The 4 Best Calf Exercises that You Aren’t Doing

In many respects calves are the red-headed stepchild of the bodybuilding game.

Seriously. Let’s take a look at what training calves entails from a mental and physical standpoint.

– Training calves is excruciatingly painful.

– Training calves feels time consuming.

– Training calves feels worthless because students of the gym rarely see the results they want.

– Training calves feels like watching paint dry due to the supposed lack of variation and excitement.

In a world of instant gratification, making the decision to train your calves polarizes the instant feedback many crave. On the other hand, have you SEEN what a well developed pair of cows looks like? It’s a thing of beauty. Calves, when well-developed, are the missing piece, the icing on the cake, the cherry atop of a timeless swirl of whipped cream. Calves have the power to round out and “complete” one’s physique like no other body part can. Is the importance of calf training starting to make it’s way through? Yeah? Vunderbar.

4 best calf exercises

Calves such as these are NOT out of the realm of possibility – even for you. Image Courtesy of:

I can empathize with WHY people don’t WANT to train calves. I cannot however, empathize with the literal act of opting out of calf training. Yeah, it sucks. It doesn’t feel rewarding (in the short term) and takes up a bunch of time (spoiler: all you need is 15min). But if you’re truly a fan of bodybuilding, you’re slapping your passion in the face by neglecting to add a calf training aspect to your program. I mean, it’s in the name. Bodybuilding. Calves are certainly a part of your body.

I wish I could say I have the thickest, widest calves (I don’t).

I wish I could say I have the biggest calves I’ve seen (I don’t).

I wish I could say I trained them every other day (I don’t, but should).

BUT, I do have four exercises for you that have helped the calves of myself and my clients progress when used consistently. Consistency is THE key. Are you ready to level up your calf training?

4 best calf exercises

Partner Donkey Calf Raises were a training staple back in the Golden Era. Image Courtesy of:

1. Donkey Calf Raises

Once a staple in the golden age of bodybuilding, these seem to have become a movement covered in dust and brushed under the table.

Donkey Calf Raises have been long forgotten with the epidemic of bros who despise training anything beneath their waist. What was once a tremendous machine for calf development was swept out of gyms across the globe in favour of yet another triad of hammer strength chest machines, recumbent bikes, and poorly inflated bosu balls.

The donkey calf raise is the only movement (in my experience) that effectively places both gastrocnemius and soleus into a fully stretched position without placing a ton of stress elsewhere on your body. Not to mention the added bonus of not having to place a ton of unnecessary load upon yourself. From the stretch position, one is able to truly feel every inch of the calf and contract upwards into a beautiful peak contraction placed upon pointed tippy toes. Sets of 15-30+ with significantly lighter loads will produce a pump worthy of Arnold’s famed speech about the pump. As was mentioned above, it’s a rarity to find an actual donkey calf raise machine. In fact, the ONLY gym where I’ve found one is “The Mecca” in Venice Beach, California (of course). Naturally I’m obligated to train calves every time I get the pleasure of going there. This forces us to delve into a state of creativity. All you need to emulate the donkey calf raise is an aerobic step (no shortage of these ANYWHERE), something you can lean over onto and support yourself on (I recommend a bench with support up to your mid back), and a dipping belt. If you don’t have a dipping belt, you can kick it old school and have someone sit on your back. Or, just use your bodyweight and aim for 75+ reps.

2. One Legged Seated Calf Raises

This movement isn’t groundbreaking but it carries some significant benefits over a bilateral seated calf raise.

It also provides some welcome flavour to the barren wasteland that calf training can be.

Drawbacks of Bilateral Seated Calf Raises

  1. In most cases, your dominant leg will do the majority of the work
  2. It becomes much easier to let your ego get carried away and throw five 45 pound plates on the bar.
  3. If there’s a calf movement that encourages lifters to “bounce” in and out of the bottom, it’s this one.

Moving to a single leg approach effectively negates all of these shortcomings. By using one leg at a time, you’re forcing the target leg to do ALL the work with no assistance from your nosy, stronger side. Try and bang out a set of 20 reps with 30-40lbs without assistance and I can all but guarantee that your ego will be viciously bruised. This may just be me, but “bouncing” in and out of the bottom feels even more strange and wrong when doing it with one leg. So much so that I refuse to do it and focus on sinking deep into the stretch and achieving a peak contraction. That could also be because I hate performing an exercise ineffectively (yeah, call me crazy). A neat little bonus of using one leg at a time is you have a bit more flexibility in which to place your feet. While some will argue that foot placement doesn’t matter with calf work, I would argue that they’ve never in fact trained their calves with any degree of seriousness or variety. An EMG might show similar muscular effect, but my clients and I can sure as hell tell when a foot is inappropriately placed during calf work.

