How to calf raise with superb technique. Seated/standing variations.

Calf raises are an important exercise used to strengthen the calf muscle. This muscle attaches into the heel and helps to point the toes, a movement we use in walking, running, jumping or any other type of ambulation.

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Weak calf muscles will put certain groups of people at risk of injury. Some common injuries related to poor calf strength would include Achilles Tendonitis, Plantar Fasciitis, Achilles rupture, knee pain and more.

Calf raises are important in the treatment of many heel conditions through building strength. Variations of the calf raise exercise can be used to strengthen different parts of the calf muscle for optimal results.

Prefer to skip ahead? Here’s what’s covered:

What muscles do calf raises work?

There are two muscles that form our ‘calf muscle’. These are called Gastrocnemius and Soleus.

The Gastrocnemius muscle attaches above the knee and is used for more explosive movements like jumping, or quickly bursting into a sprint. This is the muscle that gives the calf shape – the one you can see.

The Soleus muscle lies underneath and a little lower than the Gastrocnemius. It runs from the shin to the heel and is used more consistently to help maintain balance and assist the Gastrocnemius.

Muscles of the calf
OpenStax, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons (edited version)

If the knee is straight when performing a calf raise, the Gastrocnemius will be more active. This is because this muscle attaches above the knee, so when the knee is straight, the muscle is in an optimal position.

If the knee is bent, the Soleus muscle will be working much harder, with Gastrocnemius muscle supporting. This is ok, but you want to make sure both muscles are targeted in your strengthening.

If both muscles are strong, you will have better explosive power and strength in general.

How to perform calf raises

The standing double leg calf raise is ideal for beginners to target the calf muscle complex.

Most runners or athletes will find this exercise too easy and will need to progress to single leg calf raises, and even add weights to that.

The best way to perform the double leg calf raise without any compensation is to put your back on a wall. Have your feet under you in a comfortable position about hip-width apart. From here, push onto your toes, but keep your bottom on the wall as you push straight up.

This variation of standing calf raise will really challenge your calf muscle and help you develop gains quickly. There is a reason we suggest having your back against the wall. Further in the article this will be explained in detail.

How to avoid cheating with calf raises

Performing a calf raise properly sounds easy, but there are many ways the body can cheat. Your body will always find the easiest and most efficient way to perform a movement. Sometimes this means you do not actually target the calf muscle as much as you might have thought.

Below are some common errors with calf raising technique.

Rocking forward during a calf raise

If you are performing a standing calf raise, the most important movement to avoid is forwards lean.

People will often rock forwards onto their toes, this rocking movement means you markedly reduce calf activation.

To avoid rocking forward, stand with your back against a wall, and your feet under your body at a comfortable distance away from the wall.

From here, as you raise onto your toes, keep your bottom against the wall. This technique will ensure your body will not lean forward, therefore, making your calf muscles work harder.

Not lifting your heel high enough

People will often perform a calf raise to only half height. This is a problem as the muscle is not being used through full range.

In physiotherapy practise, I may still prescribe this if a person simply cannot go through full range, but this is not ideal.

Going through full range during a calf raise will ensure maximum strength gains for the calf muscle complex. Often early through a calf raise the Soleus will be active, and later as you pull onto your toes the Gastrocnemius will help.

So, if you are attempting to gain shape to the leg by making your Gastrocnemius muscle bigger, you need to go full range if possible.

If you are unable to perform a double leg calf raise through full range, then keep reading below. You will find some variations of the calf raise exercise that will be easier to begin with.

Pushing into hands used for balance during a calf raise

Most people will naturally calf raise with their hands on a support in front of them, like a bench or chair. The problem with this technique is that as you fatigue you begin pushing through your hands instead of simply balancing with them.

The calf muscle will tear most and therefore get strongest when it’s fatigued. So If compensation happens at this stage, the calf will not be getting as fatigued as it could have been.

The easy way to avoid this is by doing the recommended back against wall. If this doesn’t work for you, the other suggestion is stand in front of a wall. This way it is impossible to push down when your calf muscles begin to fatigue.

Calf raise variations (seated, standing, with weight)

There are many variations of calf raises which will either make the exercise easier or harder. These variations can also target different parts of the muscle – like your Gastrocnemius or your Soleus.

You can also change foot position to target the inside or outside of your calf muscle. This would mainly be applicable to people trying to build shape, otherwise, keep the feet where they are comfortable.

