OK, I admit it; my calves are among the worst to ever step upon a bodybuilding stage.
I’ve tried everything on my calves. Ultra-high reps, high sets, low sets, crazy heavy weights, super-slow reps, drop sets, mega-cheating reps, high frequency workouts, low frequency workouts or just good, old-fashioned progressive resistance – none of it works. But I now know why and what to do about it.
Why Calves Don’t Grow
Every combination of ultra high or low volume, high or low frequency, high or low reps has been suggested and rationally argued for overcoming the calf’s stubbornness to grow. Every argument seems as valid as the next. But the only thing they have in common is that NONE OF THEM WORK!
Most authorities recognise the unique problem posed by the calves: you spend most of your life working them! Unlike pecs or biceps, calves rarely get to rest – you are constantly standing or walking around on them.
But the problem has nothing to do with slow twitch muscle fibres, an inability to recover or resilience to chronically high workloads. It has to do with fascial hardening. Let me explain:
All muscles are encased in a sheath called the ‘fascia’. Fascial tissue is stronger than steel (on the molecular level) and similarly inelastic.
High tensile strength with low elasticity is a mighty fine quality to have in a tissue that attaches our muscle to our skeleton. It prevents us constantly tearing muscles off and snapping our bones. Unfortunately, it is also one of the principal limiters to muscle growth.
In essence, when muscle fills the available space within the fascial compartment then growth slows to the rate at which the fascia will stretch to accommodate more muscle.
Worse still, being a structural protein, fascial tissue grows in thickness and ‘hardness’ in response to repeated high loading. Like training or, in the case of calves, walking, running, standing etc etc. You are probably beginning to see where I am headed with this now?
Calves are bombarded with high tension, high volume workloads from the time we learn to stand up. But they don’t require as much contractile strength as they do structural strength. Most of their work is static or negatively loaded while the thighs do the pushing.
Making matters worse is the fact that the calves, by comparison to the quads, are ‘short’ muscles – the fascial compartment has limited scope for muscle growth. (This, by the way, is why ‘short’ muscled people struggle for growth in those areas – the fascial compartment will never ‘fit’ much muscle).
How to Train Calves for Growth
Though it sounds hopeless, fascial tissue can be ‘stretched’ to accommodate muscle growth. John Parillo has been pushing the benefits of fascial stretching for years. And the recent use (and abuse) of SEO’s (Site Enhancement Oils; aka: ‘Synthol’) have proven the power of the technique.
(For those of you that don’t know, most pro bodybuilders now inject some or all of their muscles with high volumes of inert, drug-free oil. The muscles fill with the oil, forcing the fascia to stretch from the inside out. It is apparently excruciatingly painful (more Nubain anyone?) but as the oil is metabolised the space created is then filled with new, ‘permanent’ muscle tissue).
To get calves to grow you need to focus on aggressively opening up the fascial compartment. Ultimately, this involves pumping the calves full of blood and then imposing the calves to an extreme, extended, loaded stretch.
Done properly, loaded fascial stretching is excruciatingly – unbearably – painful. It is actually worse than any other type of training pain you will encounter. And you need to deliberately sustain it for at least 60-120 seconds!
Calf Training Specifics
So here is what you do for massive calf growth:
Follow a very high carbohydrate diet and supplement with creatine, AAKG, citrulline and beta-alanine. You want your muscles to be as full and swollen as possible and then pump with as much blood as possible when you train.
Train the calves for the biggest, ‘pump’ that you can generate. How you do this is irrelevant – super heavy, super slow, super high reps. The burn, weight, exercises or reaching failure doesn’t matter at all. Just do the least work possible for the biggest pump you can get.
Once you have the biggest pump you can get in your calves, hold the calves in a fully stretched position – under a high load – for 2 minutes straight. This means you must be bent over at 90 degrees or more with your toes being forced back toward your shins under high load – ie hold a Leg Press Calf Raise or Donkey Calf Raise in the stretch position (see below).
Repeat several times per week. You can determine optimal frequency from your calf pumps. If your calves won’t pump, rest them longer.Things to Think About
Realise that the problem we are trying to overcome with calves is unique which is why this protocol is so totally different to what I advise for other muscles. The problem being overcome is creating room in the calf’s fascial compartment for new muscle to grow. You’ve got to be VERY large before this becomes a problem in your other muscles!
This protocol doesn’t focus on strength gains simply because calves already have incredible structural strength – your calves can already probably lift as much as your legs or back will hold. Which is why heavy weights don’t seem to work well on calves.
When it comes to doing high volume work on calves you probably find your calves simply reach a point where they cannot contract irrespective of load or rest. This is not actually an energy or acidosis problem. It is known as ‘Chronic Exertional Comparment Syndrome’ (CECS).
Motocross riders suffer CECS frequently in their forearms. What happens is that the muscles pump up inside the fascial compartment to the point that they no longer have room to contract – the fascia actually prevents further contraction. Motocross riders have their fascias surgically ‘cut’ to allow for further expansion of the muscle (Don’t try this at home)!
Donkey Calf Stretch
This is the best loaded fascial stretch:
Load up a smith machine with a reasonable weight – maybe 20-60kg per side or so – at about waist height.
Place a calf raise block directly under the Smith Machine bar and place a low bench parallel to the calf block, and about 50cm away
Standing between the calf block and the bench, bend over and lean on the bench with your hands.
Step your feet back to place the balls of your feet on the calf block as for a normal calf raise except you are bent over, leaning on the bench.
Reach back with one hand to place a couple of folded towels on your back.
Straighten your legs to come up underneath the Smith Machine bar, resting the bar on the towels on your lower back.
Press your knees right back straight and let the weight push your heels toward the ground
Now hold. You may scream, grimace, gnash your teeth etc etc.Conclusion
For all intents and purposes, this explains why some of those more radical high volume/high rep programs were somewhat successful for some people. It also explains why nothing else works!
And when all is said and done, this doesn’t change anything else you might try for your calves. You just add another component to your calf workouts at the end: the stretch from hell.