Why Stubborn Calves Don't Grow - And What You Should Do About it
By Tom Venuto
So you say you've tried everything and your "genetically cursed" calves won't grow? Well my friend, I'm happy to inform you that no, you probably haven't tried "everything" and that yes, your calves will grow - but only if you fire the right ammunition at them (and that means bringing out the heavy artillery). The only way to know how to attack those stubborn, exercise-resistant suckers is to understand the reasons why they aren't growing in the first place. Then, you can you strategically deploy the appropriate techniques to target and overcome each calf-building roadblock one by one.
Reason #1 Why Stubborn calves don't grow: Neglect
The number one reason why stubborn calves won't grow is because you're not giving them the same priority or attention as the rest of your body. Yes - that's right; you probably don't train your calves nearly as hard or as consistently as your "favorite" body parts. In fact, the chances are good that you usually leave your calves for last and you more than occasionally "blow them off" completely.
Be honest: Do you really train your calves as hard as your biceps or your chest? Do you blast those calf raises with as much intensity and effort as your bench presses or barbell curls? Thought so.
What should you do about it? Priority training
It's very tempting to work your strongest body parts the hardest while neglecting the weaker ones. It's enjoyable to train the showy muscles like arms and chest. Working calves is boring and painful. As a result, many people have weak calves out of sheer avoidance and neglect. Getting stubborn calves to grow requires mounting an all out frontal attack on them! You need complete singleness of purpose and a burning desire to build them. Working your calves must become the number one priority of your entire training program.
The best way to prioritize your calf training is to do them first in your routine or on a day completely by themselves. You can also use double split training and designate a separate session just for calves. These methods allow you to train your calves when you fresh, strong and full of energy - mentally and physically.
Reason #2 why stubborn calves don't grow: Lack of Change
The second reason stubborn calves don't grow is because you keep doing the same workout over and over again. Take a look at this routine:
Standing calf raises; 3-4 sets of 15-20 reps
Seated calf raises; 3-4 sets of 15-20 reps.
Does it look familiar? If so, and your calves aren't growing, it's probably because your calves have adapted to that humdrum program a long time ago. You see, the human body likes being in a state of homeostasis and those calves of yours are comfortable just the way they are. If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten!
What should you do about it? Variation & Shock Treatment.
The solution to this problem is obvious: Mix up your training! Shock your muscles out of complacency. Throw something at them that they're not expecting and watch the growth begin!
Your muscles will usually adapt to any routine within 3-4 weeks. As soon as you stop seeing increases in strength and muscle size, it's time for a change. If you're not sure what to change, just change anything. A carefully crafted, scientifically developed routine can certainly help maximize results, but almost anything your body isn't used to will stimulate a new growth spurt.
There are many weapons available in your calf-building arsenal. All you need to do is mix and match the various exercises with the different training variables - and bingo! - like a Rubik's cube you have a virtually unlimited number of workout combinations at your fingertips. Here are some of the variables you can play around with:
Basic training variables
1. Number of sets
2. Number of reps
3. Choice of exercises
4. Number of exercises
5. Order of exercises
6. Length of rest periods
7. Amount of resistance
8. Tempo/Time under tension
9. Frequency of training
"Shock Training" (intensification) techniques
1. Supersets, tri-sets, giant sets
2. Descending sets
3. Super Slow negatives
4. Continuous tension
5. Peak contraction/static holds
6. 21's, 1 and 1/2's
7. Forced reps
Without even changing the exercises, here's an example of how you can transform your old, stale program into a result-producing calf blast! (the weights selected are just examples):
Standing Calf Raises
1 set 20 reps (warm up) 300 lbs
2 sets 10-15 reps 700 lbs
2 sets 10-15 reps 500 lbs with 5 second hold in top position
1 drop set:
500 lbs. X 10 reps heels together, toes out rise up over big toe
400 lbs. X 10 reps toes pointing in, heels out rise up over little toe
300 lbs. X 10 reps toes straight ahead, feet 24 inches apart
200 lbs. X 10 reps toes straight ahead, feet together
(40 reps total, no rest between weight changes)
Seated Calf Raise
Set 1: 90 lbs. X 20-25 reps, slow, nonstop, continuous tension (4 second concentric, 4 second eccentric, no pause
Set 2: 135 lbs. X 15 reps, 3 second hold at top, 3 second eccentric, 3 second concentric, then drop weight down to 90 lbs. and do 15-20 more fast reps
Set 3: 180 lbs. X 10-15 reps, with slight cheat (slight "bounce" at bottom)
Set 4: 45 lbs. X as many reps as possible (up to 100)
Reason #3 why stubborn calves don't grow: Genetics.
