Don't Ignore Your Lower Leg Muscles

Get Great Calf Muscles

Calf massage
Calf massage. (c) Getty images, BSIP/UIG, Universal Images

The calves (calf single) are the muscles of the back of the lower leg. The two main muscles here are the soleus and the gastrocnemius. Together, they are called the Triceps surae, which is not to be confused with the Triceps brachii of the back of the upper arms. The gastrocnemius has two parts called the lateral (outside) and medial (inside) heads, and attaches to the foot by the Achilles tendon.

The soleus attaches to the tibia and fibula bones of the lower leg.

When well developed, the calves take on a muscular, folded look as the two muscles more or less bulge and wrap around each other from below the knee to the ankle. Wearing high-heeled shoes accentuates the calf muscles and, as you will see, you can enhance calf muscles with gym exercises that force a similar posture.

The calf raise (heel raise) works these muscles, although some exercises are specific for the soleus or the gastrocnemius. Running, especially faster running or interval training where you run with the front of the foot hitting the ground first, also develops the calves. Bear in mind that the standing heel raise exercises hit both calf muscles but the seated calf raise hits the soleus only. Some anatomists regard both soleus and gastrocnemius as the same complex muscle.

General Program Including Lower Legs

  • Depending on your progress, you might do 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 exercises as a general fitness routine equally targeting strength and muscle. Within that exercise selection, make sure you do at least two calf exercises each workout session if you are particularly targeting calves.
  • Two to three sessions a week with two days between workouts should be sufficient to allow recovery.
  • If you notice soreness or aching in a calf muscle, especially the lower area around the Achilles tendon, stop immediately and rest until you can train without pain. You may need to get a medical opinion. Achilles strains can be debilitating, and torn Achilles tendon injuries are serious.

    Leg Curls - Standing, Lying or Seated

    Muscles worked in these exercises are the hamstrings and the gastrocnemius. Here is the description for the lying leg curl on a gym machine.

    1. Start with a light weight and lie on the bench face down.
    2. Adjust the pads so that they are in a comfortable position around the ankles so that there is some heel involvement in the effort. You don't want the pads too high up the calf so that the effort places pressure directly on the soleus calf muscles and Achilles tendon.
    3. Adjust the weight so that you can do about 8 to 12 repetitions in each set.
    4. Grasp the support handles, remember to breathe out on exertion and in on recovery, then lift the pads upward as you flex the knee joints.
    5. Lift the pad as far as it will go toward the buttocks and lower the leg under control.

    Calf Raises

    Calf raises involve pushing upward on the front of the foot (sometimes called toe or heel raises). Here's the fine point to remember: Standing calf raises work both the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles; seated calf raises only work the soleus muscle.


    This exercise can be done with or without weights, or a special gym machine for the purpose.

    • Sit in a chair with both feet on the ground.
    • Pushing down through the toes, raise your heels off the ground.
    • Hold the position for 10 seconds and repeat 8-12 times.
    • Place a weight (barbell) or hand pressure on the thighs for extra resistance.


    This exercise places the entire weight of the body on the exercised leg(s).

    • Stand upright on both feet.
    • Push down through the toes lifting both heels off the ground.
    • Hold the position for 10 seconds and repeat 8-12 times.

    Donkey Calf Raises

    You may use a specialized gym machine for Donkey Raises, but they are uncommon. The machine positions the body with torso bent over and a weight placing pressure on the hips. Soleus and gastrocnemius muscles are emphasized in the one heel-raise movement.

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