Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Small Calves

by Nate Mielke | August 09, 2022

close up of a pair of calves

“Don’t skip leg day, bro!” If you’ve ever heard these words, chances are you’ve had small calves at some point in your life. Maybe you still do. Do you hide your calves whenever you get the chance, always opting to wear pants? One hundred degrees today? Well, being hot is better than shamefully exposing the toothpicks you call legs.

Are you still faithfully hammering your calf exercises day after day, week after week, calf raise after calf raise, waiting for the day when all your arduous work will finally pay off? Perhaps you just haven’t found the right exercise. Have you tried donkey calf raises? That’s how Arnold did it, after all. If only you could find one of those machines. Or perhaps your training partner could hop on your back, and you could do it “old school.” Have you tried changing your foot angle? That way you can further isolate the muscle by placing the emphasis on the outer and inner heads of the calves separately. Why that matters, who knows, but more isolation sounds right.

Maybe you should start focusing all your attention on seated calf raises. That way you hit the soleus (lower calf muscle), which is really going to make the difference in how your calves look. If all that fails, keep looking. There must be some variation, some angle, some secret exercise out there that is going to do the trick for unlocking all the calf gains you are seeking.

If you can’t find any, there is one surefire way you can make any muscle grow: more volume. Are you doing three sets at the end of your workout, once or twice a week? Why not ten sets? Why not twenty? Why aren’t you doing them every day? Maybe you could change the way you walk. Start pushing off of your toes every step you take. That could amount to 10,000 calf raises a day! Excruciating soreness and a minor limp are small prices to pay for beautiful, defined calves. Am I right?

If you’ve tried all that to no avail, it may be time to throw in the towel. After all, calves are genetic. Everyone who knows anything about fitness knows this. Maybe it’s just not in the cards. There are worse things than having to wear pants year-round. It’s not like you didn’t try. You did your due diligence. You did the donkey calf raises, you changed your foot angle, you focused on the soleus. You did the volume, even training them every day until it became so unbearable you didn’t bloody care anymore.

I just have one more question for you before you abandon all hope; did you do The Program?

Did you do your squats and your deadlifts, adding 5lbs a workout, three times a week? Did you gain weight? After all, muscle weighs something. You didn’t honestly expect your calves to grow without gaining weight, did you? To grow muscle, you need energy. It doesn’t just appear out of thin air. You actually have to eat enough. I’m not talking about a couple eggs for breakfast and eight ounces of chicken breast and half a cup of rice for lunch. You’re not even trying. Eat like you actually want to get big and strong. Have you ever seen a fat person with small calves? They’re eating plenty of food to grow tissue. If only they would train; more of that tissue would be muscle.

Just because a squat and a deadlift aren’t “isolating” the calves, doesn’t mean they’re not going to make them grow. They are still being used during the lifts. Sure enough, loading a bunch of weight on your back, squatting down, and standing back up stresses the calves. So does pulling a whole bunch of weight off the floor. This is explained thoroughly in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd Edition, and if you care to know, you can look up the details.

If you don’t think the calf muscles are being worked during a squat, you should find someone with a torn calf and ask them to squat a heavy set of five. Be sure to tell them your calves aren’t “isolated” in a squat so it shouldn’t be a problem.

Your calves will grow as the rest of your lower body does, just as they were designed. Trust me, I know. All the silly ideas mentioned above, were ideas I held and followed for years. It never occurred to me that I should get my squat and deadlift up and forget all the other nonsense. The ironic thing is that when I stopped obsessing over my calves and started thinking about five more pounds on the bar, my calves actually grew. At the end of my NLP, I had gained 50lbs and my calves grew over two inches (yes, I actually measured them before and after). It didn’t take a single calf raise. Just squats, deadlifts, and a whole bunch of food.

I’m never going to have the calves of Arnold (News Flash: neither are you), but now I happily take the opportunity to wear shorts whenever I get the chance. I have big, muscular legs and my calves don’t look half bad. More importantly though, I’m stronger and I don’t obsess over my appearance. I guess you could say I’ve “matured.” I haven’t heard a single negative comment about my calves since my NLP. If I did, I’d simply ask them what they squatted, and that would be the end of that.  

Discuss in Forums

Starting Strength Weekly Report

Highlights from the StartingStrength Community. Browse archives.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.