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If the goal is functional performance in a power sport (speed, acceleration, vertical jump), how should one train calves, if at all?

Here are the alternatives that I can think of:

  • Don't train calves specifically, but train barbell lifts like deadlifts, squats, and power cleans and let the calves adapt to those lifts and your sport
  • Train calves in addition to the barbell lifts using isolation exercises (calf raises, etc.)
  • Train calves in addition to barbell lifts using plyometrics (box jumps, etc.)

Another way of phrasing my question is: is there a benefit to training calves above what is achieved via standard barbell lifts (and your sport), and if so, how should it be done?

The answer may be different for a novice than for an advanced trainee, so an answer that covers both cases would be best (I'm somewhere between the two).


Here are some specifics about me, but I'm hoping to get an answer that applies to any athlete training for a leg-dominant power sport (football, soccer, ultimate, rugby, track):

  • I play ultimate
  • I've been doing a strength training program very close to Starting Strength and am at the intermediate level on squats, close to intermediate on deadlifts, and still a novice at power cleans, bench, and press
  • Practices are 2-3 times per week, each 2-3 hours long
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I've seen it mentioned that you can't improve vertical jump much, as it's mostly genetic. Speed and acceleration obviously can be improved though. –  Robin Ashe Aug 1 '12 at 9:08
    
I've seen that as well, standing vertical is largely genetic. The other thing that can help with a moving vertical jump is what gymnasts call blocking, or taking horizontal movement and redirecting it into vertical velocity. –  JohnP Aug 1 '12 at 14:37
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@RobinAshe speed is also genetic ;-). A donkey can't win a Kentucky derby. With proper Olympic weightlifting and ploymetrics over the course of 4-5 years you can easily improve your vertical to the mid 30 inches. The 40s would be more a genetic factor I'd say. Calves is and stays an accessory just like bicep curls. Calves are a great accessory for injury prevention and to strengthen those ankle muscles which will in turn improve your core lifts such as squats, deads, etc and also add some extra spring in your vertical. –  Andreas Aug 2 '12 at 5:42
    
Speed can be trained in a way that the vertical jump can not. Source on anyone training their vertical jump. I've got Rippetoe saying the contrary. –  Robin Ashe Aug 2 '12 at 11:55
    
I've added 2 inches by training my squat from about 160 to 240. –  user3085 Aug 2 '12 at 15:01
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5 Answers 5

As to your reference to power sports, core strength should dominate all other priorities. With exceptional core strength, your stamina, and long range performance improve significantly which means that you will be performing at a higher level than opponents and teammates in sports like soccer, lacrosse, and ultimate type of events.

If you insist on "calf muscle" improvement, just attack the muscle group itself with standard toe raises on a stair, while making sure to properly stretch and warmup before hand. A torn achilles is one that is hard to recover from.

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Thank you for your answer, but I don't insist on calf muscle improvement. I am asking "is calf-specific training helpful, and if so, how should I do it?" –  user3085 Aug 10 '12 at 19:18
    
Note i started with for soccer, ultimate and laccrose type; core training would be my opinion of what would be best. Sorry if i wasn't helpful. –  Akin Okegbile Aug 10 '12 at 19:19
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A totally agree with what you have said, but it is not answering the question I'm asking. –  user3085 Aug 10 '12 at 19:22
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There are many schools of thought on this, but one thing is for certain:

Isolation exercises are never functional. They are for rehabilitation or aesthetics.

If your goal is functional strength, then it is best to train in a way that your body is designed to be used. This includes compound lifts like squats and deadlifts, but it also includes more power generating exercises like Olympic style lifts and plyometrics. Another application would be sled work when you have to apply force laterally.

The demands for jumping ability or other sport related activities vary between sports. The type of jumping a martial artist needs is drastically different than what a basketball player needs, and similarly what a football player would need. Strength and explosive power are only part of the equation. The other is technique work that applies to your sport.

Dan John had a very good article on figuring out your life and lifting goals. In that article, he makes a very salient point: there becomes a point in your training where strength is not the limiting factor. In it he provided some pretty decent guidelines what most sports athletes would need in regards to lifting weights.

Calves themselves will be exercised enough with at or below parallel squats. If you do the sled work and the plyometrics in addition to that, you will have a very good foundation for your technique work. In none of the sports you mentioned do you need an excessive vertical jump. However, being able to apply force laterally is very important (football and rugby come to mind). You'll find that the vertical jump in track and field is very much technique limited.

