The “abuse excuse” is a term popularized by law professor Alan Dershowitz in a 1994 book by the same name. The premise is that people should take responsibility for their actions, rather than insisting that their behavior is the result of some unfortunate previous occurrence. For example, just because a child’s parents were poor and uneducated doesn’t mean that child will grow up the same, and just because someone grows up in a bad neighborhood doesn’t mean they are destined for a life of crime. And although the analogy might be a bit of a stretch, the abuse excuse can also apply to calf training.
As has been pointed out in the bodybuilding magazines for decades, for individuals with an insertion point nearer the knee, the thickest portion of the muscle belly will be higher up in the lower leg. Although this anatomical characteristic creates leverages that are advantageous for running and jumping, having a higher muscle belly is not as impressive physique-wise. In contrast, an individual with a lower insertion point will appear to have more muscle mass than someone with the same measurements but a higher insertion point.
Chris Dickerson, who won the 1982 Mr. Olympia at age 43, had low muscle bellies and reportedly trained his calves only twice a week because any more frequently would have made them too large for the rest of his body. Arthur Jones, writing about Dickerson in his Nautilus Bulletin #2, said that Chris was one of two surviving triplets. Jones met Dickerson’s surviving brother, and although the brother didn’t train, Jones said the brother had better calves than Chris did. There was also a rumor that one finalist in a Mr. Olympia competition demanded that one of his competitors be x-rayed for calf implants because his lower leg muscles had grown unbelievably fast during the previous two years.
Upon hearing such stories, many of those who have poor calf development will use them as an excuse not to train the calves. Or they may even seek out the alternative of calf implants. Once only whispered about in professional bodybuilding circles, calf implants are becoming more common among the average population.
According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, “Increased fullness of the calf can be achieved using implants made of hard silicone which are inserted from behind the knee and moved into position underneath the calf muscle.” The organization also reported that 1,170 calf implants were performed in 2003, up from 149 in 2002, and now estimates are that 1,500 of these surgeries are performed every year.
In 2007, the national average surgeon’s fee for calf implants was $3,206 – but there are many other fees associated with this operation, such as anesthesia and hospital stay, so the total costs are estimated to be $7,500 to $10,000. And because it is considered elective surgery, it’s unlikely that health insurance will cover any of these expenses. Also, consider that there are health risks associated with any surgery, and that there is no guarantee that the results from such surgery will be exactly what you expect.
I don’t want to make an absolute statement that I’m against calf implants, especially because there are many medical issues, such as polio, in which calf augmentation surgery is the only answer to achieve normal calf development. But the fact is plateaus in calf development can often be overcome by using the appropriate training protocols. In fact, gains of 1.25 inches in calf circumference in just eight weeks are not uncommon when using the approach I’m about to share with you.
Fast Training for Fast Gains
Encountering plateaus in calf development can be quite frustrating. You hear about daily training regimens that involve thousands of repetitions, and then there are the so-called high-intensity protocols that use heavy weight and fewer reps. There are “toes in, toes out” variations, and there are sports science studies that suggest that foot positioning doesn’t really make any difference. I won’t get into all these points of contention here, but I will present to you a training method that may help you experience a new level of calf development – fast! An appropriate name for this type of training would be explosive calf training.
When standard resistance training protocols fail to work, what I find often resolves the problem is changing the tempo of the exercises by working the calves explosively. If you need proof, look at the calf development of elite volleyball players, ballet dancers or even weightlifters. Yes, weightlifters.
When pulling weights off the floor or driving a barbell during the jerk, the calves are flexed explosively – after all, in weightlifting, as in many sports, speed kills! One weightlifter with unquestionably the most impressive calf development in the history of the sport was Belgium’s Serge Reding. Reding, the first man to snatch 400 pounds (which he did in 1973), was one of the most physically impressive athletes of all time – in any sport. At a height of 5 foot 8, Reding had calves that measured over 20 inches and thighs over 31 inches. And talk about explosive calves – he reportedly could do multiple jumps higher than a foot off the ground while holding 286 pounds!
Before you perform any explosive calf work, I suggest you pay attention to thoroughly warming up your calves by doing progressively heavier sets of standing calf raises. Make certain you perform a full range of motion on every rep. Don’t go to failure on these sets; just warm up. Let’s start by summarizing the workout:
The first exercise is a jump squat. Place a barbell across your traps – a loaded barbell that represents 25 percent of your bodyweight. As an alternative overload implement you can use a sandbag with handles. You want to stay away from doing jump squats with dumbbells, because upon landing, the dumbbells will place undue stress on the soft tissue and joint structures of the shoulder girdle. Jump up and down for a set of 12 reps. Rest for two minutes between sets, and do five total sets. Make sure that the duration of ground contact is kept to a minimum, and go for maximal height, keeping the involvement of the knee extensors to a minimum. In other words, you want your heels to touch the floor for the very strict minimum amount of time.
One very important tip: With this exercise air time is more important than load, so don’t go for heavy loads – go for air time. Those who use loads that far exceed their stretch-shortening cycle capabilities will encounter problems. In other words, they spend way too much time on the ground, which negates the positive transfer of this exercise. The hypertrophy and strength gains in your calves will be coming from the fast eccentric loading caused by the landings. Jump squats performed with too much weight do not provide sufficient acceleration, and therefore ground contact lasts too long, which entirely defeats the purpose of this exercise.
As I tell my trainees, I prefer you use the same load on the barbell for six workouts and do NOT increase the load for the duration of the cycle. You should just concentrate on increasing the acceleration of the barbell. You should be consistent with each landing. Often times, in athletes who have structural balance issues or who are plagued with coordination problems, the landing patterns are inconsistent from one rep to another. So for example, someone whose knees buckle in for both the pre-loading and landing of jump squats is definitely not ready for jump squats or is using too great a load to maintain proper jumping mechanics. If you try these jump squats, you can expect soreness in your calves over the next few days.
After completing six workouts of five straight sets of 12 reps, you can perform another six workouts but with a different protocol. Specifically, jump for six reps with a barbell representing 30 percent of bodyweight, then put the barbell on the floor and immediately perform another six reps with just your bodyweight. Perform five of these drop sets, resting three minutes between drop sets.
As described here, these exercises may not seem like much work, but the rewards will surprise you. Best of all, you won’t have to make any more excuses for poor lower leg development.