For full transparency: This post contains affiliate links. If you buy through a link I would earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Only personally used or thoroughly researched products are recommended. Learn more.

From Calf to Cow – 4 Calf Exercises To Build Big Calf Muscles in 8 Weeks

In my almost 20 years as a personal trainer, I rarely hear a client say…

“My main goal is to get bigger calves”.

For many people, calf muscles are either forgotten about or ignored… certainly until they start to cause embarrassment because they’re so small! 

Even Arnold Schwarzenegger had trouble with his calves. In fact, he forced himself to train in shorts because he was ashamed of them and exposing them made him take his calf exercises seriously.

In the Calf to Cow Program, I’ll cut through the confusion and show you exactly how to build big, strong calves. They not only look great, but they’ll also prevent you from picking up calf injuries.

We’ll look at how different foot angles, tempo and muscle contraction types affect the way the calves respond to training. Using methods backed by research, the Calf to Cow program will show you how to grow your calf muscles quickly and effectively in the gym with minimum fuss.

These exercises and this approach are the same that I use with my personal training clients, helping them achieve excellent results and reducing their injury risk dramatically. 

All exercises here are possible in a home gym with minimum equipment.

Want to Improve Your Own Home Gym?

Check out our guide on how to build a home gym for any budget.

Our team of fitness experts has spent thousands of hours testing and researching equipment. It’s all compiled in one place with the essential items your gym needs to see results.

Calf Exercises infographic

Cow to Calf Program: Bigger and stronger calf muscles in 8 weeks

Calf muscles are notoriously problematic for some people, especially those who perform sports where there’s a lot of running and jumping. Here are a few of the benefits…

Benefit 1: Faster sprinting & improved force generation

A good calf workout has benefits that extend beyond improving aesthetics. Most of the sprint speed research focuses on the impact of strong quads. But Sebastian Möck and his team in 2018, they concluded that:

“The dynamic maximum strength of the calves is a basic prerequisite for short sprints and should be regarded as a performance reserve.”

By including calf training into your regime research shows you may increase your vertical jump, which will translate into improved athleticism. 

Benefit 2: Reduced injury frequency

Eccentric calf exercise is known to benefit people suffering from Achilles tendinopathy in around 60% of cases. The condition is very common in runners, particularly long distance runners. By strengthening the calf muscles, these injuries are often prevented completely.

Benefit 3: Bigger & less flabby calf muscles

Like any muscle, when you train it properly it becomes strong and more able to generate force. One of the main benefits for people is that this program will make your calf muscles look firmer, bigger and fuller. And let’s not pretend this isn’t something you’re interested in.

So there’s no need to feel embarrased about skipping leg day when you’re next on the beach!


5 steps to get bigger calves from the “Calf To Cow Program”

Step 1: Warm up with the jump rope

To be sensible with a calf training program, you have to consider the nature of the tissues you’re working with. As well as the gastrocnemius and soleus, you’ve got the Achilles tendon and lots of bones, joints and connective tissues in the foot.

Don’t just write it off because it’s calf exercise – think about the structure. Spend a good 5 minutes of light jumping rope before you do any of the exercises.  

Step 2: After warm up, the calf exercises can be done in any order

There’s no right or wrong order to do these in – calf raises are an isolation exercise, so you’ll be training the same body part in the same plane of movement each time. Outside of adjusting the speed, position and load variables, there’s not a great deal of difference in calf training exercises.

ExerciseSetsReps
Jump Rope15 Minutes
Eccentric Calf Raises630 seconds
Seated Calf Raise630 seconds
Tiptoes farmers walk630 seconds

Step 3: Use it after a normal workout, up to 4 times per week

You shouldn’t let this calf workout dominate your training week – it’s an accessory program to bring up a lagging body part. With this in mind, complete the exercises after your main workout. Don’t sacrifice the bigger, more important aspects of your training for this.

It’s a short, intense workout designed to focus on overloading the calf muscles. Don’t do this first and risk under-performing on other leg exercises because you’ve tired out your calf muscles.

An example couple of weeks could look like:

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturdaySunday
Workout (& C2C)RestWorkout (& C2C)RestWorkout (& C2C)RestWorkout (& C2C)
MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturdaySunday
RestWorkout (& C2C)RestWorkout (& C2C)RestWorkout (& C2C)Rest

C2C= Calf to Cow Program

Step 4: Work on a 30:30 second work to rest ratio (max 25-minute sessions)

These workouts are designed to be light weight, high volume. You are aiming to direct a lot of work to a small area, with just enough rest in between sets, but no more than that. There are 4 exercises in the entire program (including the 5 minute warm up).

Each resistance exercise after the warm up has 6 sets each. This is the epitome of quality over quantity.

That means you’ll be hitting your calf muscles with 18 sets within a short window of time – that’s a huge amount for a small muscle group, so we’re maximizing the intensity here.

Work on a 30:30 ratio. 

Work at full gas for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds. It’s important that you stay strict here, the point is to maximize the intensity and you won’t do that if you let your rest periods go on longer.

With one minute rest between exercises this will make the workout last for exactly 25 minutes. 

Step 5: Leave at least a day in between

Although the calf muscles are built to work hard, they still need a chance to rest and recover. This allows them to build strength and structural integrity in both the muscle and connective tissues. 

Additionally, giving the muscles some time to rest will enable them to build up their energy again, which will let them attack the workout with full intensity again.

This isn’t like other body part workouts where there are a lot of muscles taking the load. A chest workout involves the pecs, the deltoids, the triceps and even the infraspinatus, meaning the load is lightened. In this case, it’s all in a very small area. 

