Calf raises are isolation exercises for the calves, which are your lower back leg. Calf raises are performed either as a bodyweight exercise (standing calf raises) or as a gym exercise using a calf raise machine (seated calf raise).
The standing calf raise is performed by raising yourself onto your tip-toes slowly and lowering back down again.
The seated calf raise is performed by using your calf muscle to push a bar down until your feet are at full extension then slowly raise back up.
It is also possible to perform a seated calf raise using a leg press machine.
Which muscles does the calf raise use?
The calf uses the gastrocmemius and the soleus muscles. The gastrocmemius runs along with outside back of the calf, while the solues lies beneath this muscle and runs all the way to the Achilles tendon.
When your point your toes, you are at full plantar flexion. When you pull your heel back, you are at full dorsi flexion (extension).
The calves are used by your body to pull the heel upwards and point the toes down (plantar flexion) and to bring the toes up and heel back (dorsi flexion). This enables walking and running.
The calves are also needed to perform movements that involve the knees, hips and ankles. This means you need your calves to be in good shape in order to perform good squats, lunges, deadlifts and other gym exercises.
By performing calf raises you are strengthening the muscles that support your whole ankle joint. This is because when you raise your heels, this joint becomes destabilised, forcing a strong challenge on all the areas of the lower leg.
There are a number of types of calf raise exercise which can be split into two main forms: standing and seated calf raises.
Standing calf raises put more stress on the gastrocnemius muscle, while seated calf raises put more stress on the soleus. This is why it is advantageous to perform both types of calf raise for maximum benefit from the calf raise exercise.
Plantar and dorsi flexion
The natural motion of plantar and dorsi flexion when walking can give some pain if you are on your feet for a prolonged period of time in footwear that does not provide adequate support.
Wearing high heels can put particular stress on the calf as it remains in a permanent plantar flexed position, even throughout the walking motion. This can cause damage over a prolonged period of time.
If a high heel wearer starts wearing flat shoes, they might even feel pain in the shins from the new dorsi flexion motion that they are not used to.
If wearing heels, you should try to extend the foot when at rest to give it a break from the plantar flexed position and extend the calf muscle naturally.
Calf raises are a great exercise for people who wear high heels regularly as they strengthen the calf muscles, giving the lower leg extra support.
How to perform the calf raise
Standing calf raise:
To perform a standing calf raise, position your feet about a hip-width apart. Slowly raise your heels so you are standing on tip-toes. Then slowly lower your heels back down to the ground again. Keep your abs engaged and spine straight. Knees should be slightly bent.
It is important to keep the movement slow and controlled at all times. Never bounce while doing the calf raise as this will increase risk of injury and your muscles will not achieve the full benefit from the exercise.
A slow and controlled motion that uses the full range of the movement will give you the best gains for your calves.
You can carry dumbbells in each hand to make the exercise harder or lower and raise your heels down off a step for an alternative movement to challenge the calf.
The standing calf raise mostly works the gastrocnemius muscle to give a defined shape to the calf.
Seated calf machine
There are various machines that let you perform a calf raise. To perform one type of seated calf raise, position the pad over your thighs to grip you snugly with your knees bent at a 90 degree angle.
Slowly press down with the ball of your foot and raise your heels to raise the pad and lift the weight. Use the full extension of your foot and then slowly lower your heel back down again.
Another type of seated calf machine requires the exerciser to extend their legs and push a bar down with the ball of the foot.
Slowly depress the bar by dipping your toe forward. Lower the bar until you reach full flexion then bring slowly back up.
The seated calf machine works your soleus muscle to give width to the calf.
Another machine that you can use to perform a calf raise exercise is the leg press. Instead of using the thigh muscles to press the plate, use your calf muscles only. This requires good concentration and careful technique to make sure only your calf muscles are engaged in the weightlifting movement.