It would be totally naive to say that genetics don't play a role in calf development. Genetics are definitely a factor. If you have inherited "high" calves - that is, the calf inserts high on the lower leg, leaving a large "gap" between the bottom of the calf muscle and the heel, there's not much you can do about it. But to blame poor calf development entirely on genetics is also naÔve. Genetics are not under your control, but plenty of things are - like how hard you train, how consistently you train, how well you plan your workouts and how positive your mental attitude is.
What should you do about it? Positive attitude, training for your body type and high intensity.
First, you need a positive attitude. Making excuses and blaming your genetics for weak calves is a cop-out. Excuses don't get you anywhere in bodybuilding - accepting responsibility and taking action is what makes you a champion. Multi-Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates once said that its not the genetics that separates the guy who makes it to the top and the other guys who don't; "It's the drive, commitment, 100 percent determination, focus and the mind-set to be the very best." The first step to overcoming less than optimal genetics is to accept the cards heredity dealt you and then relentlessly press on with what you have. Your genetics might prevent you from ever having calves like Mr. Olympia, but you must always press forward and strive to be the best you can possibly be. Make a commitment to be better than you used to be, not better than someone else.
Second, don't be tempted to duplicate the calf routine of a "genetic freak." You know; the guy with 22 inch calves who only trains them for a few weeks before contests who has a relative with 21 inch calves who has never even worked out before! (Mike Matarazzo and Chris Dickerson come to mind.) Genetic superiors grow in spite of how they train, not because of it. A few sets of sloppy calf raises thrown in as an afterthought at the end of a workout might be all it takes for the genetically gifted bodybuilder to get incredible growth. That's why copying the genetic freak's training program is a bad idea.
If your genetics really are sub-par, you can't just coast through your calf workouts. You must blitz and blast your calves with all your might. Knock em into the next time zone! Use that list of high intensity techniques, pile those weights on like there's no tomorrow and train to 100% total failure.
Reason #4 why stubborn calves don't grow: Poor blood flow (no pump).
Did you ever notice how veiny advanced bodybuilders are? Vascularity comes mostly from low body fat. However, all bodybuilders are veinier than the average person, body fat notwithstanding. Years of consistent training develops a vascular system that can pump huge quantities of blood into the muscles. While most muscle growth can be attributed to an increase in the size of the muscle fibers, blood flow is also an important factor. A person with poor calf development is often a person who can't get a pump in their calves.
What should you do about it? Maximum pump workouts and higher frequency.
Calves not growing? Try increasing your frequency. Hitting each muscle group once a week is a very popular practice these days and is probably a good idea for large muscles like the quads, back and chest. These bigger muscles require more time to recuperate than small ones. The calves don't need as much recovery time, so they can and should be hit more frequently. When you want to specialize on calves, work your calves heavy and hard at least twice a week. You might even want to experiment with three or four calf workouts a week, alternating heavy and light every other workout. On your heavy days, challenge yourself to use super heavy weights for 8-15 reps and add weight every workout no matter what. On your lighter days, pump them full of blood with "maximum pump" techniques.
How do you get maximum pump? There are many ways: supersets, tri sets, giant sets, decreased rest intervals between sets and high rep sets. High reps can range anywhere from twenty to one hundred! Yes, you read that right - one hundred reps! When you start one hundred rep sets, your body weight will be plenty. The goal is not to break down the muscle tissue, but simply to induce circulation and get the blood in there. As you build up endurance and tolerance for the lactic acid burn, you'll eventually be able to add light weights. Continue with heavy calf days twice a week and try adding three sets of one hundred twice a week (you can even do these at home on the stairs.)
Also, don't forget the role that diet plays in getting monstrous pumps: Keep your carbs up to keep your glycogen levels high. Even if you are on a low carb diet, you should still carb up once every fourth day or you'll have a hard time getting much of a pump. Remember, no glycogen = no pump.
Reason #5 why stubborn calves don't grow: Weak neuromuscular (mind to muscle) connection.
