In his classic bodybuilding bible “The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding,” Arnold Schwarzenegger explains why the calves are so difficult to build. He asks you to think of what happens when you run. With every step, one calf springs your entire bodyweight forward. While it does so, it twists and turns and compensates for uneven ground. So it’s no wonder it’s difficult to make your calves grow; they’re already incredibly tough. Getting enough resistance to challenge them is even more difficult without machines. But if you have the dedication there are a few exercises that can build your calves using only free weights.
One-Legged Calf Press
To perform this exercise, you need a heavy dumbbell, something to hold onto with one hand, such as a wall or an upright bench, and a calf block, aerobic step or staircase. Place the calf block or aerobic step near something you can brace yourself against with your free hand. Stand on it with the toes of one foot. Hold your dumbbell with the hand on the same side of your body. Lower your heel two to four inches depending on your calf flexibility, enough to feel a deep stretch in your calf. Then press through the ball of your foot and raise up until your calf is fully contracted. Hold for a moment, then repeat. Perform 10 to 20 reps for three sets for each leg. Alternate legs as you go. This exercise is great because you can target the inside or outside of your calf as needed. To hit the inner calf, turn your toes in. To hit the outer calf, turn your toes out.
Seated Calf Press
The seated calf press is not a lazy variation on a standing calf press. A seated calf press of some sort is necessary for total calf development. In “Joe Weider’s Ultimate Bodybuilding,” Weider explains that the lower calf muscle, the soleus, which runs from the bottom of your large calf heads to your heel, can only be exercised when the large calf muscle above, the gastrocnemius, is inactive. This only occurs when your leg is bent to at least a 90-degree angle. To perform a seated calf press without a machine, you need a bench, a barbell, and a calf block or aerobic step. Place the calf block or step in front of the bench so that you can sit and place your toes on it. Hold a loaded barbell across your thighs, then sit down with it and hold it steady across your legs just behind your knees. If it hurts your legs, put some squat pads on the bar for cushioning. With your toes and the balls of your feet on the step, let your heels drop two to four inches and feel a good stretch in your calves. Then drive up through the balls of your feet, lifting the barbell with your knees and feeling a strong contraction in your calves. Hold at the top of the movement for a moment, then repeat. Perform 10 to 20 reps for three sets.
Jump squats are a fun and effective exercise that will build your glutes, hamstrings and quads, but especially your calves. All you need is a pair of dumbbells. You can hold a barbell across your shoulders, but dumbbells are easier for balance. Hold your dumbbells down at the outside of your thighs. Stand with your feet a bit narrower than shoulder-width apart. Squat down until your thighs are parallel with the ground, then explode up, jumping at the end of the movement. Land with soft knees, and in a controlled manner lower yourself back down for another jump. Perform 8 to 12 reps for three sets.
Donkey Calf Raises
The donkey calf raise sounds silly, but it’s a classic exercise. All you need is a bench, a calf block or aerobic step, and a few friends. That’s right. You’ll be using people as resistance. Stand with your toes on your calf block and bend down to hold a bench for support. Your torso should be parallel to the ground. Have a training partner or two sit on you as far back as possible. Keeping them over your hips is best, as it will keep pressure off your lower back. Lower your heels as far as you can, then press up so that your heels rise and you feel a strong contraction in your calves. Schwarzenegger says that your friend can ensure that you perform the exercise strictly by telling you if you’re jostling him around too much. This exercise is a favorite of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s.
About this Author
Jeffrey Rice became an ACE-accredited personal trainer in 2007, and began writing about fitness to support his business. Soon, however, he found himself writing more than training, and has since written health, fitness and supplement articles for numerous websites. He holds a M.F.A. in creative writing from Cleveland State University.