The 12 Best Exercises to Strengthen Your Calves

Calves are often overlooked in training, but they are essential muscles that control the movement of your ankle joints. Strong calves can prevent ankle issues and help with the movements that occur at your foot, such as rising onto your toes, rotating your feet inward and outward, or pulling your toes towards your knees. These movements allow you to jump, run, and walk.

Since the calves are relied upon for the movements you do every day, they are susceptible to strains and injuries. Strong calf muscles can help rehabilitate existing injuries or prevent future damage to the lower leg.

If you have mobility problems, increasing your calf strength can benefit you as they support tendons, such as the Achilles. People who have knee pain or plantar fasciitis can improve their symptoms by strengthening the calves as well. If you do have any pains or injuries, check with your doctor before beginning any exercise.

If you are an athlete, strong calves may improve your performance, especially during explosive bursts of power and speed due to the fast-twitch muscle fibers in the calves. If you participate in jumping or fast-moving sports such as basketball, soccer, sprinting, or cycling, it is wise to perform specific calf-strengthening exercises.

Along with other muscles in your legs, your calf muscles, composed of the gastrocnemius and soleus, provide joint stability at the ankle. The gastrocnemius is the more significant part of the calf muscle that creates the shape that you see. It has two heads that form a diamond shape with a split in the middle that you may see if you develop the muscle or are lean. The minor muscle that lies beneath the gastrocnemius is called the soleus.

Many calf exercises strengthen both the gastrocnemius and the soleus, while others isolate one or the other. Several weighted and bodyweight exercises will strengthen the calf muscles, but some cardiovascular exercises particularly help strengthen the calves. Don't forget to warm up with mobility work and cool down with stretching after your workout.

1

Seated Calf Raise

For the seated calf raise, you will need access to the calf raise machine. Another option would be to hold something heavy on your lap, but this may not provide enough load to work the muscles well. Since the knees are bent, the gastrocnemius is not used here. The seated calf raise targets the soleus muscle.

Step-By-Step Instructions

  1. Sit on a calf raise machine with your upper thighs under the pad. The pad should rest just above your knees.
  2. The balls of your feet should be positioned on the footplate.
  3. With the balls of your feet remaining in position, lower your heels as far as you're able.
  4. Slowly raise your heels while pushing your toes into the pad. Continue until you feel a stretch in your calves and hold for a count of one before slowly lowering back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for 10 to 15 repetitions.
2

Standing Dumbbell or Barbell Calf Raise

Standing dumbbell or barbell calf raises target the gastrocnemius muscle of the calves. You can perform this movement on an exercise step or with weight plates under the balls of your feet. Use dumbbells or a barbell, and make sure you complete the movement slowly and with control.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Position your toes and balls of your feet on a step or weight plates. The arches and heels of your feet should be extended off the step.
  2. If you are using a barbell, position the bar across your shoulders, on your trap muscles.
  3. Engage your core and keep your back flat while you raise your heels as high as you can.
  4. Pause at the top of the contraction for a count before slowly lowering yourself down. Your heels should drop below parallel but not touch the ground.
  5. Repeat for 10 to 15 repetitions.
3

Barbell Split Squats

Split squats train your entire legs, but there is a significant focus on the calves. This exercise is an ideal choice for those who have limited time and wish to exercise their calves in combination with the rest of their leg muscles.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Place your desired amount of weight on the barbell in a squat rack. Position the barbell across your shoulders, on your trap muscles.
  2. Engage your core, lift the barbell off the rack, step back from the rack, and keep your core braced.
  3. Step your left foot forward, leaving your right foot behind you. Lower your back right knee toward the floor.
  4. Push through your front left foot, raising your leg back up to standing. Keep yourself in the split position, and do not step your feet back together.
  5. Aim for 8 to 10 repetitions per side.
4

Leg Press Machine Calf Raise

Using the leg press machine for calf raises is another option at the gym, especially if you don't have a seated calf raise machine or aren't comfortable using a barbell. The leg press machine supports your upper body so that you don't have to worry about losing your balance.

If you have a knee injury or soreness, you should avoid this exercise.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Sit on a leg press machine with your feet flat on the plate, shoulder-width apart.
  2. Push the plate away from your body using the balls of your feet until your legs are nearly locked out but not completely.
  3. Drive with your toes into a tiptoe position and hold for a count before lowering back to flat feet.
  4. Try 10 to 15 repetitions.
5

Bodyweight Calf Raise

Standing Calf Raise

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The bodyweight calf raise is a convenient exercise targeting your gastrocnemius that can be performed on an exercise step or your stairs or any stable, flat surface with an edge. You can even perform this exercise on flat ground. You'll likely want to have something nearby that you can hold for support.

If using your body weight is difficult, pull or push on your support for assistance. To increase the difficulty, you can try performing this exercise on one leg at a time.

Step-By-Step Instructions

  1. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, and engage your core, keeping your back in a neutral position.
  2. Hold on to a wall or support for balance, or place your hands at your sides.
  3. With focus placed on your calf muscles, raise yourself onto the balls of your feet.
  4. Hold for a count, feeling the contraction in your calves, before dropping your heels below parallel or back to the floor if you're not using a step.
  5. Perform 15 to 20 repetitions.
6

Single-Leg Forward Leaning Calf Raise

To advance your calf raise exercise, you can try performing the single-leg forward angled calf raise. You can use any stable flat surface or a barbell in a rack adjusted to your preferred height. A lower surface will reduce the resistance.

