Calf training doesn’t have to be done in the gym. With little or no equipment, most of us can get bigger calves at home. While calf machines are nice, they are by no means a requirement. Calf workouts at home can be extremely effective.
I’ve personally been on the quest for bigger calves forever. I work out in my garage and don’t have any fancy machines. I have a squat rack, a few bars, and a ton of weight. I would love to have a seated calf raise in my home gym but I just don’t have the room for it. As a result, I have had to come up with some alternative ways to train calves at home. Some of these methods you may have already heard of or thought about, but keep reading and I think you will be surprised by some of my methods.
At home calf training can be split into 3 different categories:
- Calf exercises without equipment
- Calf Exercises with minimal equipment
- Home Calf Machines and Equipment
In this article I am going to cover all three categories and will hopefully be able to benefit everyone looking to get bigger calves at home, no matter what their calf equipment situation.
A Quick Lesson on Calf Anatomy
Your Calves are made up of several muscles. The largest of which, and the ones we are interested in training, are the gastrocnemius and soleus.
Gastrocnemius – This is muscle you see on the back of your calf. It sits just under the skin and is visible when you flex. It resembles an upside-down heart.
Soleus – This is actually the largest of the calf muscles. The soleus runs under the gastrocnemius. While it isn’t visible when you flex, it is important to train as it will increase the overall size of the calf and make the gastrocnemius push out more.
I bring up calf anatomy because different calf exercises train different muscles of the calf. In order to get bigger calves at home, we have to come up with ways to train both muscles effectively.
Calf Exercises Without Equipment
When it comes to building muscle, typically weights are required. Lucky for those of us looking to get bigger calves, we can use our own bodyweight to train them at home.
The keys to effectively training calves without equipment are form and tempo. Get these 2 factors right and you will get great muscle activation and a great pump.
Standing Calf Raise Without Machine
The beauty of the standing calf raise is that it can be performed almost anywhere.
To do it right, you should have a step of some sort so that you start the exercise with your heels around 3-4 inches below your toes. This will allow for a full stretch and full muscle contraction.
In the contracted or “up” position of the exercise, your heels should be as high as possible. Imagine a ballerina and try to get up on your toes as much as possible.
If necessary, use a wall, pole or anything else to balance yourself during the exercise. I always try to put as little force as possible against the wall so that it is not assisting me much in the exercise. To do this, use one or two fingers instead of your whole hand.
I suggest performing calf exercises barefoot or in minimalist shoes. Focus on your big toe and try to apply as much pressure as possible to it. Pressing through the big toe is essential to performing the full range of motion.
The standing calf raise without a machine should be performed in a slow and controlled manner. Pause for 1 second and the bottom (stretched) position and pause for another second at the top (contracted) portion of the exercise.
Your rep range during this exercise isn’t a controlled variable. You won’t be able to add or remove weight to get into the 8-12 rep range that is preferable for hypertrophy. That’s okay. Perform as many reps as you can until you can’t perform another full rep. For me, this is around 30 reps.
For beginners, I suggest performing 3-4 sets, 2-3 times per week.
Single Leg Standing Calf Raise
If the two-legged standing calf raise is too easy for you, try the single leg standing calf raise. This exercise is performed just as the double leg, but you are only using one calf at a time.
A balancing object will be even more necessary during this lift.
Theoretically, you would be able to perform even less than half of the reps you could perform with two legs. For me, this is around 8 or 10. I find the single leg standing calf raise very difficult, even without weights.
Again, focus on pushing through the big toe and let the calf fully stretch and contract. (Go all the way down and all the way up)
If you plan on doing both single leg and regular standing calf raises, I suggest starting with the single leg as they may be too difficult once you are fatigued.
Calf Workout at Home Without Weights
For a serious calf workout at home without weights, give this a try:
- Start with 2 sets of standing calf raises (both legs) as a warm up. Perform 10 or so reps. The idea here is not to go to failure, but just to get some blood pumping.
- Move to the single leg calf raise and perform 3 sets on each leg. I suggest rotating back and forth with an extra minute or 2 rest in between each set.
- After the single leg sets, Perform 2-3 sets with both legs. These are still slow and controlled reps. Do as many as you can for each set.
- After the final set of regular standing calf raises, perform 1 more “burnout” set. These reps are going to be full contractions, but fast. Use a little momentum and do as many as you can as fast as you can. Keep going until you are completely spent.
That’s it. It might not sound like much, but give it a try and I think you will be surprised with how difficult a calf workout without weights can be.
