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Why you need to build big and strong calf muscles

The calves may be low down on your list of vanity muscles, but they are absolutely essential to your health

Don't ignore your calves.
Don't ignore your calves. (Istockphoto)

They might not feature high on the list of vanity muscles, and are surely behind the chest, abs, and the biceps when it comes to body-building. But when it comes to the calf muscles, showing off is not the only reason you should train them on a regular basis. Well-built calves aren’t just for shorts days, but may also give you hints on muscle mass, resting heart-rate, stroke risk, and liver problems. 

A 2008 study titled Calf Circumference Is Inversely Associated With Carotid Plaques studied over 6,000 participants to conclude that bigger calves meant fewer fatty deposits in arteries, which meant a lower risk of heart disease. The logic was simple: calves allow the body to store fat in another location. 

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“The association of carotid atherosclerosis with body composition and fat distribution is poorly understood. We aimed to test the cross-sectional association of carotid plaques and common carotid artery intima-media thickness with calf circumference (CC), representing peripheral fat and lean mass, and with waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio, 2 markers of abdominal obesity,” states the study.

But it isn’t that easy to build calves. In fact, even those with remarkably ripped bodies might find it difficult to trigger calf growth even over a period of sustained exercising. Some reports have suggested that even legendary golfer Tiger Woods was insecure about his calf muscles. To explain the reliance of genetics on leg muscles, scientists often use the example of our sprinting mechanism compared to other species. In general, humans have more staying power on their legs which equates to more endurance. Our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, chimpanzees, have faster twitch muscles. The calves are part of these lower body muscles which help us push-off, and need to be worked harder for growth. And that’s because they’re already doing so much work just keeping the body upright whenever we’re on our feet. 

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But building strong calves may not entirely come down to genetics. “Many people give up altogether on training the calves, believing that the muscle's ability to grow is purely dictated by genetics. While genetic makeup is always a factor in muscular potential, a recent study from our lab showed that the calves do indeed respond robustly to regimented resistance training; in fact, about as well as the other major muscles of the body,” says Brad Schoenfeld in a article titled Ask the Muscle Doc: Is Calf Development Purely a Function of Genetics? Schoenfeld is an associate professor of exercise science at Lehman College in New York. 

It is this lack of motivation that might eventually lead to not wanting to work the calf muscles at all, but there are some basic tips that might make training them enjoyable and worth the effort. 

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Know your calf muscles: The calves are made of mainly two components, the gastrocnemius and the soleus. Both work to stabilise and push-off. Both need to be trained. And both will need their own exercises. Any straight-legged exercise will hit the gastroc and those with bent legs will hit the soleus. Also try doing these exercises with the feet pointing outward, and inward, since some studies have shown it could lead to a higher amount of muscle activation.

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Rep ranges: This is where your genetics - and subsequently your calves - might react differently to training with lower weights and higher reps, or fewer reps with heavier loads. Try both these forms of working out to determine what works for you. Remember that choosing the right weight is also important. You want a weight that works your calf muscles without putting too much load on the ankles.

Range of motion: You might have seen or even been told to rep out calf exercises quickly - but like any other muscle - they need a full range of motion unless you’re just pumping them temporarily. So focus on the big squeeze, the speed, and a full range of motion when performing even something as simple as a standing calf raise.

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Don’t treat calves as an extra post-workout set: When you plan to do a chest workout, you don’t go for the bench press at the end of your gym day. It’s the same with your back or biceps. Then why treat the calves as an afterthought? Hit your calves early in your session, rather than at the end of a gruelling leg day which makes it difficult to even walk, let alone do some heavy calf raises.

While stubborn to grow, calf muscles have the easiest set of exercises. Sometimes, all you need is a step, and some commitment. And if you already have a gym membership, then use the squat rack, the leg press, and the seated calf machine to make sure you’re treating them with a proper workout.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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