Calf Raise Alternatives: How to Target the Same Muscles

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
January 31, 2022

An ever popular isolation exercise meant to improve the size, strength and endurance of the various muscles located in the calf portion of the legs, calf raises often take a prominent – if somewhat neglected – place in many leg day workouts.

This is due to the fact that, despite the calves being utilized as stabilizers or secondary mover muscles in many workouts, directly training them can be quite difficult and reserved for only a few key movement patterns.

However, in the case of searching for a suitable substitute or alternative to the calf raise in a physical rehabilitation or workout program, several possible candidate exercises may be used, with the primary difference being the sort of equipment or lack thereof required of the alternative exercise.

How can the Calf Raise be Substituted in a Workout Program?

Considering the fact that the calf raise is not only an isolation exercise but also primarily utilized as an auxiliary one, substituting or alternating it should also utilize an exercise of a similar nature and intensity.

standing calf raise

This can equate to the alternative exercise either also possessing the status of an isolation exercise, being that of rather low intensity or even a high resistance exercise performed at very low repetitions so as to avoid overloading the muscles.

Calf Raise Variations

The more simplified variations of the calf raise in comparison to its other alternatives, such exercises like the unilateral single leg calf raise or the seated calf raise provide practically the same form and angle as the original standing calf raise exercise, while also providing certain allowances for individuals of certain training requirements.

Single Leg Calf Raise

Simply the standing calf raise exercise performed in a unilateral manner, the single leg calf raise differs from the traditional calf raise exercise form in terms of the exerciser requiring one arm extended towards a stable object so as to retain their balance more readily, while the other arm holds the object of resistance.

single leg calf raise

The single leg calf raise presents certain advantages over the traditional calf raise due to the fact that it may allow a more focused mind-body connection by only moving one side of the body’s musculature at a time, allowing the exerciser to achieve better training stimuli and results at the expense of time and energy.

Seated Calf Raise

Performed with the exerciser fittingly seated on a bench or similarly stable area, a barbell, dumbbell, plate or other form of weighted resistance training equipment will be placed atop their knees or lap so as to provide a direct downward angle of resistance for the purposes of training the calves.

seated calf raise

A major advantage of the seated calf raise over the traditional standing calf raise is the fact that individuals with poor grip strength, certain spinal or core injuries as well as similar conditions may all perform the seated calf raise without aggravating said injuries or conditions.

Of course, it is always far more advisable to instead consult a physician or physical therapist prior to alternating the traditional calf raise with the seated calf raise for such purposes.

Free Weight Calf Raise Alternatives

For a similar form of resistance to the traditional standing calf raise, the usage of free weight resistance exercises such as those that make use of weight plates or loaded barbells can retain many of the benefits found in the former exercise, such as the additional activation of stabilizer muscles as well as ease in finding said equipment.

Plate Pushes

An intermediate level resistance exercise generally performed in functional athletic sports such as CrossFit or professional football training, the plate push makes an excellent alternative to the calf raise not only in training its relative size and strength but also that of its work capacity and power.

The plate push, unlike the calf raise, is performed with the individual entering a mountain climber pose and quite literally pushing a weighted plate over a grassy plain or similar surface so as to provide some level of friction and resistance, thereby providing additional training stimuli.

When substituting calf raises with plate pushes, it is best for the exerciser to aim for time under tension instead of distance moved or amount of weight used, as that is the primary form of training stimuli that will bring the most benefits to the exerciser.

Weighted Sled Pushes

The more upright variation of the plate push, weighted sled pushes make use of a type of exercise equipment known as a sled, wherein weight plates are loaded atop the stiles of the sled prior to the exerciser pushing it across a suitable surface in a bent over position.

This particular exercise differs greatly from the traditional calf raise not only in form but also in classification, being an open kinetic chain compound exercise primarily training the power and explosiveness of the exerciser as opposed to purely their muscular strength.

As such, the weighted sled push is best used as a calf raise alternative for such fitness routines like agility drills or athletic training programs where the benefits of improved speed and endurance are also a goal of the exerciser and the routine itself.

Barbell Hack Squat

Not to be confused with the hack squat machine or hack squat machine calf raises, the barbell hack squat is primarily performed with the exerciser placing a loaded barbell behind their ankles as they lower themselves in a squat position, gripping the barbell in such a way that it presses against their legs as they thrust upwards and stand erect.

barbell hack squat

Also a free weight compound exercise like the previous candidates in this section of the article, the barbell hack squat will primarily activate the calf muscles in a stabilizer or secondary mover capacity due to the closed kinetic chain nature of the exercise.

As such, the barbell hack squat is best used as a calf raise alternative in combination with another exercise that activates the calf muscles in a more dynamic and isolation-type capacity.

Machine Calf Raise Alternatives

More versatile than free weight calf raise alternatives due to the nature of resistance exercise machines, machine calf raise alternatives present a variety of advantages that may or may not be suitable depending on an exerciser’s particular goals, such as the reduced need for a stabilizing muscular group during the performance of the following exercises.