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I've been buying the DVDs and seminars of Cressey and Robertson and their friends - all functional sport trainers and rehabbers. Now that you mention it, I don't recall them doing any calf exercises like a body builder would do (various kinds of calf raises). There is plenty of ankle mobility work, however. Cressey has routines where weight exercises are super setted with a mobility - e.g. a heavy squat set followed immediately with a scapular wall slide, rest, repeat. I've done calf work for body building in the distant past and they take a lot of time (>20 minutes) and effort (more weight than you can squat) and special equipment (body building/Golds gym is full of that stuff), but I still have great looking calves and most people don't. Look at Cressey Show and Go and Robertson Single Leg Solution and Assess and Correct by Mike Robertson, Eric Cressey, and Bill Hartman to not see much isolated calf work, but you will see integrated leg work and joint mobility. Mark Verstegan has Core Performance which also integrates muscle exercises and joint mobility. Mike Boyle is another noted strength and conditioning coach. These guys are big in baseball, soccer, and hockey.

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What is going to improve your vertical by quite a bit is working on your technique in addition to the muscular strength aspects. A standing vertical is going to be much different than trying to leap to catch a disc from nearly a full run. There are a few different components to this type of a vertical jump.

Blocking - This is a term most often used in gymnastics, and it means to take horizontal momentum and turn it into vertical momentum. This is done by being able to plant either a foot, both feet or hands to stop horizontal motion without stopping, and give a push upwards to transfer momentum upwards. The trick is being able to NOT come to a full stop when you do this. One of the better visual examples is high jumpers. They come in at an angle, dip and plant a foot slightly, and use their other leg to drive up and help transfer the run to the leap. There are numerous training videos on the net for this (Blocking, I mean, not high jump.)

Next is the arm/leg motions. Part of this upward drive is augmented by the upward swing of the arms, and the upward drive of the non planting leg. Not only does this take strength, but timing and flexibility so that they are all coordinated together to add to the momentum of your motion. This just takes practice.

Flexibility is another component. The more vertical you can drive your knee upwards, the better your leap is going to be. If you aren't very flexible, then you will be wasting some of your momentum out in front of you rather than contributing to upward motion. The tighter to your body and the higher you can drive your knee the more it will add to the direction of travel that you want. This means that quads and hamstrings all need to be flexible.

Watch high jumpers, parkour, martial arts tricksters, gymnasts. All are going to have much greater vertical leaps from moving over their standing vertical. There are some NBA players that can't dunk from a standing leap, yet can soar way over the rim when leaping from motion.

One final consideration is being able to activate the stretch reflex as well, which will give an extra bit of oomph to the jump. This can be done by adding plyometrics to your exercise routine, which will help to train yourself to utilize that. But again, plyometrics are a bit more advanced, which also means a higher injury risk. Read up on them before just "jumping in" and doing them.

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There isn't much talk of calves in this answer. Does what you've read support not specifically training calves, and instead just focusing on these other things you mention (at least for vertical)? –  user3085 Aug 4 '12 at 4:40
    
@Sancho - Your answer covered the calves pretty well, actually, but for a moving vertical they are much less of a factor than people might think. I was more talking towards that point than directly training the calves. –  JohnP Aug 4 '12 at 4:49
    
Cool. Upvoted. This answer shows that there's a lot of useful training that doesn't explicitly involve calves. –  user3085 Aug 4 '12 at 10:28
    
Blame my martial arts and college training :p –  JohnP Aug 4 '12 at 13:27
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This answer only addresses part of the question.

Regarding vertical jump, the Vertical Jump Bible says that the posterior chain and quads are responsible for about 80% of the jump, with the remaining 20% split between the calves and upper body.

So, as a novice, it seems that your time in the gym is better spent on squats, deadlifts, and power cleans, at least concerning vertical jump height.

It goes on to say:

Sprinters don’t train calves at all yet they surely don’t struggle when it comes to vertical jump performance or running speed.

This seems to support simply focusing on the posterior chain and quads. The calves should get enough stress from that and sport-specific work.

However, once you've trained that 80% and are seeing smaller return from investment from strength training the posterior chain and quads, some attention can be devoted to calf-specific training.

The following is based on http://www.verticaljumping.com/lower_leg_training.html

  • Calf training may simply involve changing your plyometrics routine to include stiff legged jumps or hops
  • Calf training is more important if your sport involves a lot of single leg jumps
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I answered my own question here, but hopefully only as a straw-man. I want to accept an answer that is better than this. –  user3085 Aug 1 '12 at 16:41
    
I will answer more later as I'm time crunched, but I have a few things. Did run across this study: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20544482 which suggests training with compression increases capillarization and strength in calf muscles. Study references 150 mmHg, I think compression clothing (Such as beaker/zoot) only goes in the 90 range, but I am not sure on that. –  JohnP Aug 3 '12 at 22:56
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