5 Best Soleus Exercises (with Pictures!): Grow Bigger Calves

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
October 22, 2022

Whether you are a runner, a bodybuilder or someone who wishes to improve the balance of their lower body - there is no doubt that the soleus muscle is quite important for you. 

With its placement along the rear of the calf area, it is among one of the most important muscles for basic leg motion - and even more important for high intensity athletic activities, like jumping and sprinting.

This has lead athletes and regular gym enthusiasts alike to develop or incorporate exercises specifically meant to target the soleus muscle, if not otherwise include the entirety of the calves muscles themselves.

These exercises are most frequently that of weighted calf raises, heel raises, seated calf raises and occasionally certain variations of the step-down exercise - each of which number the soleus among their recruited muscle groups.

What is the Soleus Muscle?

The soleus muscle is a major portion of the calves, running beneath the larger gastrocnemius muscle group and featuring attachment points at the heel and back of the knee.

Gastrocsoleus Complex

It is capable of being contracted in both isometric and dynamic ways, allowing it to be involved in nearly every movement that uses the legs to a certain extent.

Function of the Soleus Muscle

The soleus muscle is responsible for plantarflexion of the foot, as well as stabilization of the knee and ankle during motion that involves such joints. It is most frequently used for walking, skipping, climbing or other activities that involve angling the foot away from a parallel plane.

In theory, if we were to place resistance in an opposing direction to this plantarflexion of the feet, it would stimulate muscular hypertrophy and neurological strength adaptations in the soleus muscle - or what is otherwise known as training.

What is the Importance of the Soleus Muscle and How is it Trained?

The soleus muscle is unfortunately overlooked due to its unassuming appearance and distal location at the bottom of the body - an irony considering the importance of such a muscle, with the calves as a whole being among the most frequently used muscle groups alongside others like the abdominals or forearms.

In particular, the soleus muscle is the most important contracting muscular structure for flexion of the foot while the knees are in a bent position, meaning that this is also the position in which they are most effectively trained.

Fortunately, exercises like the seated calf raise or soleus resistance band stretch can take advantage of this very biomechanical niche, maximizing the extent to which the soleus is recruited during any particular workout session.

1. The Weighted Calf Raise

Perhaps the most common exercise that directly recruits the soleus muscle itself, weighted calf raises are more often performed for the purposes of training other muscle groups located in the calves.

weighted calf raise

This specific goal, alongside the relative safety risks and size of the calves themselves, all equate to the weighted calf raise being performed for high volume sets with relatively low amounts of weight being used, with such weight often taking the form of a barbell placed on the back of the lifter, or a pair of dumbbells that they hold.

Who Should Use This Exercise?

Weighted calf raises are particularly useful for bodybuilders or other types of athletes that wish to build the total mass of their calf muscles, with the soleus being only a portion of the muscular development that they wish to induce.

Apart from this, the weighted calf raise may also be used for individuals that wish to balance out the training stimulus across their lower leg, a requirement for individuals with a history of calf injuries or muscular imbalances in such an area.

How to Perform

Depending on what sort of resistance equipment is used, the exerciser will prepare to perform the weighted calf raise by either placing the loaded barbell upon their back and stepping out of the rack pins, or otherwise simply gripping the weights in both hands.

Then, in order to perform a standing weighted calf raise, the exerciser will stand with their feet slightly wider than hip width apart, their toes facing at a slightly outward angle. 

Keeping their knees extended and their head facing forward, they will then push upwards from their forefoot until standing on tip-toe, before slowly lowering themselves once more to the starting position.

This completes a repetition of the weighted calf raise.

2. Negative/Inverse Calf Raises

Negative or inverse calf raises are simply calf raises that are performed with the eccentric portion of the repetition extended through the use of a platform. 

negative calf raise

This increases total time under tension placed on the muscle (particularly the soleus) and otherwise allows greater plantarflexion to take place, making the negative calf raise arguably more effective at training the soleus than other calf raise variations.

Who Should Use This Exercise?

The negative or inverse calf raise is a somewhat more advanced exercise than other calf raise variations, and requires a level of stability that novice or injured exercisers do not have. 

As such, it is more advisable for only intermediate level bodybuilders or athletes to perform this particular soleus exercise.

How to Perform

In order to perform negative calf raises, the exerciser will place one or both feet on a platform with their heels hanging off the edge, usually with their arms gripping a nearby object for additional stability. 

Only the forefoot and half of the arch should be placed on the platform, with the knees extended in order to maximize calf muscle recruitment.

To begin the repetition, the exerciser will lower themselves to the furthest depth that their ankle mobility will allow, prior to once again rising and pushing through their forefoot until reaching a state of complete plantarflexion, completing the repetition once they can no longer extend their foot any further.

With that, a single repetition of the negative calf raise is completed.