While the standing calf raise is the best bodyweight calf exercise for mass, there is one drawback. It only works one of the major calf muscles, the gastrocnemius.
It is not possible to train the largest calf muscle, the soleus, without a bit of equipment. Read below to see how to train the calves to their fullest with just a bit of equipment.
Check out this video from Jeff Nippard, “The Most Scientific Way to Train Calves” It’s very informative.
Calf Exercises with Minimal Equipment
This is my favorite category. In my home gym I don’t have any fancy machines, but I have found ways to train calves very effectively, with just a bit of equipment.
One of these exercises you have probably seen before but the other is of my own invention and works like a charm.
Seated Calf Raise Without Machine
This is the exercise you have probably seen before. While it’s nothing new, it is highly effective and absolutely necessary for getting bigger calves.
Earlier in the calf anatomy section, we discussed the different muscles of the calves. The soleus, the largest muscle of the calf, is most effectively trained during the seated calf raise, which makes this exercise imperative for developing overall calf strength and size.
To perform the seated calf raise without a machine, you will need some weight and something to sit on.
In its most basic form, you could sit on a chair, put something heavy on your thigh just above your knees and flex your calves.
Preferably though, you would want a weight bench, a bar, and some weight plates. I prefer to use the curl bar because it is shorter, easier to balance, and my legs fit nicely into the curves of the bar.
Like the standing calf raise, this exercise is best performed with something under the front half of your foot so that the heel of the foot can sink down lower than the toes. I have some thick bumper plates that I like to use for this purpose.
The Bar should sit just above the knee. You will likely need to slightly press the bar away from you during the exercise because it will want to slide towards you as you raise the weight.
If you are lifting heavy, you may have 200 lbs or more on the bar. This can cause significant pressure and pain to your thighs, where the bar is resting. You may want to cushion the bar with a folded towel or foam pad to prevent bruising.
I suggest a few light weight warm up sets and then going heavy. Look to perform between 8 and 12 reps with full range of motion.
With the proper setup and a little equipment, the seated calf raise can be performed very effectively without a machine.
Donkey Calf Raises at Home
The above picture is of Arnold Schwarzenegger performing donkey calf raises with several men sitting on his back. “Why would he go through the trouble? Surely, they had calf machines back in the 70’s!”
The reason Arnold went through the trouble is that the donkey calf raise stimulates the gastrocnemius more than any other calf exercise.
So, how do you do donkey calf raises at home? what do you do if you don’t have a couple of sweaty guys to sit on your back?
Get a dip belt.
A dip belt is a chain hooked to a leather or fabric pad. The pad goes on your back and the chain hangs down between your legs. You use the chain to the attach weight plates. You can use a dip belt to add weight to your dips or pullups. I use it for Donkey Calf Raises.
Below is a picture of the dip belt I have. Right now it’s only $22 on Amazon. I have used it for 4 plates and it has held up well. Click this link to check it out.
To perform the donkey calf raise at home, you will need a step of some sort to put your toes on, something to lean against such as a table or maybe your squat rack, your dip belt and weight.
You will want to stack your plates vertically in front of your bench or a chair and then sit down to strap up. Hook up the plates while you are in a seated position and then stand up. The plates will be hanging between your legs. Do a bowlegged walk over to your pre-determined donkey calf raise station and step on to your step. Be careful while walking with the plates strapped to you because they could bash you in the knee.
Once you are in position, let your heels come all the way down so that your calves are in the fully stretched position and then press all the way up. Push through your toes and focus on the contraction.
Keep your legs straight to put the maximum tension on the gastrocnemius. Bending the knees slightly will take some of the tension away from the gastrocnemius and place it on the soleus.
Is this the perfect recipe for getting bigger calves at home?
If the seated calf raise is the best exercise for training the soleus and the donkey calf raise is the best exercise for training the gastrocnemius then we have the perfect recipe for bigger calves and we can perform both of these exercises at home with just a bit of equipment.
To recap, you will need
- A bench
- A step (can be anything that elevates your toes)
- Weight plates
- A bar (I prefer the curl bar)
- And a dip belt
With these 5 items you can get an amazing calf workout at home without buying a calf machine.
Home Calf Machines and Equipment
If you have the space and the funds, you may be saying, “Why not just buy a machine?” Well, if that’s the case, I have a few suggestions for you.
To adequately train calves at home using machines, you will need to purchase machines to target both the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. It will take two separate machines, since training the soleus requires the legs to be bent (preferably at 90 degrees) and training the gastrocnemius requires the legs to be straight.
