What are the best leg exercises for leg day? Hamstring curls, leg extensions both or neither? Do you want to grow your calves or jump higher? You’re in luck! Below is a complete guide to training your lower extremities. We’ll be going over what bones and muscles we are referring to when we say the calf, the best way to train to grow big meaty calves, and training for sports performance.
Lower Limb Anatomy
To be able to optimally train any segment of our body, a basic understanding of what muscles we are trying to target, what they do, and how to take them through a full stretch and contraction is crucial. The muscles of the lower limbs are no different, and besides some nuances, they behave the same way as any other muscle.
Bone Structure & Notable Muscles
As we travel down the leg and cross over the knee we venture down into our lower extremities. The two bones that make up the lower leg are the Tibia and the Fibula. These two bones are influenced by many muscles that aid in the movement of the ankle but the two prime movers we are
going to concern ourselves with are the Gastrocnemii and the Soleus.
The Gastrocnemii are comprised of two muscle bellies that run from the femur down to the heel bone. Because of the attachments to the femur (thigh) and the heel, they do two things.
- Flex the knee
- Extend the ankle
The Soleus runs under the Gastrocnemius, and only attaches from the Tibia to the heel, as a result, it only works to extend the ankle. Both the Gastrocnemius and the Soleus attach to the heel via the Achilles tendon. This will be important when we begin thinking about insertion points for hypertrophy, and what that means when we are training for sports performance. If our goal is to grow these bad boys as much as we can, what these muscles do and what type of fibers make up these muscles are two huge factors we have to consider.
Muscle fibers! What are they? Why does it matter what they do? Muscle fibers respond differently to various stimuli depending on what type they are. For all intents and purposes, there are two types of muscle fibers.
- Type I: If we were to cut your leg in half (Don’t worry, I would never) and look at the muscle fibers in it, there would be tissue that looks like a classic muscle. Red with little divots we like to call striations. This muscle tissue has a lot of oxygen in it and does not get fatigued easily. It’s very beneficial to do exercise that involves long, sustained bouts of movement such as a mile run or riding a bike. Although, as a drawback, it cannot produce large amounts of force (ergo, why marathon runners are not very strong in the traditional sense), cannot grow very large (ergo2 why marathon runners are not jacked), and do not contract very quickly.
- Type II: Along with those red type I muscle fibers we’ll also see some type II muscle fibers that appear white. This is because they do not have as much oxygen in them as the type I muscle fibers. Type II fibers can produce a lot of force and can grow much larger than type I fibers. But as a result, they fatigue very quickly, and your body only uses these fibers under heavy load (A heavy squat, bench press, power clean).
Both type I and type II muscle fibers can get bigger with strength training. However, type II muscle fibers have the potential to grow larger.
Training for Size
Now that we have a base of knowledge, let’s start pulling from it and figure out how we can use this to sculpt big beautiful beefy calves for ourselves. If we remember, the Gastrocnemius attaches both at the femur and the heel and it flex’s the knee and extends the ankle. Here are a few movements that take the Gastroc through flexion at the ankle with an extended knee:
- Standing calf raise
- Calf raises on leg press
And here are a few that take the Gastroc through flexion at the ankle with a flexed knee:
- Seated calf raise
Yes, you read that right. Sprinting will grow your calves! If you look at elite level sprinters they have some of the most muscular and developed calf muscles of any other athlete. Sprinting takes the ankle through its full range of motion, and provides a great stimulus that can result in calf growth!
Calf Specific Training
Because the Soleus and Gastroc are both comprised mostly of type I fibers, they can take a lot of volume and frequency. So train them often and train them daily. Because they don’t get super beat up from training we can utilize short rest periods when performing traditional calf raises, but exercise caution when performing sprints which place a ton (figuratively speaking) of stress on them!
Training for Sport Performance
When thinking about how we can train well for our performance in sport, this is where the Gastroc and the Soleus really start to shine. However, it is less about the strength and size of these muscles, but about how they influence the Achilles tendon. The Achilles acts like a spring that provides extra energy that we can use. This stored energy is accessed when we quickly stretch the tendon from jumping, running, and hopping. Being able to use this energy is part of what allows us to jump high and run fast, and run for long distances, all of which help us become better athletes. So how do we get more of this stored energy? By practicing using it! Here are some level-specific movements to practice accessing this mythical stored energy:
- Pogo Hops
- DB Jumps
- Seated Box Jumps
- Box Jumps
- Double-Leg Bounds
- Single-Leg Bounds
- Depth Jumps
- Tuck Jumps
- Reactive Box Hops
- Single-Leg Box Jumps
I have to stress, to begin below where you think your level is. If you overload your calves while doing calf raises, you simply won’t be able to complete the rep, if you overload your Achilles performing a jump you are not ready for, you run the risk of seriously injuring and possibly rupturing the tendon. Now that we have a grasp on what our lower leg is and what it is made of, we can construct a program that helps us take our training to the next level.
Sports Performance Coach
“Coach Jon, Irvine Strength and Conditioning Coach who is an athlete himself is someone I recommend to my patients. He knows what he is doing and his attention is on the proper form and injury prevention is what I love about him.”- Dr. Shakib, your Irvine Chiropractor