For men and women alike, genetics has a lot to do with the size and shape of the calves. If "bird legs" run in your family, it may be difficult to build large calf muscles. Even so, with calf-specific exercises, you can encourage new muscle growth to help add size and definition, but this may take a few months. Whether you work out at the gym or at home, three to four training sessions each week on non-consecutive days are a must for a stronger, more muscular appearance or for sexier, well-toned legs.
Muscles to Target
Two main muscles -- the gastrocnemius and the soleus -- make up the bulk of your lower leg. The gastrocnemius, a heart-shaped muscle and the larger of the two, has two heads that originate from the back of the femur. The soleus lies beneath the gastrocnemius, and originates from the tibia and fibula. Together the gastrocnemius and soleus help to lift your heel when your leg is straight or when your knee is bent. For optimum calf development, engage in exercises that work both muscles.
At-the-Gym Exercise Examples
Well-equipped gyms have a seated and standing calf raise machine as well as a calf press machine. To perform seated calf raises, which primarily work your soleus, sit at the machine, slide your thighs under the padded bar and place the balls of your feet on the machine's platform. Push through the balls of your feet, raise your heels to push the padded bar up, lower and repeat.
For standing calf raises, which work both the gastrocnemius and soleus, stand with your shoulders under the pads and the balls of your feet on the platform or a calf block. Repeatedly raise and lower your heels.
To work on the calf press machine, sit with your back against the backrest and put just the balls of your feet on the lower edge of the platform. Push the platform away from you as far as you can, reverse your movements and repeat
At-Home Exercise Examples
Some of the machine exercises can be simulated at home. For example, by using your body weight for resistance, you can perform standing calf raises on the bottom step of your stairs. With the balls of your feet on the step, repeatedly raise and lower your heels. An aerobic step works well if don't have stairs, and for more challenge, do calf raises one leg at a time while holding onto a dumbbell.
Any time you move vertically, such as when you jump or leap, you're recruiting your calf muscles, notes Mike Behnken, a certified personal trainer. Because of this, try jumping rope for short amounts of time. For example, jump rope for one minute and then rest for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat this cycle for 15 to 20 minutes. Strive to increase the jumping time.
Explosive, plyometric exercises, can help stimulate muscle growth, notes Christopher Ball, also a certified personal trainer. Find a sturdy box, about 12 to 16 inches high, and perform box jumps. Jump up to land on the box on the balls of your feet, jump off the box and repeat.
Before exercising, perform a 10-minute warm-up to prime your muscles.
For a beginner workout, personal trainer Alex Stewart recommends two sets of standing and seated calf raises with eight to 15 reps.
An intermediate workout is similar except you do one more set of standing calf raises. You'll also do one set of seated calf raises with 20 reps and then with a reduced weight amount, perform 10 more reps.
For an advanced workout designed for intensity and faster results, perform 15 box jumps, three sets of seated calf raises with 15 reps, two sets of calf presses with 12 reps, two sets of standing calf raises with eight to 10 reps and ending with 15 squat jumps while holding dumbbells. Give yourself a 60-second rest between sets.
Your training session can be a calf-only workout or as a final sequence at the end of your lower-body workout.