Calves tend to be the butt of the joke when it comes to the fitness world, but from a powerlifting perspective, it is worth looking into whether we should give them more attention.
Should powerlifters train calves? While calf training should not be prioritized over other muscle groups or movements that are more essential for powerlifting performance, adding in calf exercises may help support good ankle mobility, foot stability, and even long-term knee health.
Realistically, you can get away with not training your calves and still getting pretty darn strong.
However, if your goal is to have a super strong body overall, completely ignoring certain muscle groups simply doesn’t make sense. In addition, assuming you do other activities beyond powerlifting in your day, having strong and conditioned calves may help prevent mobility restrictions and tightness from creeping in which may affect your ability to squat well.
In this article, I will cover…
- The role of the calves in powerlifting
- When you should consider adding calf training
- What 3 elite powerlifters think about the topic
- 3 exercises for the calves that may benefit you
The Role Of The Calves In Powerlifting
The calves are a muscle group that mostly works to help the ankle flex and keep the foot in place, which is one aspect of a good squat.
While it looks like the calves don’t do much of anything when it comes to the squat, the calves are indeed activated.
The calves are made up of 2 main muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The muscle most of us see and refer to as our calves is the gastroc as it is much larger and meatier whereas the soleus is situated a bit deeper within the calf.
The function of the gastrocnemius is plantar flexion, which is the motion of moving your ankle to point your toes upward and is key in running and jumping.
Related article: Running and Powerlifting: Should You Do Both?
The soleus also really has the same function, but it is more heavily involved in keeping balance and stability and actually is more active when your knees are bent…. Like in the squat.
Therefore, when it comes to powerlifting the role of the calves is involved in the squat more than any other lift, it’s likely the soleus that does more good from a functionality standpoint.
While we often think of a muscle’s function as being its ability to flex, it’s important to note that a muscle's ability to stretch is also critical for performance and this is where the real influence of the calves comes in.
If your calves are weak, tight and under stimulated you will likely have mobility restrictions in your ankles which will bleed into your ability to squat comfortably to depth.
This means the role of calf training goes beyond strength and incorporates elements of mobility as well.
Struggling with poor ankle mobility? Check out our article How To Increase Ankle Mobility For Squats: 13 Exercises
Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.
When To Know If You Should Be Doing More Calves For Powerlifting?
You Are Experiencing Any Nagging Knee Pain
If you are experiencing any nagging knee pain it wouldn’t hurt to pay some attention to your calves. While there are multiple muscles involved in knee movement and the calves may not be the first one you think of, the soleus does still run along the back of the knee and plays a role in knee extension.
In addition, the soleus actually helps prevent the knee from doing less favourable movements forward and laterally and therefore helps keep the knee from ending up in vulnerable positions, which is something that can happen in the squat.
Therefore, if you’re concerned for your knee health or even have a history of knee injury, ensuring your soleus is strong may be something to consider.
If You Are Having Trouble Reaching Depth
If you are having trouble reaching depth, you may be surprised that more calf exercises may be exactly what you need. While ankle mobility is often deemed the reason for poor depth, the cause of the poor ankle mobility isn’t always a joint issue. Having tight calves will prevent you from being able to dorsiflex and in turn will make sinking into a squat a real challenge.
Incorporating calf exercises that force the calves into extension will over take help the muscles become more flexible and help mobilize the ankle joint.
For more on this topic, check out 22 Exercises To Improve Squat Depth (That Actually Work)
If You Are Experiencing Any Instability in Your Foot Throughout the Squat
If you are experiencing any instability in your foot throughout the squat, some calf exercises wouldn’t be a bad idea. The calf muscles help keep your foot strong and planted into the ground; therefore, if you find your foot rolling to the sides or just generally don’t feel stable in the bottom position of a squat, you may benefit from doing some work on your calves.
This may not mean doing 100 calf raises a day to help build up its size, but rather doing exercises that work on maintaining balance and help strengthen the calves functionality and strength.
What Experts Say On Training Calves For Powerlifting
We asked some experts to give us their take on calf training for powerlifting and opinions did vary a bit, this is what they had to say:
Megan Bryanton, PhD, CSCS, Kinetic Advantage Consulting
The role of the calves is two-fold:
- They are our body’s first line of defence to regulate balance. If they can’t, we start recruiting the glutes, hamstrings, erectors, etc to help. That means the “energies” of important primary movers muscles are being redirected to help control balance.
