Calves Training Tips for Hypertrophy
by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist |
Jan 24, 2017
Here are some helpful tips for your calf training. Please note that these are averages based on my experience working with lots of clients and my own training. The recommendations here should be food for thought or places to start, not dogmatic scriptures to follow to the letter.
If you haven’t seen it yet, please check out the Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth article. It discusses the theoretical and practical bases on which the upcoming recommendations are made. And if you love this info but want a bit of help in building your own workouts from the expert scientists at RP, check out the super popular Male Physique or Female Physique Templates.
While calves can be maintained with just various squats and leg presses, intermediate-advanced individuals should aim to hit at least 6 direct calf sets per week if they are seeking only to maintain their gains.
The minimum effective volume for most individuals seems to be about 8 working sets a week. Much less than that is unlikely to grow anyone but the most untrained.
Most people respond best to between 12 and 16 weekly sets on average.
Most people seem to encounter serious recovery problems above 20 sets per week. Now, if your calves don’t get very sore and you’re doing everything else right, maybe you can do more than this, but in the first couple of mesocycles of trying to fine-tune your calf training, I’d recommend avoiding much more than 20 working sets per week.
Frequency: 2-4 times per week.
This very much depends on how your calves respond to training. If your calves have a high percentage of fast twitch fibers, they might get considerable sore from training and are best trained about twice a week. However, maybe if your calves don’t get very damaged from each session (maybe because they have a higher proportion of slow twitch fibers), you can train them as many as 4 times a week.
In my experience, staying on the low end of the spectrum (60-70%1RM) for calves seems to work best for most. But if you’re frustrated with lack of growth in this range as your dominant focus, please feel free to go into the 70’s and 80’s of 1RM. Just make sure to keep full ROM, as it’s VERY easy to cheat yourself on calf movements.
Within the microcycle, you can use just one exercise and vary just the rep range if you train calves only twice a week (something like sets of 8 one day and sets of 12 another). But for 3-4 sessions, you are best served by using two exercises, and performing one exercise per session. So on Monday you might do calves on the calf machine heavy, on Wednesday you might do the same exercise lighter, and on Friday you might do stair calves for added variation.
Between every mesocycle or two mesocycles (4-12 weeks total), you should swap out old exercises and replace them with new ones.
Range of Motion:
CRITICAL to the best calf growth is the PAINFUL stretch at the bottom, and to a lesser but meaningful effect, a full contraction at the top. I like to hold each for a split second just to make sure. This both keeps calf training safer and maximizes hypertrophy. If you’ve never train calves like this, make sure you start at MED or even lower when trying this… the DOMS can be quite insane when transitioning to this technique.
Special Metabolite Techniques:
An easy way to crank out a lot of metabolite accumulation for calves is to shorten the rest periods. Because claves tend to clear metabolites quite quickly, this can work very well. Try some mesocycles where you only rest 10 seconds between each set… it can be VERY rough and very effective. Another tool to try is occlusion. Wrap just under your knees tight and to bodyweight calf raises with 10 seconds rest between sets… no taking the wraps off between sets. When you can’t walk after, you’ll “thank” me!
Just like with most bodyparts, your first mesocycle should be moderate weights and reps. The next mesocycle can be more of the same with perhaps slightly different rep ranges and exercises, OR it can be a higher volume block that incorporates lighter weights (closer to the 60%1RM mark) and more metabolite training. After that meso, a shorter (3-4 weeks) mesocycle of strength training (70-85%1RM) with lower volumes is likely a good idea to resensitize your muscles for more growth, at which point you repeat the process.
Calves are very genetically influenced. Nearly anyone can get bigger quads no matter their inheritance, but some folks will struggle to get any size at all on their calves. However, there is hope! One of my high school nicknames was literally “chicken legs,” and those are my calves in the picture below! Keep at it, be consistent, and make sure to find what works best for you, even if it’s a bit out of the ordinary. Remember; small gains at any one time can become huge gains over the long term!