- The calf muscles are trained regularly by bodybuilders for aesthetics, but are rarely trained by strength athletes.
- Most don't know the important role of the calf muscles in the squat.
- The calves function as a sort of fulcrum point for the lever that is the femur - that is, they provide a "base" for your other muscles to push from.
- As a result, tight calves can create mobility issues in the ankles, which can actually limit how deep you can squat.
- Training your calves with heavy weight and pause reps both builds a bit of muscle and also builds mobility and stability in your squat.
- 1100 words, a ~5-7 minute read.
The calves are an often-overlooked muscle group. While bodybuilders train them to develop additional size, strength athletes will rarely ever touch them. Omar Isuf’s jokes about #teamnocalves hit the mark because they capture a real sense of the strength lifter’s attitude towards calf training: we never want to touch them. I know I sure don't!
It doesn’t help that the calves are a tricky muscle group to master. They never seem to grow in size much in response to training, seem to require a lot more training to develop, and also seem to be more tied to genetics than anything else. I know runners with amazing calves and bodybuilders with terrible ones. It's a mixed bag.
However, the calves really DO have a very important and often-overlooked role in training for strength athletes: they contribute significantly to our squat.
Biomechanically, it’s easy to think about the prime movers that do most of the work - the quads, glutes, and low back. It’s commonly believed that the hamtstrings are also a significant contributor, but this isn't necessarily the case. The quads work to extend the knee joint, the glutes, hamstrings and low back work together to extend the hips, and you get the weight up.
But there’s a piece missing in this puzzle: that at the same time that all this is happening, the calf muscles are also being activated to provide a counterbalance for the action of the quads at the knee.
The gastrocnemius, one of the two calf muscles, originates not on the lower leg bones (tibia and fibula) but instead on the upper (femur), and attaches to the achilles tendon. As a result, it crosses both the ankle and the knee joint, and functions a bit like a fulcrum point in the lever system - your knee and hip joints are extending and doing the work, but the gastroc is serving as a sort of “base” for this entire system to push off of.
This is NOT to say something stupid like “squatting is all calves” or, “if your squat is stalled, train your calves to break through that plateau”. It’s not nearly as simple as that.
However, your calf muscles CAN play a huge role in terms of how you squat, more than how much you can squat.
Calf tightness can limit the depth of your squat. If your calves are tight or your ankle mobility is otherwise limited, this prevents the knee from moving very far forward. If the knees can’t move as far forward, that means that we have to bend more at the hips to make up the difference. As a result, we end up leaning further forwards, which can be disastrous - if you're one of those people who loses control the instant the squat starts to tip forward, you know what I mean. Some people naturally need to squat with a greater forward lean than others, but in general, we want to minimize our forward lean as much as possible.
It's all connected, so tightness in one part of the chain means that it has to be made up for, somewhere else higher up in the chain.
An easy solution to this problem is simply to add elevation to your heel - via squat shoes or a pair of plates. This essentially tilts your ankles forward a bit so that mechanically, your starting point is actually more “back” than previously.
Think about a woman in a pair of high heels - to stand up straight, she has to overextend the feet compared to standing up straight without these heels. Then, if she were to go into a squat, she has to move the knees forward quite a bit just to get back to what would be a “normal”, unextended ankle position. As a result, if you go to squat with a higher heel, you can typically squat lower because you’re taking ankle mobility partially out of the equation.
This is exactly why squat shoes exist - first, so that you can have a nice stable base of support to push from, but secondly, so that you can have a bit of a heel and get deeper into your squats.
When you’re an Olympic lifter who needs to be able to squat very deep to catch a snatch or a clean and jerk, every little bit helps. Powerlifters, who don’t need to squat as deep (just to parallel) can often get away without these shoes (particularly if they squat low bar), but they can still help.
It’s commonly believed that our limb lengths (the ratio of our various bones to each other, which can vary quite a bit from person to person) can have a huge impact on how we squat. People with long femurs are typically expected to have more forward lean in their squat, and people with shorter femurs are expected to be able to stay more upright.
What this study found, however, is that it seems much more likely that ankle mobility is the real culprit. Greg Nuckols recently reviewed this on his MASS research review, which I always highly recommend for a more in-depth look at the information. I don’t recommend tossing all care out the window and assuming that your mobility problems are 100% related to your ankles - but it’s definitely a thing to try.
I do use calf raises as an exercise with some of my strength clients. They can be a useful and fun light exercise that fit in well when you’re already exhausted from heavier work, while still having a small impact on your physique. If doing calf raises with a barbell or pair of dumbbells, you can also get some grip work in at the same time. I recommend adding a step or block underneath the toes to increase your range of motion and improve the stretch you're getting at the bottom portion of the movement.
Other options I recommend to help improve ankle mobility include long weighted pause squats (60 sec.+ with weights of about 25-30% of your max, done at the end of your workout as a mobility exercise) and heavy calf raises with slow, controlled reps and a full range of motion, pausing slightly at the bottom. These exercises will help build mobility by means of weighted stretching, a method I prefer for heavy lifters.
Long story short - training your calves, particularly via heavy, weighted stretches, means more mobility in your squats and the ability to stay more upright during those squats, resulting in greater overall strength. If your range of motion is limited, then stretching, mobility work, and buying a pair of squat shoes can all help.
Enjoy this post? Share the gains!
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- Troubleshooting Your Squat
- MASS Research Review... Review
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