2. In a movement like the squat, ankle plantar flexion via the calves can assist the knee extensors in extending the lower leg to stand upright. If the goal of the task is to move the most amount of weight possible, why not let them help!
2. Bryce Lewis, Founder & Strength Coach, The Strength Athlete,
While powerlifters can train calves, we might do well to ask ourselves the reasons for adding any exercises besides the main lifts into a person's training.
Typically there are two reasons: increases in hypertrophy for specific muscles might increase short or long-term strength potential, or we may learn some skill or technique that may transfer to the main lift we care about.
In the case of calf work, I find the transference between direct calf work and increases in strength on the main lifts to be quite minimal, if at all.
In other words, growing strength or size for calves specifically may not correlate with strength on the squat or deadlift. This is far from universal, but I'd say less than 5% of our athletes perform calf work on a weekly basis.
Next, there's a question of investment versus reward.
With an average of 1.5 hours and four sessions per week, we have six hours of potential training time to allocate for most athletes. There are simply other things that rank higher in priority, leaving calves and other things off the table as muscle groups that might have value, but are low enough to consider as a last thought.
For people who have dual interests in powerlifting and bodybuilding (or another sport), have obvious deficiencies in hypertrophy, are newer lifters, or just plain ol' want to train calves, I have no problem programming them for the interested athlete.”
3. Jason Tremblay, BHPE, PFT, President & Co-Founder, The Strength Guys
If a powerlifter is restricted by time, they should prioritize their primary and accessory lift training over more general items such as training the calves.
However, strengthening the calves and muscles of the feet may support improved squat performance and injury prevention if a lifter does have time.
Training the calves may be beneficial by increasing the force production capabilities of the plantar flexors and strengthening the muscles of the foot & ankle to resist internal rotation of the tibia, which may be a risk factor for knee injury under repetitive, high-stress conditions.
Top Calf Exercises For Powerlifters
1. Seated Calf Raises
The seated calf raise is a simple exercise for increasing strength and hypertrophy of the calf muscle.
It is done in a seated position and most gyms do have a specialized machine for it; however, it can be also done with a barbell or dumbbell resting on your thighs while sitting on a bench.
This exercise is an isolation movement and will target the muscle most directly and allows the muscle to go into extension if you elevate your feet off the ground by a couple inches.
2. Box Elevated Calf Raise
Box elevated calf raises are very similar to the seated calf raises except you are standing on a box and bring your calves to a full extension.
Your knees should be slightly bent when you do this exercise and you may also do it one leg at a time to add an extra challenge and increase the stability demands on the soleus muscle.
3. Box Step Down
Box step downs may not appear to be a calf exercise, and they are definitely not an isolation movement. However, the box step down challenges the calf muscle when it comes to balance and stability, more than anything.
This exercise is done by standing on a box with one leg hanging out in front and slowly stepping down like you are coming down the stairs in a very controlled manner.
If you get a higher box you will also force your foot into an increased degree of dorsiflexion and therefore get the ankle mobility benefits through the exercise as well as stimulating the muscle to become stronger in resisting movement of the knee.
You can try any of these calf exercises with the addition of blood flow restriction techniques, which I outline in my article on Blood Flow Restriction Training For Calves.
Other Exercise Guides For Powerlifters
Here are some other exercise guides for powerlifters that you might be interested in learning about:
- Should Powerlifters Do Olympic Lifts?
- Should Powerlifters Do Incline Bench Press?
- Does Overhead Press Help Bench Press?
- How Do Powerlifters Train Back?
- How Do Powerlifters Train Legs?
- How Do Powerlifters Train Chest?
- How Do Powerlifters Train Shoulders?
- How Do Powerlifters Train Arms?
Training Calves For Powerlifting: Final Recommendation
The final recommendation when it comes to training calves for powerlifting is that it is not a must-have, but can be a nice-to-have if you have space in your programming and especially if you are struggling with instability or mobility at the feet, ankle or knee.
If you are a multi-sport athlete or just want to be strong beyond just competitive powerlifting, training your calves should definitely be considered more deeply.
If you find your calves cramping in exercises like the leg curl, then be sure to check out my other article that will help solve this problem.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.