Calves, the neglected muscle because “no matter how hard I train, they won’t grow”. This is the biggest cop out. I bet if that same persons chest wasn’t growing they wouldn’t stop doing bench.
The trick to making calves, or any body part grow is eating enough food and training it properly. These two factors will determine your success. Period. Most people also think they are doing these things right. If they were, they would be constantly growing.
Here are 5 tricks to implement right away to maximize growth in your calves. I am going to assume you are eating plenty of food to compliment these training principles.
Understand the different muscle fibers
Your calves are made of two different muscles. The soleus and the gastrocnemius. Your soleus is activated when seated with knees bent and the gastrocnemius is most active with a straight leg. The gastrocnemius is the large bulge at the top and the soleus is the thick muscle underneath and below it.
The gastrocnemius is made up mainly slower muscle fibres making high rep work preferable and the soleus is more fast twitch. Fast twitch fibres respond well to heavy loads and short durations. Knowing this helps us program a workout designed for optimal growth.
Your calves are get a lot of work throughout the week form walking, standing, squatting, lunging etc. They are used to being worked often so hitting them once a week won’t stimulate them enough to force growth. I would encourage you to hit them 2-3 times per week. Each time you hit them, target a different rep range, area of the muscle, and exercise.
Your calves can handle a lot of volume and they thrive on it. Because they get a lot of work as a secondary muscle, they are used to doing lots of activity. Adding volume can also increase the amount of fluid being pumped into your calves creating a magnificent pump. With the calves being a relatively small and isolated muscle, they retain a lot of the fluid and will be forced to adapt by growing bigger.
Blood Flow Restriction Training
The reduces blood flow out of the muscle promoting excessive cell swelling = bigger muscles. This is a relatively new kind of training but is widely appreciated in the bodybuilding community. By wrapping the target muscle, we restrict blood flow to the veins, but not the arteries.
By restricting blood flow to the veins, we allow blood to flood the muscle but not escape. This results in a massive increase in cell swelling. This sends a signal to your cells to reconstruct themselves and grow larger. (Schoenfeld 2010)
Some studies have even shown a massive 10 times increase in cell swelling in certain muscles. (Abe et al., 2005)
To perform this kind of training, wrap the top portion of your limb or target muscle. This means the top of your bicep near the shoulder joint or the top of the thighs near the groin area. I use my knee wraps for this and wrap to a tightness of 7 out of 10.
You won’t be using your regular weights either. Generally, you will lift with 30% of what you could normally. Start with 30+ reps for the first set to pump up the muscle with a huge focus on squeezing the muscle as hard as possible. Rest for 30 seconds and continue for another 3-4 sets for around 15 reps each.
I’m not sure what is more painful, intra-set stretching or BFR training. Either way, this hurts in the best way possible. To perform intra-set stretching, take your regular set to failure and then when you are finished, allow the weight you were lifting to stretch the targeted muscle for at least 30 seconds. You will soon understand the pain I speak of. This can be done in a dropset fashion by stretching for 30 seconds then stripping some weight and doing another set, followed by another stretch.
It can also be used in a standard set that would mean a set to failure followed by a stretch. 30 seconds to rest and then back at it. Resting longer will allow a lot of the by-products to leave the muscle and will defeat the purpose. The best exercises to use this on are ones with a large range of motion and generally single joint exercises. For example: pec fly, calf raises, bicep curls, tricep press, leg extensions and curls, and pull ups.
Recent studies have shown that those who used intra-set stretching on their calves resulted in double the muscle thickness compared to those who did a traditional set with no stretching.