Big calves a matter of genetics?

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The calves are a concern for many strength athletes: they just don’t want to grow. Does that have a purely genetic cause that you have to accept?


First of all: to grow your calves you will have to work hard, perhaps harder than with other muscle groups. Remember that your calves have been working all day to prop up your body when you stand or walk. In fact, overweight people often have larger calves, simply because they put more strain on the calves than someone of a normal weight. Your calves will therefore probably have to be stimulated more than other muscle groups to grow.

To grow your calves you need at least 10 to 20 sets per week (beginners around 10, advanced around 20), to be completed with targeted calf exercises such as the standing calf raiseseated calf raiseleg press calf raisecalf jumpssingle leg hops and the farmer’s walk. This is on top of the indirect calf work that comes with squatsleg presses and deadlifts! Spread those sets over at least two workouts per week. Train your sets to near muscle failure. And apply progressive overload. This means that you can gradually do more reps and/or more weight.


But what about the genetic factor in muscle growth in the calves? A recent study by muscle growth expert Brad Schoenfeld, among others, provides some insight into this.

In this study, the researchers got 26 young untrained men to perform 4 sets of calf raises twice a week (2 sets of standing calf raises and 2 sets of seated calf raises). The participants performed the exercises with one leg at a time (unilaterally). They also did all one leg exercises using light weights in a high rep range (20 to 30 reps per set) and all the other leg exercises using heavy weights in a low rep range (6 to 10 reps per set).

After 8 weeks, the researchers measured how much the participants’ calves had grown using ultrasound. Overall, everyone’s calves were about 8 to 14% bigger than they were at the start of the experiment – ​​no one in this group had “bad” genetics. In fact, everyone’s calves grew about as fast as other muscle groups in similar studies.

However, there were large differences in how participants responded to the different rep ranges used in the study. Specifically, it was found that for some people, high-rep training led to more muscle gains, while for others, low-rep training was better, and for the rest it didn’t seem to matter (their calves grew equally well no matter what rep range they used).

In other words, if your calves are not growing despite adequate training volume, you may not be using the correct rep range to optimize your calf growth. Which reprange is optimal for you, is again a genetically determined issue.


In order to grow your calves optimally, it is best to use different rep ranges. That means spreading the training volume, 10 to 20 sets per week, between heavy weight (6 to 10 reps), medium weight (10-15 reps) and light weight (15-30 reps).

If calf growth lags behind, your calves may be less sensitive to one of these rep ranges: they may respond better to heavy weights or to light weights. You can find out by placing the emphasis on heavy or light weights for a longer period of time and keeping track of the results. We said a longer period of time, because you can only determine the effects of a certain training regime after two to three months.


If your calves don’t want to grow, don’t blame your genes right away. You may simply need more training volume (exercises and sets). In addition, it is advisable to train in different rep ranges, so to do sets with both light and heavy weights, trained to near muscle failure. Experiment with rep ranges to find out if you might be more sensitive to a particular rep range.

Finally, there is always a genetic component that determines the amount of muscle growth, but that applies to any muscle group.

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