The Best Way to Get Bigger Calves Is Hiding in Plain Sight

This underrated, somewhat goofy fitness hack will strengthen your lower half

June 29, 2021 5:59 am
Running's great. But if you want to build bigger calves, you should consider a different approach.
sportpoint/Getty Images

Calf implants certainly aren’t the most popular male elective surgery. Rhinoplasty, liposuction and even chin augmentation all see far more procedures year over year. But surgeons have noticed an uptick in requests for a decent decade now, and the concept — once fodder for TV comedies like Modern Family or Entourage — is being taken seriously. This is a real thing, which a lot of men want. Why?

It boils down to how notoriously difficult it is to build one’s calves. Skinny calves, or calves typical of “hardgainers” (people whose muscles are generally resistant to bulking efforts), are simply a genetic reality. Plus, popular endurance pursuits like running and biking actually have a catabolic effect on muscle; jogging eight miles will strip fat from your lower half, thereby toning the calves, but if you want a bigger pair, you need to sprint, perform HIIT and strength train.

Body dysmorphia and insecurity-driven fitness are also red flags to watch out for, so it’s important to contextualize your long-term physical goals with an honest mental-health checkin. Are your goals reasonable? Healthy? Are you setting them for the quote-unquote right reasons? If the answer to all of those questions is a “yes” and getting bigger calves is still something you really want to do — and you don’t want to go under a knife for $4,000 — you could entertain a dynamic training routine, which should assist your calf development over time. Consider moves like seated raises, standing presses, single-leg lunges, jumping jacks, box jumps, seal jumps, agility ladders, jump roping and stair or hill workouts. It all works.

There’s one other move, though, an unheralded calf-building hack, which I’ve gotten into recently. It’s an effective, dead-simple bodyweight exercise, something you’ve definitely done before, and you don’t need a gym to try it, let alone shoes or socks. It’s time to get reacquainted with walking around on your tiptoes.

tiptoe walking
Most of us leave toe walking in childhood. But it’s an underrated hack for strengthening the calves.
Miss K.B. Photography/Getty Images

“Toe walking,” believe it or not, is a legitimate workout for your calves. If that sounds unlikely, consider that it’s simply the unweighted form of the popular farmer’s carry, in which a trainee picks up a kettlebell in each hand, rises up onto his toes, and walks in a line back and forth across the gym. Even without the weights, the flexion required to walk on the balls of your feet fully activates the calves. They contract upwards and start firing immediately. Get up from your desk right now and feel it for yourself.

And it’s the fact that you could do that right now that makes toe walking so useful. I regularly walk on my toes to the bathroom, to grab a clementine from the fridge, to switch the laundry, etc. I’ve done it in public when I’m convinced no one can see me (this almost always backfires), but I prefer around the house, as I’m usually not wearing any shoes. With some hybrid version of WFH likely to remain a part of many of our lives, there isn’t much stopping you from tip-toeing around your house or apartment.

This could be done casually, but there is an ideal form:

  • Raise your heels as high as they’ll go (then “lock” them in place, no rocking)
  • Keep your posterior chain stacked over your ankles (that means head and hips aligned, with the shoulders back)
  • Engage the core
  • Then walk at a slow, determined pace. Court that burning sensation. If you want to create a workout from it, you can do 60 second “sets” and repeat the sequence five times.

As with most examples of functional fitness, toe walking offers more than just more calf strength. It tightens the abs, it improves your posture, it stretches the toe extensors. It’s also a useful, relatively gentle way to discover injuries or imbalances, particularly for runners: if one leg is struggling to hold the tiptoe position, that could signify stress in the Achilles tendon, plantar fascia or knee.

If you’re just pining for huge calves, keep in mind that genetics still play a role, and even around-the-clock toe walking won’t guarantee the shapeliest legs at the beach. But this is one way to jumpstart that grind; toe walking could be your gateway to weighted farmer’s carries or one of the many other split-leg squats and agility jumps listed above. You can even modulate the move by positioning your toes inward or outward, which triggers muscle fibers in the gastrocnemius and soleus in different ways.

Not to mention, toe walking is an excellent method for boosting proprioception (that refers to a body’s understanding of self-movement and its surroundings — kids hone it all the time) and also a great way to get ahead of frequent falls in old age, by proactively strengthening the calves against natural muscle deterioration and a lack of balance. Whatever your result here — maybe you start to feel more confident in shorts, maybe you just start getting more steps in — know that even a small, borderline-goofy fitness “hack” can be a big deal, and one that just might get you bigger calves.

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