Understand that when I say "lagging calves," I don't mean a lagging body. If your whole body lacks substantial muscle mass, then, of course, your calves will too. In that case the solution is not a calf-specialization program but an overall growth-specialization program, one that will bring your calves up along with everything else.
The following, however, is a 10-week specialization program for the calves. Before I get into the details, I want to specify a couple of conditions you should meet before embarking on it.
First of all, this routine will do you absolutely no good if you haven't already added substantial muscle mass to your thigh, hip and back structure. It also won't help if you've been in the training doldrums for a long time or if you embark on it immediately following another calf-specialization program.
On the positive side, if you've been using a sound overall mass-gaining program and have added significant muscle and strength everywhere but your calves, try this routine. You're aiming for minimum of a half inch gain after 10 weeks on this program. Fit it in twice during a six-month period and you could put on well over an inch. That may not be a spectacular gain, but it's substantial nonetheless.
Generally speaking, most bodybuilders simply don't train their calves (or their thighs and lower backs) with the effort and will they put into training other bodyparts. Even when you work them intensively and conscientiously, however, the calves aren't usually very receptive to training, so it's a waste of time to train them any way but seriously.
The gastrocnemius is the main calf muscle. The lower leg is composed of several smaller muscles as well as the gastrocnemius. If you concentrate your attention on adding substantial size to the gastrocnemius, the smaller muscles will come along for the ride.
This routine is based on two exercises, the one-leg heel raise performed while holding a dumbbell and the donkey calf raise. There are other calf exercises, not all of them good ones, but these two are magnificent.
For the one-leg heel raise, or one-leg calf raise, as it's popularly called, all you need is a high block that doesn't wobble, something to hold onto and a freeloading dumbbell or set of dumbbells. Even if you don't have a set of dumbbells, you can put together a single one.
The donkey calf raise hits the calves in a different way. You use a high block or platform as you did in the first exercise. In this case you also bend over at the waist, rest your forearms on a bench and have someone sit on your lower back. The weight of the person will directly affect the size of your calves. Even if you train alone, you should be able to get someone to sit on your back, there's no exertion involved. If you have access to a Smith machine, you can use that for resistance.
The block you use should be high enough that at full stretch you can't touch the floor with your heel. Plant your foot or feet in the best position for yourself. Try to avoid slipping off the block as you work through the set. Keep your knees locked at all times other than during the final, twilight zone reps, on which you can unlock them a little to keep the reps moving. Do all the reps of every set with continuous tension.
Work through the exercises with your big toe or toes pointing either straight forward or very slightly outward. Lower to a full stretch under control; don't just drop down. Push up to the very top of the rep in a steady and controlled manner, letting your heel rotate slightly inward if that comes naturally for you. As the set progresses, the reps become harder to do. At this stage you must drive up much more forcefully from the fully stretched position. The further you get into a set, the more forceful you must be as you're trying to get out of the bottom position. Don't bounce, and don't shorten the reps. No matter how far along you are in the set, if you have the will, you can get out another rep.
On the one-leg heel raises trainees frequently rest the non-working leg on the back of the working leg. This can shift the stress of the exercise somewhat and may reduce its effectiveness. Try to do the movement without resting your nonworking leg in this manner. It's easy enough to get used to.
Throughout the 10-week program you work your calves only twice a week, performing the one-leg heel raises at the first workout and the donkey raises at the second. At each workout you perform only two sets of the designated exercise.
Take it easy to start. At the first workout do two sets of maximum reps of the one-leg raises without holding a dumbbell. Start with the left leg. Perform a full set, and when you're finished, do the same number of reps for the other leg. After the first complete round rest very briefly, then return to the first leg and work through the second set. At the second workout do the donkey calf raises with someone who's on the light side sitting on your back. Aim for about 30 reps and do two sets performed to just short of the absolute limit.
Start using a dumbbell on the one-leg heel raises at the first workout. Use as big a dumbbell as you can handle while performing a minimum of 20 reps, at least for the first set on each leg. For the second workout add a bit more resistance on the donkey raises, enough to let you clear 20 reps.
For this week you add five pounds to your dumbbell on the one-leg calf raises and 10 pounds on the donkey raises. The person on your back can simply hold a plate for the extra resistance.
This week you start sweating blood to maintain or exceed the reps you did during the previous week. This degree of effort is the substance of the program or any program, for that matter. If you don't sweat blood, you won't gain. Because the calves have such a capacity for tolerating pain, you must simply venture further and further into it.
