If you've ever envied someone's shapely, sexy lower legs and wondered how you can get your carrot stick calves to look like that, you're not alone. Although genetics plays a role in calf shape just as it does with any other part of the body, you can maximize your calf size to make your legs more shapely by targeting the region with toning exercise.(Image: sv_sunny/iStock/GettyImages)
Calf Shape and Structure
When you reach back and grab your calf, it feels like one big muscle. However, your calf and its shape are actually due to an interplay of muscles known collectively as the triceps surae.
Poke the big bulgy muscle on the back of your calf and you're touching the gastrocnemius muscle that runs from the back of the knee to Achilles tendon just above your heel. The name "gastrocnemius" literally means "belly of the leg" and if you want shapely calves, you'll want this belly to be bigger.
The soleus muscle lies below, attached to the shin bone and the Achilles tendon. The muscle plays a crucial role in flexing the foot, and its contractions help blood make its way back to the heart. When you're doing squats or yoga in a mirror, you might see this muscle popping out to the side of your shin bone.
Genetics Play a Role
About 50 percent of your calf shape is due to hereditary factors, according to bodybuilding coach and researcher Menno Henselmans in an interview with Muscle for Life. However, that doesn't mean you can't develop a better calf shape.
If you're one of the people who just seems to have no results to developing calf muscles, take heart and keep in mind that the other 50 percent is something you can work with. Henselmans says there is no such thing as a "nonresponder" — someone who can't develop muscle no matter what they try.
He prefers to think of people who struggle to develop muscle mass as "hardgainers" and maintains the theory that by tweaking diet, workouts and exercise frequency, you can develop svelte shanks to replace those carrot sticks.
The Basic Shapes
There is no official list of different calf shapes. However, your body type can give you a basic idea what shape your calves, and the other muscles in your body, might take. Keep in mind, this is just a general categorization, and you may fall somewhere in between one of these three categories:
Your basic body build isn't all there is to it. Your ultimate calf shape depends upon the length of the calf muscle belly compared in ratio to the connective tendons that fasten the muscle to the bone.
You can quickly tell whether your body tends toward long or short muscles with a quick biceps test. If you have longer muscles, your arm will look bigger when supinated — not flexed — and the muscle when you flex will be small in height. Those with short muscles will see biceps pop up more when flexed and appear smaller when extended.
However, genetic muscle length isn't the end of the story. According to T Nation, men should be able to grow their calf size to that of their neck or upper arms. Women's calves have even more potential and can grow to be even bigger than their upper arm. Only people with ankle girths that are small compared to their wrists will find it difficult to increase the calf muscles to the same or larger size than the upper arm.
Prioritize Calf Shaping
It's easy to overlook the calf muscles as they're one of the more challenging areas of the body to develop. Calf development is commonly left as an afterthought on leg training day. If you're serious about calf development, consider a calf training day or, at the very least, put them first in the rotation of exercises when you focus on your legs.
The reason for giving your calf muscles top priority is because just after you warm up, your body is free from lactic acid, ammonia, acidosis and inflammation produced during a workout. That means it's the prime time to train those behind-the-leg muscles to reap maximum benefit. In fact, you'll reap the most benefit in terms of size and muscle strength from the first exercise you do after warming up, according to T Nation.
Beyond Calf Raises
If you work out in the gym, you're no doubt familiar with the standing calf raise machine with shoulder pads. Standing with your knees slightly bent, you press up on your toes and lower back down.
An even more effective variation, says T Nation, is to do calf jumps. You set up the same way for regular calf raises, but you bend more into your knees at the first part of the motion, then explode up onto your toes as if jumping. Your feet shouldn't actually leave the platform; you're just making the explosive movement. Brace your core while doing this exercise to minimize spinal compression.
For maximum calf size, work up to using more weight on the calf-raise machine than you can squat.
Burn the Fat
If generous padding between your skin and muscle makes your calves look chubby instead of chiseled, get on an eating plan that targets burning fat. Lower calorie intake is a key component of any diet designed to reduce body fat composition. Cut out processed and sugary foods and eat plenty of vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats. Stick with it long term, and you'll lose fat and see more defined calf muscles.REFERENCES & RESOURCES T Nation: 3 Reasons Your Calves Aren't Growing Study.com: Soleus Muscle Definition, Location and Function Yoganatomy: Gastrocnemius Muscles Yoganatomy: Soleus Muscles Muscle for Life: The Hardgainers Guide to Guaranteed Muscle Growth Muscle for Life: Menno Henselmans Answers: How Can You Tell If You Have Good Muscle-Building Genetics? Bodybuilding: What Is Your Body Type? Fitness 19: Long Muscles vs. Short Muscles Anti Bunhead Fitness: Myth Buster: Long & Lean Muscles vs. Short & Bulky Diet Doctor: Ketogenic Diet for Beginners Yoga International: Upward Plank DoYouYoga: 5 Reasons to Do Salabhasana, Locust Pose, Every Day Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Diets and Body Composition Nassau Community College: Chapter 11: The Muscular System