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9 calf exercises you should never skip on leg day

Tehrene Firman

Tehrene FirmanMay 3, 2019

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Photo: Getty Images/Guido Mieth

You’ve checked your abs and glutes off your workout list, but how about your calf exercises? They’re easy to forget about. Getting toned calves isn’t nearly as big of a priority for most people as working on those #bootygains. But considering keeping them strong is just as important for everyday activities like walking and climbing stairs as it is for playing sports, they definitely deserve more attention than they’re getting.

Your calf muscles—which include the gastrocnemius (the large muscle you immediately picture when you think of your calves) and the soleus, which is located right underneath it—do much more for your body than you even realize. Keeping them strong helps to prevent injury since the muscles are responsible for flexing and extending your foot, ankle, and knee. Especially if you wear high heels on the regular, which can actually shrink your calf muscle fibers, causing pain and discomfort. Your calf muscles also help support your posture by stabilizing the lower body.

The 9 best calf exercises, according to trainers

1. Seated calf raises

“I like this exercise because it primarily targets the major calf muscle, the gastrocnemius, which passes behind the knee joint. This exercise is great for strengthening the calf without high impact. It’s also good for rehabilitation for calf and Achilles injuries.” —Ricardo Rose, trainer at EverybodyFights

Needed equipment: dumbbells

Activated muscles: calves

How to do it:

  1. Start seated with your leg at 90 degrees. You will focus on a single side.
  2. Grab a dumbbell, making sure the weight is heavy. This will give you the most benefit from the exercise.
  3. Place the dumbbell vertical with one end directly above the knee.
  4. Start with your foot on a flat surface. The heel will be free to move up and down for the calf raise.
  5. Complete 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps.

Variation: If you’d like more engagement in the calf, you can elevate the ball of your foot on a plate or small block.

When to avoid the exercise: If you have an ankle or knee injury.

2. Standing calf raises

“Having strong calves will greatly improve your explosiveness and can help minimize injury, and this exercise is a great place to start.” Gerren Liles, Equinox master trainer

Needed equipment: dumbbells (optional)

Activated muscles: calves

How to do it:

  1. Place the balls of your feet on top of a low object like a barbell plate.
  2. Elevate your heels by pressing down into the balls of your feet. Pause very briefly at the top and lower your heels back down.
  3. Go for time instead of reps. Calves can be hard to build, so you will either want to go long or go heavy.
  4. Complete 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps.

Variation: Hold a pair of dumbbells, have a barbell on your back, or wear a weighted vest. (Personally, I use Hyperwear’s Hyper Vest Elite.)

When to avoid the exercise: If you have an ankle or knee injury.

3. Jumping rope

“Jumping rope is one of the most effective cardio movements to improve endurance and coordination—not to mention work up a ferocious burn in your calves. You can do it anywhere, which is one of the reasons I always pack my favorite rope with me.” Brian Gallagher, Throwback Fitness co-founder and ClassPass GO coach 

Needed equipment: jump rope

Activated muscles: calves

How to do it:

  1. Start off simple with single jumps for short durations, incorporating in rest time.
  2. Complete 10 rounds as quickly as possible of 25 single rope jumps followed by 10 pushups.

Variation: As your skills improve, you can lengthen the jump time and shorten the rest. Once you’ve mastered the single jump, work up to double-unders.

When to avoid the exercise: If you have an ankle or knee injury.

4. Standing calf bounces

“I like this exercise for people participating in any sport—especially sports that require quick explosive movements.” —Ricardo Rose, trainer at EverybodyFights

Needed equipment: none

Activated muscles: calves

How to do it:

  1. Start standing straight up with your knees slightly bent.
  2. Pushing up from the balls of your feet, perform small hops up and down, focusing on keeping your knees minimally bent. Let the movement come from your ankles.
  3. Each time you perform this movement, try to move a little quicker.
  4. Complete 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps.

When to avoid the exercise: If you have an ankle or knee injury.