Seated Calf Raise for Home Gym
This is the optimal machine for training the soleus muscle.
The seated calf raise is a plate loaded machine. It’s basically a seat connected to a bar on a hinge. Most designs are fairly compact and easy to use.
The bar sits on a safety catch in the “up” position. Load the weight, sit down with your thighs under the load and pull out the safety bar. Your toes will be positioned on the built-in toe block.
Let your heels come all the way down to the floor (if possible) and raise the weight all the way up to the fully flexed position.
One common issue with the seated calf raise machine is that it makes it easy to “bounce” the weight. Try to press in a slow and controlled manner. Pause for a second or 2 at the top and bottom of the lift in order to prevent bouncing.
The XMark Seated Calf Raise Machine is of high quality and can handle a decent amount of weight/ plates. Click on this link if you would like to read the reviews on Amazon.
There is a cheaper one, but it seems to be of much lower quality. I also don’t feel that the plate holding bars are long enough and may not be able to hold a sufficient amount of weight for a stronger person.
Standing Calf Raise for Home Gym
If you are planning on training the gastrocnemius muscle, the visible muscle of the calf, using a machine, you are going to need a standing calf raise.
When you think of a standing calf raise machine, you are probably thinking of the stack loaded one at the gym. You pull the pin out, select your weight, and get in position.
This type of machine isn’t really available for home use. Luckily there are a few other, more versatile, options.
The Leverage Squat Calf Machine
The leverage squat (pictured above) Is a plate loaded machine that can be used for squats or standing calf raises.
The calf raise motion will almost exactly duplicate the weight stack loaded calf machines of commercial gyms.
Load the plates, stand on the calf block with your shoulders under the weight bearing pads, and you are good to go.
The beauty of this machine is that it can also be used for squats. It allows for 2 different squat motions; one they call a leverage squat, and a regular squat.
There are a few leverage squat machines on amazon. With a 4.5 star rating, It seems the best one is the Body-Solid Leverage Squat & Calf Raise Machine. Click on this link to check it out on Amazon.
Smith Machine Calf Raise
The smith machine is my ideal choice for standing calf raises at home.
This is a big machine that will take up a lot of room, but it is very versatile. If you are building a home gym, you may want to consider purchasing a smith machine for calf raises as well as many other exercises including squats and bench press.
The bar of the smith machine glides along bearings set into steel poles. This prevents forward and backward motion of the bar and allows you to perform exercises without having to worry about balance. I don’t prefer it for squats, but it is perfect for standing calf raises.
To perform calf raises in the smith machine, you will need something to stand on so that your toes are elevated. Thick bumper plates will work, but if you want something sturdier, you may want to invest in a calf block.
A calf block is just a sturdy metal block that you put your toes on to perform calf raises. This seems to be the best one. Click on this link to check it out.
To perform the smith machine calf raise, stand on your calf block with your shoulders under the bar. You should be standing upright with your legs straight.
Hold on to the bar with your hands for balance and raise away. Just like with any other calf exercise, let your heels drop down below your toes, all the way to the floor if possible. Pause at the bottom and then press the weight up. Pause at the top and repeat.
Leg Press Calf Raise at Home
If your home gym has a leg press, you may be able to use it for “standing” calf raises. While you aren’t actually standing, the leg press calf raise mimics the motion and works the gastrocnemius muscles.
Your leg press will either need a calf block attachment or have an adjustable foot plate so that you can drop your heels below your toes.
Both the TDS leg press and hack squat combo and Body Solid leg press and hack squat combo have adjustable foot plates for calf raises. Both seem to be awesome all in one lower body machines. The TDS can hold 1000lbs if 100lb plates are used.
Home Calf Machine Recap
To recap, if you are going to get bigger calves at home by using machines, you are going to need 2 separate machines. A seated calf raise machine to hit the soleus and either a leverage squat machine, smith machine, or leg press to perform standing calf raises to hit the gastrocnemius.
The Bottom Line on How to Get Bigger Calves at Home
No matter what your situation, you can train calves at home. If you are an advanced lifter, you are probably going to want some type of equipment. If you want to keep it simple or don’t have the money or the space, go with the minimal options. They work great. The donkey calf raise is my favorite calf exercise and you don’t need much to do it.
If you want to take your training to the max and you have the space and money, invest in a couple of quality leg machines.
Please let me know in the comments section if you have any other suggestions or ideas for calf training at home.
Now, go Pump Some Iron!