Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Calves of the Gods

Dear Fitness Scavenger: I am trying to make my calves "bigger". I was hoping you would have a few ideas. --"Mary," Hollywood, California

Hi Mary in Hollywood: I get this kind of question all the time: how do I build this and shrink that, how do I get bigger here and smaller there? In addition to her famous red and blue pills, didn't Alice have different multi-colored ointments that you could smear on various parts of the body to make them big or small?

The answer is yes, you can accomplish that goal--fairly directly and easily. But are you going to get an easy answer out of me? Am I going to stretch my answer to this simple, direct question into a huge essay on some arcane aspect of fitness?

You bet your underdeveloped gastrocnemei I am.

I'm going to give you two major solutions to your calf-building quandry. One is the textbook bodybuilding solution, an approach I fully understand but don't fully subscribe to, the other is a more holistic approach. I won't judge you whichever angle you choose, Mary. No, seriously, I won't.

SOLUTION ONE: Quick fix. If your goal is JUST to make your calves a little bigger--and you're not worried about running speed, vertical jump height, etc (and, really, why would you be??), all you gotta do is work that muscle hard in relative isolation. To do that, just flex and extend your ankle joint under resistance. The three exercises I'd recommend, in order of effectiveness, are:

Standing Calf Raises (performed with weight on shoulders, standing, naturally)
Seated Calf Raises (performed seated with weight on knees)
Donkey Calf Raises (performed flexed at the waist, weight at hips).

You should be able to find machines for at least the first two at your standard gym. Exercise number three might be tougher to find but many gyms have them (look for something that looks vaguely like the love-child of a Barcolounger and a torture device).

The final point to make about that movement, which may be either a deterrent or an incentive to do the exercise depending on your disposition, is, well, that it's called the Donkey Calf Raise. I don't know, but for me, that makes the movement more attractive. In our woefully literal world where most exercises have names like the "Incline Close-Grip Bench Press" and the "Seated Leg Extension," I like a little barnyard animal thrown into the exercise-name mix now and again, to go along with movements like the courtly "Good Morning," the repentant "Preacher Curl," and the formidible "Arnold Press."

When performing Donkeys, however, do NOT scream "EEEE-AHWWWW!!" at the top of your lungs with each rep. I've found that gym managers don't like that much. In a few months I'll be allowed back at the Bally's on El Centro to see if I can resist the temptation THIS TIME or risk permanent expulsion. Watch this space.

I digress. As for loading, reps, sets, etc, the most important thing on calves is to GO HEAVY. Your calves schlep you around all day long. Every time you take a step, you're lifting your entire body weight with ONE CALF. Take a trip from the couch to the fridge and back and each calf muscle has lifted about a thousand pounds and you didn't even notice. No other muscle in the body is subjected to so much stress so often (with the possible exception of your heart muscle, which never gets a break, the poor thing), so the stress required to make them grow has got to be pretty extraordinary. Lifting double or triple bodyweight for reps in the standing calf raise is not that unusual with a couple of months of training, so I'd make that your short-term goal.

WORK UP SLOWLY (over the course of three weeks or so) to doing 5-8 sets of 8-10 reps of EITHER standing or seated calf raises 3-4x/week. Just throw them in at the END of your regular workout (you don't want to work your calves before you work your thighs; you'll be too shaky).

You can rest just 20-30 seconds between sets--your calves recover quickly. Pound out about 10 reps per set, stretching and extending as fully as possible on each rep. If you can do much more than 10, up your weight. You'll probably surprise yourself very quickly as to how much you can lift. The whole workout should take less than 10 minutes.

Make sure you stretch your calves thoroughly at the end of your session, and if you think of it, throughout your day. If you don't, he Achilles tendon can get short, which can lead to postural issues down the line if you're not careful. I'm still paying for a year or two of intense calf work back in my teen years when I decided that my lower legs were just too damn skinny and needed punishment five days a week but no stretching. Bad move. Keep your ankles mobile and your calves supple with some hardcore stretching after your workout and on top of that, just as often as you can manage.

So that's solution one: the bodybuilding approach.

SOLUTION TWO: The holistic approach. You can also simply amp up your other activities, making sure they include a fair amount of stress on the calves: long-distance running, sprints, hill runs, stair climbing, steep hikes, and, to a lesser extent, cycling, can all challenge your calves and have the additional benefit of improving c/v health, getting you outside, working your body as a whole, etc. etc. My calves were never so buff as when I was doing triathlons. So that's another way of going about it.

The other advantage is you're not overemphasizing calf work to the exclusion of other body parts. As an "integrationalist" (is that a word?) I prefer this approach but it's longer term and involves more extraneous work. Your results might not be as dramatic or as fast as going the bodybuilding route, but philosophically I prefer this angle.

So I'm offering either a quick, fast solution with pretty much guaranteed results or a long-term, difficult solution with no certain outcome. Whichever way you want to play it, Mary. But once you stray down the path of the Dark Side...

I guess what I'd recommend--reluctantly--is doing approach ONE for a month or so, then seeing how you've progressed and evaluating if you feel you've made enough progress. If so, you could back off and stick to the holistic method for a while. If not, still take a week off from pounding your calves and then hit it for another four weeks at a stretch until you feel you're where you want to be.

Just be sure not to overdo it, and again, build up slowly. Speaking from experience, the calves can get VERY sore and make normal, everyday walking a really fascinating challenge. They can also STAY sore for up to a week, cause a whole herd of Charley Horses to take up residence in your lower legs, and crippling pain whenever you stand up after prolonged sitting. You are forewarned.

So work up slowly.

Good luck--