Below, some common variations of the exercise are broken down with the easier exercises placed first in the list:

Seated calf raises:

Seated Calf Raises

This is a very low load calf raise that targets soleus due to performing the exercise with knees bent. This exercise is an ideal place to start rehabbing a very sore Achilles tendinopathy, as the load is minimal.

You can also make this exercise harder by leaning onto your knees or putting some dumbbells on your knees for extra resistance. This ensures the calf muscles will continue to get stronger.

Bent-over calf raises (donkey raise):

The donkey raise variation of a calf raise is under-represented in practise. This exercise targets the gastrocnemius part of your calf as the knee are straight. The great benefit of this exercise is that you can take some of your body weight off the calf muscle.

To perform the exercise, lean your elbows onto a bench or table. From here, keep your knees straight and bottom out, then rise onto your toes. If you feel this is too easy, instead of leaning through your elbows, you could stand a little straighter and lean through your hands.

This is the perfect start for people that struggle with doing a full standing calf raise. If you have Plantar Fasciitis or Achilles Tendinopathy and the calf raise causes pain, then move onto the donkey raise variation after seated calf raises.

Standing calf raise variations:

There are different variations of standing calf raise to make the exercise harder, or to focus certain parts of the calf muscle.

Research has shown that starting with toes pointed inwards will put more strain on the outside calf muscle – making it grow compared to the outside. You can have the opposite effect by standing with toes pointed outwards.

If further resistance is needed, you can also perform calf raises with weight. The easiest way to do this is holding hand weights, or putting a heavy backpack on.

Calf raises on leg press:

Calf Raises with leg press

Another way to target your calf muscle is to perform the exercise on a leg-press machine. You can use a horizontal or incline leg press machine with similar results.

The benefits of using a leg press machine is that the weight can be increased indefinitely – you are not only reliant on your body weight.

To perform the calf raises on a leg press, simply place your toes on the bottom of the foot pad. Straighten your legs, and from there you can bend and point your toes to perform the calf raise.

Benefits of calf raises for Achilles Tendonitis and Plantar Fasciitis

Calf raises are essential in the treatment of both Achilles Tendonitis and Plantar Fasciitis. This is because both conditions result in unhealthy adaptation in your tendons. The way to reverse these adaptations is to load the tendons correctly.

Both Achilles Tendonitis and Plantar Fasciitis are easy to diagnose. They will usually result in heel pain which often is worse in the morning. These conditions are very common in runners, as they often will have symptoms during or after a run.

For Achilles Tendinopathy you will often notice a lump in your Achilles Tendon. This lump is usually painful but doesn’t have to be. The lump can also be in right near the heel for insertional tendinopathy, or another condition called Haglund’s Deformity.

Calf raises are one way we can introduce controlled load. By choosing which variation of calf raise, we can then determine how much load is placed through the tendon. From here we can slowly increase that load, by adding weight, or going through the different calf raise progressions.

Although loading the tendon is always going to help longer term, there are shorter term techniques that can be used like massage for the Achilles tendon. You could also trial an Achilles brace or orthotics to see if these are beneficial, however mostly they will not be.

For more information of how calf raises can help Achilles Tendonitis feel free to check out our free ultimate Achilles guide here.

Although calf raises are a major way load is introduced to the tendon, there can be other unhealthy Achilles tendon exercises to watch out for. Not all exercises will be beneficial, even if they do increase the load.

How many calf raises should I perform in a day?

The number of calf raises a day will change depending on what your goal for doing calf raises is.

If you just want to get fitter and you don’t experience heel pain, then you could perform a much larger number of repetitions compared to someone in pain.

There are numerous research studies on repetitions for exercise. Some will be recommended below, but it depends on the goal of the calf raises.

Muscles can gain strength, endurance, or they can hypertrophy (get large in size). All of these will require different sets and repetitions.

Strength – 3 sets, 6-10 repetitions

Hypertrophy – 4-5 sets, 8-12 repetitions

Endurance – 5 sets, 15-20 repetitions

For a person who is fit and wanting to remain strong, a good number to aim for is 3 sets of 20 repetitions of single leg calf raises. If this is too hard you can do double leg calf raises instead.

For a person with heel pain, the number would be more like 5-10 repetitions and 3 sets. You would start on something like a seated calf raise, or a donkey calf raise. The aim is to not have pain in your heel about an hour after finishing the exercise. (a little pain in the heel at the time is ok as long as it settles down)

The bottom line

Calf raises are an excellent exercise for building strength in the calf muscle. There are many variations that can be used to make the exercise easier, or to target different parts of the calf muscle.

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