Whether you’re running uphill or standing still, your calves work to support your body. They also stabilize your ankles and help you do movements like jumping, turning, and bending.
But it can be difficult to increase the size of your calf muscles. In fact, the fitness community considers calves to be the most stubborn muscle group in the body.
You already work your calves whenever you stand or walk. But if you want to make them bigger, the key is to challenge them even more.
Read on to find out more about the pros and cons of small calves and how you can bulk them up.
Small calves are thought to be caused by genetics. Other factors, like age and body weight, may also play a role. Let’s explore each of the causes more closely.
While there isn’t hard evidence, it’s widely accepted that genetics are usually the main cause of small calves.
Many people report having calves that are similar in size to those of their relatives. Additionally, some say their families have big calves, even though they don’t specifically work their lower legs.
Age is another factor. As you get older, your muscle mass tends to decrease.
This muscle loss, called sarcopenia, also affects the legs.
Low body weight
Low body weight might also contribute to small calves. Usually, the less you weigh, the less your calves have to support.
But if you weigh more, your legs have to carry more body weight. This can cause bigger calves, even if you don’t do calf-strengthening exercises.
Contrary to popular belief, small calves may have potential benefits.
Better distance running
According to research, slender calves could improve your ability to run long distances.
In a small 2008 study published in the
The researchers speculated that there could be a potential link between smaller calf circumference and distance running performance. Since slim legs require less force to move, less effort is needed to cover long distances.
However, it’s important to note that distance running is affected by many factors, including respiratory endurance, leg length, and overall body composition.
More research is needed to understand the benefits of small calves for distance running.
Lower risk of liver disease
Interestingly, small calves might be an indicator of a lower risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD occurs when too much fat accumulates in the liver of a person who drinks little to no alcohol.
According to a 2017 study, calf circumference could be a marker of lower body fat. This form of fat is associated with the accumulation of free fatty acids (FFA), a type of fat fuel.
So, bigger calves could be tied to more FFA accumulation.
High FFA levels are tied to NAFLD risk factors, including:
This suggests that smaller calves may be associated with a lower risk of these conditions.
But this potential benefit may not apply to everyone. The link between calf size and NAFLD risk was only observed in obese and overweight people, not lean individuals.
Small calves are linked to some health disadvantages.
Reduced leg power
If you prefer sprinting over long-distance running, small calves may be a disadvantage.
Sprinting requires more leg power than distance running. And greater leg power is associated with larger calf size.
Calf muscles are also used in jumping. But if you have small calf muscles, it may be difficult to achieve maximum jumping ability.
Increased risk of injury and falls
Your calf muscles are important for balance, posture, and stability. They work to support your foot and ankle joint. Weak calves may make you more prone to balance and stability issues.
Bigger calves are usually stronger. They can help reduce the risk of injuries and falls, especially as you age.
Increased risk of mobility issues
According to a
Having less muscle mass can speed up sarcopenia. This, in turn, may increase the risk of poor mobility, functional impairment, and disability.
Although you can’t control certain factors like genetics and age, there are steps you can take to strengthen and build your calves.
The following three exercises can help to challenge your calf muscles. They involve raising your heels against your body weight or elastic resistance.
1. Band-assisted calf flex
This exercise works both your calves and ankles. To try it, you’ll need a mat and a resistance band.
- Sit on the floor with your legs straight ahead. Straighten your back.
- Put a resistance band around the balls of your feet and hold the ends tightly.
- Flex your feet upward and then forward without moving your knees or lifting your feet off the floor.
- Perform 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps.
If you have difficulty maintaining a straight back, sit on a yoga block or folded blanket.
2. Standing calf raise
One of the best ways to increase calf size is to do standing calf raises. This exercise emphasizes the gastrocnemius, the largest muscle in the calf. It can be done with or without weights.
- Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold your weights at your sides and keep your shoulders relaxed and your knees slightly bent.
- Raise both your heels off the floor while keeping your core tight and your shoulders back.
- Pause at the top and then bring your heels back down to the ground.
- Do 2 or 3 sets of 15 repetitions. You can use a lighter or heavier weight, or, if you prefer, you can do the exercise without any weights.
For an extra challenge, you can try doing single-leg calf raises. Bend one knee to lift your foot off the floor and raise the other heel. Switch sides and repeat.
You can also use a calf raise machine to do this move.
3. Plié squat with heel raise
This exercise combines a wide-stance squat with a heel raise. It works your calves, glutes, thighs, and core, making it a great multitasking exercise.
- Start in a wide stance, feet turned outward. Hold two dumbbells in front of your shoulders, palms facing inward.
- Raise your left heel off the floor, keeping your right foot flat.
- Without moving your heels or arms, bend your knees and lower your body until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Pause, then return to the starting position.
- Complete 10-15 reps. Switch sides and repeat.
If you have wrist pain or discomfort, you can try this move without using dumbbells.
Other ways to increase calf size
You can also try doing the following activities to help strengthen and build your calves:
- Sprinting. Powerful bursts of sprinting will challenge your calf muscles.
- Uphill walking. When you walk or run on an incline, your calves work against more resistance.
- Jumping rope. Jumping rope can help to strengthen and tone your calves while also boosting your cardio fitness.
Many people have a hard time increasing the size of their calves. This is usually due to factors like genetics, age, and body weight.
To build your calves, focus on exercises that specifically challenge your calf muscles. By forcing these muscles to work against resistance, you may find that you’re able to tone, strengthen, and increase the size of your calves.
Talk to your doctor or a personal trainer before starting a new exercise routine, or if you want more information on ways to build your calves.