3. Seated Heel Raises

Seated heel raises are quite similar to negative calf raises, with the sole difference in terms of foot stance being that the repetition begins with the ankles already fully bent, as is beginning a negative calf raise at the bottom of the repetition instead.

seated heel raise

In terms of soleus muscle recruitment, seated heel raises contract the muscle in both a dynamic and isometric capacity - greatly enhancing their relative athletic performance while also stimulating the rest of the calf muscles in an isolated manner.

Who Should Use This Exercise?

Seated heel raises are excellent for individuals without the mobility to perform a standing negative calf raise, or athletes and strength-focused lifters that wish to maximize every bit of power they can draw from their lower body.

Individuals with poor ankle mobility or those that wish for a more dynamic and engaging exercise may wish to perform another soleus-targeting exercise instead, however.

How to Perform

To begin performing a seated heel raise, the exerciser will take a stool or similarly low platform and place it beneath their feet as they sit on a bench. The heels should be extended as low as the exerciser’s ankle mobility can allow, with the midfoot remaining in contact with the stool throughout the repetition.

If desired, the exerciser can also place a weight plate or dumbbell on their knees so as to impart a greater level of resistance to the exercise, though we advise first starting without any additional resistance so as to become more familiar with the movement.

Performing the repetition, the exerciser will draw their heels upwards while maintaining contact with the stool through their forefoot and toes, slowly raising the ankles until reaching a state of full flexion - thereby completing a full range of motion for the soleus.

Then, they will simply reverse the movement in a slow and controlled manner, stopping at the lowest depth that their mobility can allow. This completes the repetition.

4. Resistance Band Calf Flexion

As its name suggests, the resistance band calf flexion combines a resistance band and the lower extremities in order to train the calf flexion biomechanic - of which is primarily motivated by the soleus muscle, especially when the legs are in a state of knee flexion as well.

band calf flexion

Resistance band calf flexion is more frequently encountered in physical rehabilitation or warm up routines, though it does indeed have a place in any in-depth calf muscle training program.

This particular soleus exercise is performed for low volumes of repetitions per set, usually with each repetition performed as slowly as possible so as to maximize length of time under tension, aiming for a greater quality of repetitions instead of quantity of repetitions.

Who Should Use This Exercise?

Resistance band calf flexion is particularly useful for individuals with a weak soleus muscle, or those that cannot perform any of the other exercises on this list - hence its usage in physical rehabilitation programs.

Furthermore, it is an excellent tool for completing a bodybuilder or powerlifter leg day workout, both stretching out the calves in a manner that improves mobility while simultaneously providing enough resistance to maximize total workout training stimulus.

How to Perform

To perform the resistance band calf flexion, the exerciser will lay on an exercise mat and extent both legs away from the hips. 

Hooking the resistance band around the forefoot of both feet, the exerciser will then bend until their back is straight, gripping both ends of the resistance band in their hands. This should pull the foot backwards as well, stretching the ankle and placing the soleus in a shortened state.

Then, the exerciser will push their foot forward and against the resistance of the band, ensuring that their torso and knees do not contribute to the force of the movement. The repetition ends once the feet have reached a state of full flexion, with no further forward movement being possible. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How do I Build the Soleus?

The soleus is built like any other muscle group; through targeted training stimulus from resistance exercise and the correct recovery methods being employed. 

This means that the soleus muscle is unlikely to develop (even with proper exercise) if the exerciser is not sleeping for a long enough period, consuming a sufficient caloric surplus or eating enough protein to encourage muscular development.

Do Squats Work the Soleus?

Yes, squats do indeed work the soleus muscle, especially when performed below a parallel hip depth. However, this recruitment of the soleus muscle is primarily in a stabilizing or isometric capacity, meaning it is unlikely to result in any significant muscle mass growth or dynamic strength improvements.

barbell squat back view

Instead, the soleus will respond far better to directly targeted isolation work, such as with calf raises or calf flexion exercises.

Should I Train the Soleus or Gastrocnemius?

In order to ensure no muscular imbalances are developed, one should strive to always train every muscle group within a certain area of the body. 

This includes the calves, where the soleus and gastrocnemius are of equal importance and as such must also be trained equally, without preference for one muscle or the other.

Luckily, it is quite difficult to separately contract the soleus and the gastrocnemius, and as such any exercise that targets either muscle will likely also target the other as well, removing the need for further training volume.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, it is not difficult to include the soleus in your next leg day workout, and the benefits of doing so are especially useful to a wide variety of different athletes. 

The next time you’re doing your high-volume calf raise sets, try adding in some extra soleus work so as to reinforce its range of action.

As always, make sure to perform a proper mobility drill prior to placing any sort of resistance on your calf muscles, as they are particularly prone to cramping or acute injuries.

References

1. 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.

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.

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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