5 calf exercises you should never skip on leg day


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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 5 best calf exercises, according to trainers

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

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. If you’d like more engagement in the calf, you can elevate the ball of your foot on a plate or small block. The heel will be free to move up and down for the calf raise.

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

How to do it:

  1. Place the balls of your feet on top of a low object like a barbell plate and hold a pair of dumbbells, have a barbell on your back, or wear a weighted vest. (Personally, I use Hyperwear’s Hyper Vest Elite.)
  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.

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 

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.

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

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

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.

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 

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.

Note: 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.

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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