When I think about people with strong-looking calves, the groups that immediately come to mind are pointe dancers, elite running and jumping athletes, and bodybuilders. Some of the people in those groups may have genes that predisposed their calf muscles to respond very positively to exercise. They are naturals. The others may not have had that genetic advantage but were able to develop their calves by doing a lot of the activity that defines their group.

What is that activity?


Whether by way of nature or nurture, all of them developed toned calves by doing one particular anatomical movement: plantar flexion.

Are there different kinds of plantar flexions? Will they all have the same effect? The answer to the first question is yes: there are standing, seated, single leg and double leg plantar flexions, among others.

Tudor Bompa and Lorenzo Cornacchia used surface electromyography (EMG) to answer the second question. To prepare you for their answer, let’s review several basic points about muscle physiology.

The following is a list of the steps leading to a muscle’s contraction. You will see where EMG fits into the sequence events. Here is how a muscle contracts:

  1. An electrical signal travels to a motor neuron at the end of a nerve fiber.
  2. The signal causes the release of acetylcholine.
  3. Acetylcholine causes depolarization throughout the muscle fiber attached to the motor neuron.
  4. During depolarization, the muscle fiber’s charge rapidly shifts from negative to positive.
  5. The flow of electrical charge creates an electrical current.
  6. The electrical current creates an electrical field outside the muscle fiber.
  7. Surface electromyography measures the force of the electrical field.

Bompa and Cornacchia wrote a book titled Serious Strength Training which presents their research on different calf exercises (a.k.a., different plantar flexions). They studied experienced, injury-and drug-free bodybuilders as they lifted weights. The researchers put surface EMG electrodes on the athletes and recorded the results as they lifted the heaviest weight possible for each lift. Finally, they made a list of the exercises with the highest amounts of muscle activity.

Unstated assumptions


Electromyography measures the force of electrical fields. So what are Bompa and Cornacchia assuming (their assumptions are unstated), when they link the electrical field voltages to muscle activity? They assume that the force of a muscle’s electrical field is directly proportional to the force of a muscle’s contraction. They also assume that the exercises that produce the strongest fields are the exercises that recruit the largest number of muscle fibers.

The list of the top calf exercises


Which calf exercises produced the greatest voltages measured by EMG? Here they are, in order beginning with the one with the highest voltage:

Donkey calf raises

Standing one-leg calf raises

Standing two-leg calf raises

Seated calf raise

The researchers highly recommend all of those exercises.

But for guaranteed results—if you definitely want toned calves—you should work with a personal trainer. They are going to know the important things worth knowing. Things such as:

  • The first exercise is downright dangerous.
  • The second is very hard.
  • The other two exercises tend to produce results when performed at a specific intensity.

Find a gym with a serious personal training program and tell them exactly want you want!