Calf exercises you can do at home with minimal equipment, to either tone up, or to increase the size of skinny legs.
Calf Exercises for Women
I received a question on how to fix skinny calves this week—I rarely receive this question from training clients, as most of the women I’ve met, want to tone their calves, rather than increase the size of them.
“In a BUSY PARENT FITNESS.com poll, 30% of women said they wanted larger calves.”
But for the super-skinny out there, I can really appreciate that for some it might feel embarrassing to wear a skirt or leggings in the Summer.
And with Hollywood celebrities such as Jessica Simpson sporting muscular and defined calves, I thought I’d write a post to suit both needs—so whether you have calves the size of matchsticks, or calves that wobble with every step, I have the workout for you.
Calves—Anatomy and Function
There are two main muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastrocnemius is the big showy muscle, responsible for that diamond tipped appearance. It gets activated when you stand up on the balls of your feet or toes, with straight legs.
The soleus is hidden underneath the gastrocnemius, and it also gets activated when you rise up on the balls of your feet, so long as your knees are bent. If you’re trying to grow your calves, then you should also work this muscle.
Calf Workout Overview
Before starting any exercise routine, you should begin with a 5 minute warm-up [CLICK HERE], consisting of some movements to lubricate your joints, and a little bit of cardio at an easy pace—this will help to reduce the chances of injury.
Choose from the workout programmes below. If you haven’t exercised your calves before, then gradually increase the number of sets from workout to workout—otherwise you can get so sore that even walking becomes difficult, and you’ll need to use a chair lift to go up stairs. 🙂
Tone your Calves Programme
- Frequency: 2 times a week, not on consecutive days.
- Repetitions: 6-8 reps.
- Tempo: Hold 1 second at the top, take 3 seconds to lower.
- Sets: 3.
- Rest: 1 minute or less between sets.
- Standing calf raises
It goes without saying, that whilst this exercise routine will make your calves feel firmer, if you need to lose some weight, then you should do a total body exercise program, and also reduce the number of calories you eat.
Grow your Calves Programme
- Frequency: 1-2 times a week, with at least 1 rest day in-between.
- Repetitions: 8-12 reps.
- Tempo: Hold 1 second at the top, and take 3 seconds to lower.
- Sets: 3-4.
- Rest: 1-3 minutes between sets.
- Standing Calf Raises
- Seated Calf Raises
If you’re also about to start training your upper legs for the first time, then perhaps wait and see how your calves respond to the leg training, before adding calf exercises.
Once your calves have grown to a size you’re happy with, then back off a little on the number of sets, and don’t increase the weight any further, so you can just maintain what you have.
Finish with a 15 second static stretch for your calves. An easy way to do this is to stand with both hands on a wall and arms outstretched; then bend your arms a little, whilst keeping your heels on the floor. The more you lean into the wall, the greater the stretch. Be careful not to stretch too far, as that can lead to injury.
Shoes or Bare Feet?
Although you can’t get away with bare feet in a commercial gym, at home, you have the choice. I find that with bare feet, I’m better able to get that peak contraction at the top of the movement. However, with shoes, you can stretch further, as its less painful on your feet. My personal preference is bare feet.
Standing Calf Raises
The great thing about standing calf raises is that you can do them anywhere. The best place is on your staircase. If you don’t have stairs, then find a block at least an inch high, that can support your weight.
Level 1: Both Feet
- Stand with the balls of your feet on a step at the bottom of your staircase, holding onto the newel post for balance.
- Raise up on the balls of your feet as you breathe out, and hold the contracted position for 1 second.
- Then take 3 seconds to lower your heels, until your calves feel a mild stretch (but don’t stretch so far as to cause pain).
Level 2: Single-Leg Negatives
- Rise up on both feet, just as you did for Level 1.
- At the top position, lift one leg up, and use the working leg to hold that peak contraction at the top for a second, then carefully lower using only 1 leg.
- When you reach the stretched position, use both legs to push back to the top.
- Do the same number of repetitions on each leg.
Level 3: Single-Leg
- You’ve finally achieved it. 🙂
- Raise and lower using only one leg
- Do the same number of repetitions on each leg.
- If you’re trying to add size, then you can also hold a kettlebell or heavy bag in one hand, once you are strong enough.
Seated Calf Raises
This additional exercise is only for those who want to add some size to their calves.
Sit on a chair or weight bench, with bent knees, and the balls of your feet on a step or block. Place a heavy bag or other weighted object across your lap and rise up onto your toes, whilst remaining seated.
Hold the contraction at the top for 1 second, then take 3 seconds to lower into a mild stretch.
When the exercise becomes too easy, just add more weight, or do them just with one leg, just like you did with the standing calf raises.
And if you were wondering…I was out in my garden at 7am doing single-leg calf raises with a 20KG kettlebell, plus my 19KG daughter for some extra weight 🙂
George D. Choy
Personal Trainer & Calisthenics Instructor
Gymnacity in Oxted, Surrey, United Kingdom