Strength and muscle growth have a strong neural component. Whenever you begin to learn a new skill pattern, (like throwing a ball with your left arm when you are right-handed), the mind to muscle link is "weak." That's why the new movement feels clumsy and awkward. The same thing is true when you do a new exercise. If you've ever watched a beginner try to do a complicated exercise like a lunge or a squat, then you know what I'm talking about - the novice is wobbly and unbalanced. Until this neuromuscular pathway is well developed, the muscle contractions will be weak and muscle growth cannot occur to the maximum degree.
Some bodybuilders, despite having trained their calves for years, have never developed this link properly. Many people just don't "feel " the calf muscles working when they train. It's a mindless, robotic, up-down-up-down motion with no mental or physical concentration - no "squeezing." If you don't improve this mind to muscle connection, your calves will never grow.
What should you do about it? Mental concentration and peak contraction
The first thing you should do about a weak neuromuscular connection is to work on your powers of focus and concentration. Put your mind "into the muscle." Legendary trainer Vince "The Iron Guru" Gironda, knew this secret and taught it to all his pupils at his famous North Hollywood gym.
"Champion bodybuilders definitely possess something unique," said Vince. "They may work out set for set, rep for rep with training partners, sometimes over a period of years. Even eating patterns may be identical, yet the champion advances while the training partner may not. I have noticed that the champion is using something more than the sets and reps his partner is using - and it has nothing to do with genetic superiority. He is using concentration and mental suggestion - a form of self-hypnosis. This is used by all champions whether they know it or not. In the case of bodybuilders it is more important than any steroid drug, any diet plan, any food supplement, or exercise routine ever conceived."
Work on honing your powers of concentration to a fine point. Give exclusive attention to every rep of every set. Focus. Get in the "zone." Block out all distractions. Let people know that when you are training you don't want to be disturbed. Leave the socializing for later. I've worked in health clubs for 14 years and there's one thing I've always noticed: 95% of the members in any gym walk around and chat with their buddies between sets and some of them even chat with their buddies during the set. The Champions - the 5% - never do.
The second thing you should do about a weak neuromuscular connection is to emphasize the contraction in the top position on all your calf exercises. Most beginners lack strength in the top portion of the calves range of motion. As a result, they perform only bouncy, partial movements and they never squeeze hard enough to get a strong contraction. Holding the top position of any calf raise exercise for a five second squeeze on each rep will increase the time under tension, strengthen the neuromuscular connection and work wonders for slow growing calves. This is my absolute favorite technique for bringing up the calves in a very short period of time. Practice squeezing harder and longer at the top of each rep and your calves will "blow up" almost overnight.
Reason #6 why stubborn calves don't grow: Refusing to go beyond the pain barrier.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to the pain barrier. The first is "no pain, no gain." Lately this attitude has been criticized and it has been suggested that the second school, "train don't strain," is a healthier way to approach your workouts. If your goal is to achieve a basic level of fitness and health, I'd have to agree. But if you are a serious bodybuilder and you want awesome calves, then you MUST adopt the "no pain no gain" attitude. Just ask any champion in any sport; you have to endure pain if you want to grow and excel. Roger Bannister, the first man to ever run a three-minute mile said, "The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win."
What should you do about it? Reframe pain as pleasure and train into the burn.
Training past the pain barrier takes guts. You have to grit your teeth and just keep going. What will help you to push yourself into and beyond the pain zone is to "reframe" what pain means to you. There's an old Navy SEALS saying, "Pain is weakness leaving the body." That's one way champions look at it. Another is to view pain as pleasure. This is a mental technique Arnold Schwarzennegger used to become one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time. "The only way to be a champion is by going through these forced reps and the pain," said the former Mr. Olympia. "What helps me is to think of this pain as pleasure. Pain makes me grow. Growing is what I want. Therefore for me, pain is pleasure. And so when I experience pain I'm in heaven. It's great. People suggest that this is masochistic. But they're wrong. I like pain at a particular moment for a particular reason. I don't like needles stuck in my arm. But I do like the pain that is necessary to be a champion."
That's it - those are the six reasons that "stubborn" calves don't grow. Take a serious look at your training program and your mindset and see if any of these calf-building obstacles are short-circuiting your ability to build your calves into cows. Once you've identified which ones are holding your calf gains back, then you can select the appropriate "weapons" and attack the problem at its source. You might not ever develop calves like Chris Dickerson or Mike Matarazzo. But regardless of the genetics Mother Nature gave you, with the right battle plan and a steady, relentless assault, you can always grow and improve.