Photo: Getty Images/Hello Lovely

5. Stair-climbing

“What’s more functional than being able to walk up flights of stairs with ease and not be completely out of breath when you arrive at the top? You’d be hard-pressed to find a day where you don’t encounter at least one flight. I have a rule that I keep in mind when given the choice between an elevator or taking the stairs: If it’s less than five flights, I’m taking the stairs. Always. Especially because it’s also so beneficial for the calves.” —Brian Gallagher, Throwback Fitness co-founder and ClassPass GO coach 

Needed equipment: none

Activated muscles: calves, glutes, hamstrings, quads

How to do it:

  1. Find the longest set of stairs you can, and use them for sprints. Run up the entire set of stairs, using the descent as your rest time. When you get to the bottom, take a little bit more rest if needed, then sprint up again. Repeat for 5 rounds.
  2. If you haven’t used stairs as a workout before, you can start off slow. Find a flight of stairs and walk up and down repeatedly, completing a low number of sets with some rest in between.

Variation: After you get comfortable, feel free to mix it up. Broad jump up the stairs, go every two stairs, or for something even more challenging, try bear crawling up the stairs backward.

When to avoid the exercise: If you have an ankle or knee injury.

6. Relevés

“This exercise tones, chisels, and sculpts your beautiful calves—plus you’ll feel the burn on the entire backside of the legs. I used to do a million of these relevés in my ballet training days when I was a professional ballerina.” —Jacquelyn Umof, founder of Action Jacquelyn

Needed equipment: none

Activated muscles: calves, glutes, hamstrings, quads

How to do it:

  1. Start in first position with your heels together and toes out at a comfortable angle.
  2. Squeeze your glutes and lift up high, putting the weight into your big toes. Imagine someone is pulling you up by a string.
  3. Challenge yourself to five minutes, or do 3 sets of 20 reps.

When to avoid the exercise: If you have an ankle or knee injury.

7. Bridge calf raises

“If you want to tone and strengthen your calves, it’s important to train them frequently, and this move will help.” —Cori Lefkowith, owner of Redefining Strength

Needed equipment: none

Activated muscles: calves, glutes

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees over your ankles and lower back firmly pressed into the mat.
  2. Lift your hips, keeping your core and glutes engaged, and pause at the top.
  3. Lift your heels off the floor, then lower. Repeat 10 times before lowering your hips down.
  4. Complete 3 sets.

Variation: To make this exercise harder, try the single-leg version by resting your right ankle slightly above your left knee.

When to avoid the exercise: If you have an ankle or knee injury.

8. High heel pliés

“If you want to know how to get lean calves, this exercise will do it for you. It requires no equipment, plus you can do it anywhere—especially at home. I was sore for days. —Cassey Ho, creator of Blogilates

Needed equipment: none

Activated muscles: calves, glutes, thighs

How to do it:

  1. Bring your feet out wide.
  2. Lift onto the balls of your feet and bring your arms out at your sides.
  3. Keeping your shoulders rolled back and chest up, lower into a plié.
  4. Slowly lift up, squeezing your calves and quads.
  5. Complete 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps.

Variation: To turn up the heat, lower down into the plié. Then hold the position as you bring your heels down, hovering them slightly above the floor. Then, bring your heels back up and repeat.

When to avoid the exercise: If you have an ankle or knee injury.

9. Calf launchers

“This quick calf workout not only sparks growth from a muscle group you may have long ago written off, but leaves you with a soreness that will serve to remind you how capable of getting them to respond to your training they really are.” —Jeff Cavaliere, the physical therapist and strength coach behind ATHLEAN-X

Needed equipment: padding for your knees, sturdy furniture

Activated muscles: calves

How to do it:

  1. Start on your knees with a padded mat or towel to provide cushion.
  2. Anchor your feet under something sturdy, like your couch. Make sure your feet are together.
  3. Slightly sit back and launch your body out, keeping your hands on your thighs. Then, come back in.
  4. Complete the exercise for one minute and perform a total of 3 sets.

When to avoid the exercise: If you have an ankle or knee injury.

Here’s how to work out at your desk, and this is how much exercise you need to offset sitting all day long.

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