3. Occluded Calf Raises/Presses

Arnold once said that the pump is key to achieving muscular growth.

As has been proven time and time again, he wasn’t wrong. And occluded calf work produces one hell of a painful pump.

My recommendation is to perform these as last your piece of calf work. Ideally use a standing calf raise (if you’re lucky enough to have one) or while doing calf presses on the leg press. As per usual BFR recommendations, wrap just below your knee caps to a 7-8/10 in terms of tightness. Hop onto your machine of choice and perform one set of nice and smooth reps to failure. Rest 30s and bang out a set of 15-20. Repeat the 30s rest and sets of 15-20 for 3-5 rounds. Eventually you’ll hit a point where you calves won’t calf anymore; and the pump becomes skin tearing. That’s your cue to stop.

4 best calf exercises

Training ALL mechanical functions of your calves is key to optimally developing your calf. Also, where do I get a pair of these shorts? Image Courtesy of:

4. Dorsiflexion

A classic use of saving the best for last.

Implementing dorsiflexion was something I picked up from John Meadows (Yeah, another gem of his. Call me a fanboy if you will.) It has done wonders for my calves.

In fact, I would argue that my calves didn’t really begin to make any sort of tangible progress until I began implementing dorsiflexion. The best part? I’ve never had the luxury of optimally being able to perform dorsiflexion and it’s STILL helped my calves progress. Let’s take a step back to understand why dorsiflexion is important. Like many muscle groups, the calves are made up a collection of smaller muscles. The gastrocnemius, the soleus, and the tibialis anterior. How on EARTH do you expect to a optimally develop a muscle by only training 2/3 of it? Look at it this way. EVERYBODY want’s a massive chest. To achieve that, you’re not going to do 56 sets of flat dumbbell bench press per week are you? (I sincerely hope not.) You’re going to train your chest through a variety of movements that tap into different muscle fibres and functions. You’re going to perform presses on different angles, flyes with different grips and tempos, pec minor dips to round things, and some movements that hammer the stretch position.

Your calves should be treated no differently.

– You’re going to train the gastroc through its full range.

– You’re going to train the soleus in its entirety.

– You’re NOT going to neglect the tibialis anterior.

The tibialis anterior happens to be quite simple to train. If you train out of a gym that has the holy grail of tibialis training, the Tibialis Raise, you’re set. Load it LIGHTLY, and keep on pumping out reps until you feel the blood pooling in the front of your calve (it’s a very cool feeling). If you’re like the majority of the world and don’t have such a wonderful piece of equipment, all you have to do is rock back on your heels by trying to pull your toes towards your knees. Doing so will contract your tibialis like no other. If you’re able to rig a setup with some plates, or an angled block that allows you to get a bit of a stretch, all the better. Again, my recommendation lies in going and going until you feel a pump developing and truly cannot contract much more. Implementing this in conjunction with regular calf work was the last piece I needed to see some tangible progress.


In typical MASSthetics fashion, I’d be remiss to not see you off with something actionable to test out what I’m talking about. Below is a calf rotation built upon the exercises I talked about above. It shouldn’t add more than 15-20min to your session, and when done 2-4x week will bring you some much needed calf growth.

A1. Donkey Calf Raises; 5×20-25, 2321, 60s rest

B1. Single Leg Seated Calf Raise; 4×15-20/leg, 2201, 0s rest

B2. Dorsiflexion; 4xFailure, 45s rest

D1. Occluded Standing Calf Raises; 1xFailure, 3-5×15-20, 1111, 30s rest

Bonus points available if you BEGIN your sessions with this rotation. Doing so will ensure that:

  1. You actually train your calves.
  2. You follow the prioritization principle in which training what you want to place the most focus on FIRST in your session.

If you implement the lessons in this post for 4-6 weeks and garner some hard results, I’d LOVE to see your progress.

About the Author

Alex MullanAlex is a self-proclaimed anti-meathead and part-time nerd. When he's not working towards Greek God status or learning how to better serve his clients, he can be found exploring how to further crush life, perfect his flair in the kitchen, or pull the perfect shot of espresso. You can learn what he's all about at