Leg Press Calf Raise

A modification of the leg press machine squat, the leg press calf raise simply requires that the exerciser reduce the total resistance of the machine as they instead place only the upper portion of their feet against the lifting plate, ensuring that no cheating of the repetition will occur.

The exerciser will then disengage the safety locks and simply allow the resistance of the plate to press their ankles backwards somewhat, prior to the exerciser then engaging their calf muscles and pushing the plate back as far as they can manage with their own individual flexibility.

The leg press calf raise makes an excellent alternative to the calf raise due to the fact that it provides a far longer period of time under tension due to the inverted nature of the leg press’s resistance, as well as the certain advantage of a reduced chance of injury from the usage of the leg press’s safety locks.

Calf Raise Machine

A machine built quite literally to act as a traditional calf raise alternative, the calf raise machine makes use of a pair of padded outcroppings atop the machine that rest against the exerciser’s shoulder as they raise their heels off a sturdy plate located along the bottom of the calf raise machine so as to provide practically the same training stimuli as a free weight calf raise exercise.

Much like the traditional calf raise, the calf raise machine is best combined with more intense compound exercises that also involve the various smaller muscle groups in the calves so as to impart a complete and totally effective training stimuli profile.

Smith Machine Calf Raise

Making use of the fixed bar resistance exercise equipment known as the smith machine, the smith machine calf raise presents a mixed batch of benefits and disadvantages that allow it to act as a possible alternative to the more traditional free weight standing calf raise in the capacity of certain functions.

smith machine calf raise

The smith machine calf raise presents such benefits like a reduced need for stabilizer muscles, reduced chance of injury from dropping the bar and an easier to learn form for newbie exercisers, making it a more suitable exercise for individuals with a reduced ability to perform free weight exercises.

However, a major disadvantage of the smith machine is the fact that its bar is fixed in a rather vertical position, making it unsuitable for individuals of low flexibility or of certain biomechanics that may cause tearing or impingement due to the angle at which the bar is placed atop their back.

Hack Machine Calf Raise

Quite similar to the leg press calf raise save for the fact that it is performed with a hack machine that places the exerciser in an up-right position, the hack machine calf raise presents a more natural angle while still retaining much of the same time under tension benefits of a machine-based calf resistance exercise.

The hack machine may entirely substitute the presence of the traditional calf raise in a workout program or athletic training regimen, especially if performed for high volumes of repetitions with the proper form being used.

Bodyweight Calf Raise Alternatives

In the event that no sort of exercise machine or free weight is available for the exerciser to use, or they simply do not wish to do so, it is entirely possible to activate and train the various muscles in the calves with such things like the exerciser’s own bodyweight or the force of gravity itself.

It is important for the exerciser to temper their expectations, however, as it is unlikely the relatively low level of resistance imparted by these factors can be compared to the sort provided by specialized exercise machines or the intensity of free weights, both of which likely impart similar or superior training stimuli in a shorter period of time.

Box Jumps

Primarily making use of the calf muscles in order to launch the exerciser sufficiently high enough at the moment of the jump, box jumps make use of a raised box or similar elevated platform on which the exerciser will land atop of as they repeatedly launch themselves upwards, thereby activating the calves alongside the entirety of their lower body.

box jump

While box jumps doubtless provide some level of muscular hypertrophy and neuromuscular strength conditioning, it is an exercise best used for such individuals like athletes or those wishing to undergo agility training due to the fact that the majority of its benefits are more geared towards that of the cardiovascular and functional strength capacity instead.

Jump Rope

A classic exercise performed everywhere from school gymnasiums to high level athletic training programs, the jump rope is not only an excellent calf muscle training exercise but also one that builds other athletic abilities in the exerciser that may be useful in such endeavors or in general life tasks themselves.

jump rope

The jump rope is better utilized as an alternative to the calf raise when combined with a subsequent resistance exercise with a larger focus on intensity rather than volume, as is the nature of the jump rope exercise itself.

This may be done by performing bodyweight calf raises after a set of jump rope so as to induce a modicum of muscular hypertrophy in the calf muscles.

References

1. Baz-Valle E, Schoenfeld BJ, Torres-Unda J, Santos-Concejero J, Balsalobre-Fernández C. The effects of exercise variation in muscle thickness, maximal strength and motivation in resistance trained men. PLoS One. 2019 Dec 27;14(12):e0226989. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0226989. PMID: 31881066; PMCID: PMC6934277.

2. Gentil P, Souza D, Santana M, Alves RR, Campos MH, Pinto R, Bottaro M. Multi- and Single-Joint Resistance Exercises Promote Similar Plantar Flexor Activation in Resistance Trained Men. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Dec 18;17(24):9487. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17249487. PMID: 33352879; PMCID: PMC7765981.

3. Lee, Geoncheol & Kim, Bom & Kim, Jisu & Nam, Inseong & Park, Yoojin & Shin, Woojin & Woo, Sumin & Cha, Seongki. (2014). The Effect of Calf-Raise Exercise on Gastrocnemius Muscle Based on Other Type of Supports. Journal of The Korean Society of Integrative Medicine. 2. 10.15268/ksim.2014.2.1.109.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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