In addition to the weight increases you add another factor this week. At the end of each set, immediately after you fold, get back into the top position and do very short burns, as they're called. Just move up and down in the top two inches of the range of motion. Do as many burns as you can. The pain will be massive, but get out a few more all the same.
A great thing about calf training (at least with the exercises we're using) is that you don't have to worry about a weak link giving out before the target muscles do. Unlike the big basic movements such as squats and deadlifts, with calf exercises you only have to concentrate on the calves. There's no discomfort in the shoulders, chest and lower back, as there is when you do squats and no discomfort in every inch of your body, as there is when you do truly limit-effort deadlifts. When you work calves, you lock yourself into that pain and savor it. The more you put up with, the better your results. So really push those sets to the nth degree.
You keep your set totals to a minimum, so there's no need for conscious or unconscious holding back of effort. Just let it all out. Take it as a cast-iron fact: Two sets done to the limit will stimulate more calf growth than 20 pseudo-limit sets. How anyone can do high numbers of repeat "limit" sets is beyond me. There must be more than one meaning for the word "limit" in this context.
A three-minute rest between sets is the maximum; a little less is even better.
This week you do exactly the same as you did in week 3, except you add another five pounds to the one-leg heel raises and another 10 to the donkey raises.
Now you add another twist. In workout 1, before you do the burns at the end of each set of one-leg heel raises, quickly put down the dumbbell and, on the same leg you just worked, do as many reps without the dumbbell as you can. Now do the burns.
For the second workout perform the donkey raises exactly as you did in week 4 but add an extra couple of reps.
Add another five pounds to the dumbbell and 10 on your back. Remember that you want to do your utmost and then some to keep the reps above 20, at least on the first set of each exercise. The reps will be lower on the second set, but that's normal. After the final burns on the final set of each exercise, lower yourself to a full stretch and gently bounce in the low position. You should be in so much pain at this stage that when you finish, a further surge of pain hits you.
This is a repeat of week 6 with the regular five- and 10-pound increases. From now on for the second set on each leg of the one-leg heel raises you drop the weight, using a dumbbell that's only half the poundage you used on the first set. The dumbbell should be getting quite heavy now, and if you're not already doing it, you should start by warming up with a set of about 15 heel raises without a dumbbell before you get into the heavy sets.
In the second workout use a lighter person on your back for the second set. By reducing the poundage on the second hard set of each exercise, you should be able to keep the reps up more.
Add the usual five and 10 pounds, even if your reps drop below 20. In the first workout, before you put the dumbbell down to do the weight-free reps, use the nonworking leg to help get you back up, then lower yourself on the working leg. Doing as many of these as you can will add to the pain considerably.
Here's a summary of what you should be doing on the one-leg calf raise. Perform a full-range maximum-rep set with the appropriate dumbbell immediately followed by two legs up and one leg down immediately followed by maximum reps without the dumbbell immediately followed by maximum burns. The pain can get to the point where it disappears and temporary numbness and immobility set in. This is maximum stimulation.
You continue doing the donkey raises as usual, and no two-up-and-one-down reps.
Weeks 9 and 10
Repeat week 8, adding the usual five pounds to the one-leg raises and 10 to the donkey raises each week.
Calf Program Tips
This is about as intense a routine as you can do for your calves. If you can truly say you've never trained your calves hard, there's no need to jump into this sort of program. Just take your calves seriously from now on, and as long as you build up to using substantial dumbbells, they'll grow.
Those of you who have trained your calves hard without success, however, give this routine your all. Once you've built up to using a dumbbell of more than 70 pounds for 20 good, slow and continuous reps, especially in combination with all the extra work beyond the first 20 reps, your calves will be much improved.
If you feel the program is too tough for you to do in one go, take a break after the sixth week. For one week just do two sets of one-leg calf raises without a dumbbell on each of the two training days. Stop each set just short of maximum reps, and perform no extra reps. Then the next week jump back into the program.
Ideally, you should start this routine after you've been following an overall size-and-strength-building program. Take a week's layoff before starting it, and during the 10 weeks just maintain the rest of your body. Training twice a week with a whole-body routine should do the job well. Just do the calf routine first in your workout.
The calves are your major priority here, so don't combine his routine with a weight-loss program or a demanding routine for the rest of your body. It's simply too much to work yourself to the bone for the rest of your body and then pile the extra calf work on top of that.
Eat well and rest well, and spare yourself any demanding physical work outside the gym. In other words, keep what you have from the knees up and then apply yourself to piling on some size to your calves.