How to Grow Calves With Bad Genetics: Is it Possible?

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
October 6, 2022

One of the most commonly bemoaned problem muscles by bodybuilders is that of the calves - a muscle group that is unfortunately dictated in large part by an individual’s genetics. This can result in the calves seeming small in size due to their attachment points along the bones of the lower body.

Fortunately, poor calves genetics is not a death sentence, as it is still entirely possible to increase their relative mass through the use of proper training methodology.

In short, the best way to grow your calves despite bad genetics is to place additional training focus on them - something that can be done by addressing issues in training programming, switching out ineffective exercises or simply increasing total volume placed on the calves.

How do Genetics Affect Muscle Size?

A variety of genetic factors go into the relative size of a specific muscle group, with things like muscle attachment points, fascia thickness, blood flow and even fat deposition all altering the size and appearance of a muscle.

calf anatomy

For the calves, this is primarily dictated by muscular attachment and fat deposition - the first of which will affect where along the bone the muscle inserts and attaches to, whereas the second can create the illusion of bigger calf muscles by storing additional adipose tissue around the muscle.

How to Grow Calves with Bad Genetics

Increase the Frequency of Your Calf Training

The first and most important step to countering bad calves genetics is to simply increase training frequency. 

Note; this is not the same as increasing training volume, as frequency is the number of workouts where the calves are trained, instead of the number of repetitions per workout.

Increasing the frequency with which your calves are trained will allow greater muscular hypertrophy to occur due to the cycle of recovery and subsequent damage from resistance training, eventually resulting in more muscle fibers being created over time.

A high training frequency is particularly effective for training the calves due to their relatively small size, and the manner in which they are structured. 

These two factors allow the calves to recover far more quickly than other muscle groups, meaning that they may be trained more often and therefore have hypertrophy stimulated at a greater recurrence.

Maximize Range of Motion

Much like any other muscle group, the calves benefit the most from a full range of motion during resistance exercise. 

This means placing an equal amount of training stimulus on the muscle throughout its maximal range, both during eccentric and concentric contraction.

In order to do so, the exerciser can either combine two or more exercises that target a certain portion of the calves’ range of motion, or otherwise make use of an exercise that utilizes a full range of motion instead. Movements like calf raises are particularly adept at the latter application.

Countering Progress Stalling with Linear Progression Techniques

Many exercisers will find that their calf muscle development has stalled at some point during their intermediate-level training. This is because of the exerciser exhausting the “newbie gains” effect and failing to continue onwards to more advanced progression methods.

In order to do so, the exerciser can implement linear progression with a progressive overload technique, either by steadily increasing resistance over the course of several weeks, or by tweaking total volume through periodization blocks.

This, when combined with proper rest and diet, should be all that is needed for the calves to undergo muscular hypertrophy and thereby grow in size.

Best Calves Exercises to Build Mass

If your training and diet are in order and your calves still won’t grow, it is likely the exercises that you are performing. 

While the calves only really have one range of action possible, certain exercises meant to target this muscle are not as effective as others that make use of a full range of motion. The following exercises are among some of the most useful for developing muscle mass in the calves.

1. Negative/Eccentric Calf Raises

The lesser known twin of the calf raise, negative calf raises involve the exerciser placing their forefoot on an elevated platform and slowly lowering themselves from this position, flexing their calves the entire time. 

negative calf raise

This is essentially a calf raise performed in reverse, and is arguably more effective due to the additional focus placed on the eccentric phase of the movement, resulting in greater strength developments and muscle mass improvement.

However, there is some controversy as to the safety of negative calf raises, and it is advised that individuals with poor ankle mobility avoid this particular exercise, as it may result in them injuring themselves.

2. Calf Press on the Leg Machine

A machine-based calf exercise that repurposes the popular leg press machine, the calf press allows exercisers to reach supramaximal volumes of repetitions per set due to the machine-based nature of the exercise, also improving the relative safety of the movement.

leg press calf raise

The calf press using a leg machine is also particularly useful for inducing training stimulus within a specific range of motion, something that the seated calf raise also shares - though the calf press does so alongside all the other benefits of a machine-based exercise.

Unfortunately, this particular exercise is also quite poor at inducing significant isometric contraction, and may be difficult to complete in a full range of motion for the calves - meaning it is best combined with another calf muscle exercise so as to maximize potential hypertrophy.

3. Seated Calf Raises

Either a machine or a free weight exercise performed on a bench, seated calf raises remove any question of “cheating” from the repetition, ensuring that it is solely the calves that are recruited throughout the repetition.

seated calf raise

Seated calf raises will generally be performed with less weight than most other calf exercises, as it not only forces the calves to work alone but also places all the stress of the movement on the joints of the ankles and feet.

For individuals with trouble achieving a full range of motion or inducing proper training stimulus to the calves, seated calf raises are the ideal exercise to pick.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How do I Know if I Have Bad Calf Genetics?

While beauty is subjective and what may appear small to one individual can appear large to another - generally, individuals with “poor” calf genetics will have shorter muscle attachments along the distal end of both muscles, usually resulting in the appearance of a smaller muscle group. 

Furthermore, it is also possible to have genetically poor muscle growth potential, with certain individuals having the maximum natural muscular hypertrophy that they can achieve stunted by their unfortunate genetic predispositions.

Why is it so Hard to Grow Calves?

A rather unknown fact is that the calf muscles of most individuals are already quite well developed - so much so, in fact, that further training stimulus placed on them by resistance exercise may actually be insufficient in certain cases.

This can appear as the exerciser’s calves “stalling” in terms of development, or otherwise simply not responding at all to the training stimulus being induced.

This is why having a higher training frequency, achieving a full range of motion and switching out your exercises is so important; it raises the intensity of the training stimulus itself.

Do Squats Grow Calves?

Though squats do indeed recruit the calves to some extent, it is not enough to induce any noticeable developments in terms of muscle mass. 

barbell squat back view

This is often why professional bodybuilders and similar individuals will choose to include one or two calves isolation exercises in their workouts, as it is unlikely that they will receive enough stimulus to develop otherwise.

Final Thoughts

And there you have it - how to grow your calves despite a poor hand dealt by genetics. 

While such a problem may seem trivial to some, professional bodybuilders or individuals seeking a more well-rounded physique can actually place quite a bit of importance on the size of their calves - with poor calf genetics being a misfortune for these types of exercisers.

And though we’ve covered the various methods of improving calf size during training, it is all the more important to also uphold proper rest and recovery methods - thereby taking advantage of these changes in your training.

References

1. Green, B., McClelland, J.A., Semciw, A.I. et al. The Assessment, Management and Prevention of Calf Muscle Strain Injuries: A Qualitative Study of the Practices and Perspectives of 20 Expert Sports Clinicians. Sports Med - Open 8, 10 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-021-00364-0

2. Orsted HL, Radke L, Gorst R. The impact of musculoskeletal changes on the dynamics of the calf muscle pump. Ostomy Wound Manage. 2001 Oct;47(10):18-24. PMID: 11890075.

3. Trappe TA, Raue U, Tesch PA. Human soleus muscle protein synthesis following resistance exercise. Acta Physiol Scand. 2004 Oct;182(2):189-96. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-201X.2004.01348.x. PMID: 15450115.

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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