Big Calves & Athletic Ability

Posted by Jason Ferruggia on May 14, 2010

In between sets of box jumps recently one of my athletes asked me why we don’t train calves.

“You wanna train calves?” I asked.

“Well, I’d like to have some bigger calves. I mean, mine look kinda silly, being so small and all.”

“Have you seen mine? Not exactly what you’d call huge. More like tomato cans.”

“There not as small as mine, though.”

“Yeah, but I’m 30 plus pounds bigger than you. Proportionately they’re the same.”

“So, you don’t train your calves?”


“Why not?”

“Well, first of all, I hate training calves. I hate all isolation movements and only do very few of them as a necessary evil. Most isolation exercises are very unnatural and do very little to enhance your performance. Direct calf work, on the other hand, actually hurts your performance.”

“How’s that? Don’t you need big, strong calves to jump higher and run faster?”

“Perhaps you might be familiar with some dude by the name of Michael Jordan. Arguably the greatest athlete of all time and unquestionably the most talented player to ever grace the hardwood. Have you ever seen his calves? Dude could jump out the building and had string bean calves. In actuality so does almost everyone else in the NBA.”

“True. But wouldn’t he be able to jump higher if he trained his calves?”

“Nope. Jumping ability comes from the glutes and the entire posterior chain. It’s about rate of force development and your ability to express strength explosively. Calves have nothing to do with it. In fact, having strong shoulders will actually help you jump higher than strong calves will.”

“That’s weird. I had no clue. Well, knowing that they do nothing to help my athletic ability I would still like to train them so they get bigger. You think I could add in some calf raises?”

“If only it were that easy. The reality is that almost all forms of bodybuilding training are detrimental to sports performance. When you start doing calf raises regularly with bodybuilding set and rep parameters, you’ll notice that your calves start to burn more when you are running or jumping rope or doing dynamic warm up drills or calisthenics.”

“Really? That’s crazy. How come?”

“Because bodybuilding exercises and set and rep schemes increase what’s known as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. This is basically non contractile tissue that just looks good but has not function. One thing it does well, though, is pump up. So you will notice that you get more of a pump in your calves when doing athletic activities. This creates a burning sensation and fatigue that’s hard to fight through. So in essence you have worsened your athletic ability.

Not only that but when you start doing calf raises regularly you will also notice that you’ll be more susceptible to shin splints and ankle problems if you’re doing a lot of running.

So if you want to be remotely athletic direct calf work is a big no-no.”

“Wow. I had no clue.”

“Yo! How long you resting between sets here? Hit another set of box jumps then we’ll talk.”

“Sorry, man.”

“Did you notice during that set, that your calves did very little to contribute to getting you on that box?”

“Yeah, I did actually. It was more like just hip explosion, and like you said about the shoulders- the arm swing helped me get up.”

“Yup. So back to your point about tiny calves- believe me, I can relate. I was cursed with these silly little string beans that have haunted me for years. So a couple times I have dedicated time to building them up. I put two inches on them in a month once. But because I like to jump rope and run sprints regularly I always ended up having ankle issues or shin splints pop up. So I always stopped training them. And like is always the case with sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, I lost all the size in a few weeks.”

“Hmmm… Yeah, that blows. I wouldn’t want that. Is there anything I can do to not look so hideous in shorts?”

“You telling me I look hideous in shorts? You telling Michael Jordan he looked hideous in shorts?”

“Na, but I just hate these things.”

“I know, I know. Here’s the deal- if you gain weight your calves will grow. You ever see a fat guy with small calves? Aside from that your calves will get more than enough work from sprinting and jumping. And that’s natural and trains your calves they were meant to be worked. Soccer players always have big calves and that aint from seated calf raises.

To get bigger calves without having to resort to bodybuilding techniques and wreck your athleticism there a few things you can do:

•    Eat enough to gain weight

•    Do a ton of sprinting and change of direction type stuff

•    Do plyos

•    Jump rope regularly

•    Do a lot of single leg hops and jumps

•    Do some weighted box jumps (with a vest or holding dumbbells)

•    Do jump squats

•    Do squats and glute ham raises

•    Walk 3-6 days per week for 20-30 minutes with a weighted vest on.

•    And finally, if you were really set on doing some calf raises you could do them in a power rack with a barbell on your back. You will be standing on the ground, not a ledge. Getting that full stretch might be conducive to muscle growth but, like I mentioned, it’s unnatural as that position never occurs in real life, and will hamper your athletic ability. What you’ll do is load the bar up pretty heavy and do explosive sets of 6-8 reps. Don’t let the sets last much longer than ten seconds, total.

Kinda like sex with a hot chick, hit it hard for ten seconds. Take a rest. Repeat. Much longer than ten seconds, in either scenario, and bad things happen.

Eventually they’ll come up.”

“Cool. One question though, is walking with the weighted vest going to build sacropotis muscle? Isn’t it the same thing as doing high rep calf raises?”

“Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, you mean.”


“Good point. And while it seems the same it’s different. With every step your foot comes off the ground and the tension on the muscle is released. When you do calf raises your muscles are under constant tension for 30-70 seconds. That’s the kind of shit that builds that silly, non functional muscle. So it’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference.

Believe it or not my calves are a full five inches bigger than they used to be. For me to start doing calf raises to add more size to them just to look pretty would do more harm than good and would have a negative impact on my athletic ability.

I definitely don’t want that. And I know you don’t either.

So stick with everything I just said and your calves will grow without comprising your athleticism in the process.”

“Sounds good, man. You’re smarter than you look.”

“That’s exactly what my mom used to tell me…”

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