You can also try this with both feet at once, which will make it easier. This exercise mainly targets your gastrocnemius but also incorporates your soleus muscle.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Stand facing a vertical surface or racked bar.
  2. Hold the bar with an overhand grip wider than shoulder-width.
  3. Step your feet back to angle your body forward, keeping your body in a straight line with arms extended.
  4. Your feet should point forward. Bend your knee to lift one leg behind you.
  5. Raise the heel of your standing leg by extending your ankle as high as you can. Your body should travel in a straight line upward at an angle.
  6. Hold for a count and feel the contraction in your working calf. Slowly lower your heel back to the floor.
  7. Repeat for 15 to 20 repetitions before switching sides.
7

Jumping Calf Press

Jumping Calf Raise

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Another excellent bodyweight exercise for your calves, the jumping calf press, is a plyometric exercise that will help build strength and explosiveness.

You can either repeatedly jump in succession—jumping back up as soon as you land—or you can perform one jump, land, and wait for a count before jumping again.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Stand in a natural position with your hands by your sides, your core engaged, and your back straight.
  2. Explosively press off the ground with the balls of your feet to jump into the air.
  3. Gently land on the balls of your feet.
  4. Focus on the tension and contraction in your calf muscles while not relying on the quadriceps to power your jump.
  5. Repeat 10 times.
8

Wall Sit Calf Raise

Wall Sit Calf Raise

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The wall sit calf raise can be performed as an isometric exercise where you hold the contraction the entire time or perform repetitions of calf raises. Holding the exercise will increase your strength and muscular endurance. The form is vital for this exercise to make the most of it.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Stand with your back flat against a wall and your feet shoulder-width apart, 2 feet from the wall.
  2. Engage your core and slide your back down the wall until your thighs are at a 90-degree angle, parallel to the floor.
  3. Your knee should be directly above your ankles, not your toes.
  4. Lift your heels off the ground, pushing through the balls and toes of your feet.
  5. With your back flat against the wall, hold this position for 20 to 60 seconds.
  6. Alternatively, you can lower your heels back down and repeat the movement, raising them back up.
  7. If you are holding the exercise, repeat three times, resting for 30 seconds in between. For the repetition version, aim for 10 to 15.
9

Carioca Agility Ladder Drill

Agility Ladder Drill

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Agility ladder drills are an excellent functional fitness exercise that targets your entire body and your cardiovascular system. Your calves will predominantly work with agility ladder drills as you perform many of the moves with the balls of your feet as you quickly make your way through the rungs of the ladder. The Carioca drill relies heavily on your calf muscles for quick, explosive, agile movements.

Step-By-Step Instructions

  1. Stand on the right side of the agility ladder and then step sideways with your lead foot into the closest box.
  2. Next, cross your rear foot behind the front foot into the second box.
  3. Continue switching your feet, stepping laterally across the ladder boxes, rotating your hips as you go.
  4. Try to perform smooth and controlled motions with fast feet.
  5. Repeat, going back through the latter the opposite way.
10

Jump Rope

Jump Rope

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Jumping rope is an excellent cardiovascular exercise, but it also helps to build strength in your calves. As you repeatedly jump from the balls of your feet, you will work the muscles of your calves, building power, strength, and muscular endurance.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Hold a jump rope handle and in each hand with the middle of the rope positioned behind you.
  2. The rope ends should be even with your hips and held out from your body.
  3. Rotate your wrists to swing the rope up and over your head.
  4. While the rope swings down in front of you, jump over the rope with both feet, landing softly on the balls of your feet.
  5. Continue the motion swinging the rope behind you and back over your head again.
11

Sprints

Sprinting is a full-body exercise but your calves will work overtime to propel you forward, especially if you sprint uphill or on stairs. Always warm up with a gentle run and some dynamic movements before sprinting and stop if you feel any pain.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. In a slightly leaning forward position.
  2. Drive your dominant leg into the floor and take small, quick steps, gradually building to more explosive steps that are farther apart.
  3. Use your arms to propel your body forward as you pump them from chin height to hip level.
  4. Lift your front knee with each stride as you straighten your back leg to move you powerfully forward.
  5. Slow down gradually before stopping so you do not jar your knees.
  6. When you finish your sprint, let your heart rate lower again before repeating.
12

Cycling

Whether indoors or outdoors, cycling is an excellent way to train your calf muscles without lifting weights. While weight training is vital for building muscle, cross-training with a cardiovascular activity such as cycling can also help increase your calf strength and muscular endurance.

Here are some form tips for making the most out of your cycling for calf strength.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Adjust the seat on your bike, so you are able to lean forward and maintain a flat back when reaching the handlebars.
  2. Engage your core, keeping your abdominals and back muscles braced to help support you while you lean forward.
  3. Warm-up by putting your bike in the highest gear setting.
  4. Push through the pedal rotation focusing the tension on your calves while you push down.
  5. After a few minutes, change the gear to have a higher resistance and continue pushing with your leg muscles feeling the contraction and tension in your calves.
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