jumping, or plyometric, component to many workout moves, including squats and lunges. You can also jump rope or just hop in place. Be careful, though, as jumping is a high-impact activity. Here's a quick quiz you can take to figure out whether you should do high-impact workouts.
Your calf muscles pick your feet up off the ground and propel you forward when you're running. To increase the calf strengthening component of your runs, run on an incline — a.k.a. uphill.
As with running, the calf muscles push you forward when you walk. To increase the calf workout you get by walking, walk uphill. If you're walking on a treadmill, try taking your hands off of the handrails so that your calf muscles have to do more stabilizing work.
Biking or indoor cycling
The thighs do most of the work when you're biking or cycling indoors, but the calves do a lot of stabilizing. If you want to make the calves more of a focus, biking up steeper hills or increasing the resistance on your spin bike will make the calves work harder, as will shifting to a more upright position.
Best calf exercises to build strength
I’ve put together some of the best calf-targeting exercises you can do at home, without any special equipment needed. Remember to take it slow and build up your repetitions over time if you’re just starting to focus on this muscle group — you can add a few of these moves into your current workout or create a calf-focused circuit with your favorites!
Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart and your core engaged. Squeezing your calf muscles, slowly raise your body, lifting your heels until you’re on your toes. Make sure to stand tall and straight, and then lower your heels back to the floor with control. Repeat.
Start by standing upright with your legs together and your arms by your sides. With slightly bent knees, jump into the air. As you’re jumping, spread your legs shoulder-width apart, and swing your arms laterally up and over your head. Jump back to the starting position and repeat!
Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart. You’ll be kicking your feet behind you to try and touch your bottom; this will help with hip flexor mobility and can also loosen up the quads. Simply kick your right foot back toward your right glute, and then kick your left foot back toward your left glute. The faster you go, the more you may feel like you’re running in place, so make sure you focus the movement on kicking your feet toward your glute with every step.
Jump squats are a power move that targets your entire lower body and core. With your feet hip-distance apart, lower into a squat position. Make sure you keep a strong/straight back, and keep your knees behind your toes. With control, jump straight up and swing your arms overhead. Softly return back to your starting position and repeat.
Raised heel squat
Begin this move by standing with your feet wide and your toes pointed slightly outward. With a strong back, engage your core and glutes as you lower into a squat position. Then, press down through your toes to come up and lift your heels. Keep the weight in your toes and you press up to stand. Slowly lower your heels back to the floor and repeat.
Begin in plank position, keeping your back straight, your hips low and your core engaged. Bring your right knee under your chest toward your right elbow. Return your right leg back to plank position; bring your left leg under your chest toward your left elbow. Repeat while alternating your legs, keeping a steady pace. Remember to breathe and concentrate on engaging your abs, glutes and hamstrings.
Outward calf raise
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, pointing your toes slightly outward. Engage your core to keep yourself stable, and slowly lift your heels up off the floor. Make sure you keep your knees straight but soft throughout this movement to prevent knee injury or pain. Hold briefly at the top, and slowly lower your heels back to the floor. Repeat.
Inward calf raise
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, this time, pointing your toes slightly inward. Engage your core to keep yourself stable, and slowly lift your heels up off the floor. Make sure you keep your knees straight but soft throughout this movement to prevent knee injury or pain. Hold briefly at the top, and slowly lower your heels back to the floor. Repeat.
Isometric calf raise
For this move, we’ll begin by performing a traditional calf raise. With a tight core, squeeze your calves as you raise your heels off the ground. Once you reach the top of the motion, pause. Hold here for a deep inhale, followed by a count of 3, and then lower back to the starting position on your exhale. Repeat.
For this exercise, we’ll start in an athletic, half-squat stance. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, your hips low, and your knees relaxed/slightly bent. Pushing through the balls of your feet, run in place as quickly as you can, swinging your arms forward and back for stabilization and extra speed.
In a standing position with feet hip-distance apart, take a large step backward with your right foot. Next, drive your left hip back as you lower your right knee to the floor without touching it. Then, drive off the right foot to return to the starting position. Repeat, this time stepping backward with the left foot. Continue alternating legs, completing 10 repetitions per leg.
Seated calf raise
Sit on a chair so your feet are comfortably flat on the floor. Raise the heels of your feet as high as you can, coming up onto your toes, then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat for 10 repetitions.
Start standing with your feet hip-distance apart. Maintaining an upright torso with your core engaged, take an extended step forward with your right foot. Engage your core as you lower down into a lunge position. Bending both knees, lower your back knee to the ground, stopping before touching it. With the weight in your right foot, push back up to a standing position. Repeat on the other leg. Complete 10 repetitions per leg.
This exercise will help to improve overall balance and strength in the calves. Rise up to the tips of your toes with both heels off the floor. Walk forward in short steps. Continue for 30 seconds. Rest, then repeat two more times.
From a standing position, widen your stance with one foot in front of the other as if you’re going to enter a lunge. As you sink down into the lunge, engage your core muscles as you explode upward. Quickly exchange feet to switch lunge positions when you land. Do your best to land softly. Do not lock your knees. Repeat for 10 repetitions, or 5 repetitions each leg.
A variation of a jumping jack, start in the jumping jack position. As you jump, instead of your hands going over your head, they will extend in front of you. Keep your hands at eye level, palms facing each other as they join together. Return to the starting position. Repeat for 10 repetitions.
Start standing with feet hips-width apart and arms by your sides. Drive one knee up to a 90-degree angle while engaging your core; pump the opposite arm up to shoulder height. Quickly switch legs to repeat the motion. Stay on the balls of your feet to swiftly transition and engage your calves. Repeat for 20 repetitions, 10 on each leg.
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Engage your abs before shifting your weight onto your heels and pulling your toes off the floor. Then rock forward to rise on your toes, heels off the floor. This is one repetition. Repeat for 10 repetitions.