Leave at least a day in between Calf to Cow workouts, meaning you can perform them up to 4 times per week.


Calf muscle physiology

When we talk about the ‘calf’ muscle, we’re actually talking about two different muscles…

  1. The Gastrocnemius (medial and lateral head)
  2. The Soleus
Muscles of the calf

They contract in the same way (extension and flexion of the foot) in a single plane of motion. 

However, the position of the knee has an effect on the level of contraction of both. This means we have to select exercises that will train them both, without risking causing an injury. 

The fact that there’s only really one way to activate these muscles can cause us somewhat of a problem from a programming point of view. We don’t want to repeat the same movement pattern over and over again, because all it does is risk overuse injury and offers zero additional benefit.

Instead, we have to work efficiently. This is about results, not adding calf exercises for the sake of variety.

Muscle contraction points

There are a couple of interesting points about the gastrocnemius and soleus contraction. 
The first is the importance of the knee angle.

The knee can flex or extend, and it appears that the position of the knee can have an effect on the activation of both muscles.

Calf Raise Knee Angle Positioning

What this means is that in order to train these muscles effectively, we have to consider the knee angle and train the gastrocnemius and soleus with both a flexed and extended knee, to ensure effective activation of both. 

Furthermore, research by Nunes et al in 2020 showed that varied foot positioning during flexion and extension of the ankle joint resulted in different muscle thicknesses at the different heads of the gastrocnemius.

This suggests that in order to maximize the effectiveness of the exercises, we need to adjust the foot position. This has been taken into account and will be programmed into the workouts.

Calf raise foot positioning

Thoughts on muscle loading

Perceived wisdom on muscle loading suggests that you need to lift heavy in order to maximize strength and size gains. Whilst there is plenty of evidence that suggests this is true for other body parts, the calf muscles appear to be a slightly different case on account of their fiber type. 

This makes sense. 

They’re predominantly slow twitch fibers (they wouldn’t be useful for walking if they tired quickly). These respond well to high volume, low load training.

When tested by Brad Schoenfeld and his colleagues in 2020, the results showed that the calf muscles responded equally well to high or low load training. And in some cases, the low load calf exercises were better for bringing about muscle strength and size increases.

Calf Muscles Responding To High And Low Loads

This is interesting from a programming point of view…

Injury risk is generally higher at heavier loads. 

This means we can reduce the risk whilst still benefiting from the rewards, which is a huge bonus. Risk and reward are a constant battle in a strength coach’s mind because you want to achieve maximum results with minimum risk. 

Range of movement

Calf training needs to be executed across a full range of movement to work as we need it to… Even more so than other types of resistance training in fact!

Therefore, the eccentric training element is super important for the calves.

Eccentric contraction is where the muscle lengthens as it contracts (so when the heels are being lowered in a calf raise).

Calf raise eccentric and concentric phase

We need to allow the heels to drop below the toes on these lifts, extending the range of movement. 

We know the importance of full range of movement in lower body training thanks to (more) 2020 research by Brad Shoenfeld concluding that…

Performing resistance training through a full range of movement confers beneficial effects on hypertrophy of the lower body musculature versus training with a partial range of movement.’


From Calf to Cow program – the calf exercises

From calf to cow program (infographic)

In this section, we’ll go through the Calf to Cow program. This is a super simple calf workout – the focus is on effectiveness, not entertainment. It’s an accessory program, so you fit it in and around your other workouts. You wouldn’t spend your entire training week working on just your calf muscles!

On all but the jump rope warm-up, train in a 30 seconds work, 30 seconds rest pattern. Repeat for the 6 sets.

ExerciseSetsReps
Jump Rope15 Minutes
Eccentric Calf Raises630 seconds
Seated Calf Raise630 seconds
Tiptoes farmers walk630 seconds

1. Jump rope

This is the perfect warm up for a calf workout. Despite involving a lot of jumping, it’s low impact because the range of movement is so small – you’re jumping just enough to allow the rope to pass under you, no more.

It allows the muscles and the connective tissues to warm up and get plenty of blood flowing into the area. 

Equipment needed for jump rope: 

  • A basic jump rope – length depends on your height (see video for more info)

How to do jump rope:

  • Stand upright and keep your wrists at hip/waist height on either side
  • Rotate the rope overhead at a constant speed
  • When the rope reaches your feet, jump a couple of inches off the floor – just enough to let the rope pass under you
  • Keep a steady rhythm and don’t rush – this is a warm up, not a full cardio workout!

2. Eccentric calf raises

This is the simplest of the calf exercises, but one of the very best. It can be done weighted or with bodyweight, so there’s a lot of room for progression.

Start simply and build up over the duration of the program. In this program, work for the full 30 seconds before resting.

There are 6 sets to complete – 2 of them with the toes pointing out, 2 with the toes pointing directly ahead, and 2 with the toes inwards.

Equipment needed for eccentric calf raises:

  • A step of at least 5 inches height (you can use stacked weight plates)
  • Weights (can be any form i.e. barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, weighted vest, small child etc.)

Rogue Fleck Bumper Plates

Rogue Fleck Bumper Plate
Read our best bumper plates guide here

Bumper plates are ideal for a home gym.

They can last a lifetime and allow you to do additional lifts which require you to drop the bar.

Our team has compared over 100 types and the Rogue Fleck plates came out on top.

They are great value, use color allowing you to quickly see how much you’re lifting and the pattern will give your home gym a unique look.

How to do eccentric calf raises:

  • Stand on the box with the balls of your feet, then secure your balance (hand on a wall will be sufficient)
  • Go up onto your tiptoes and pause
  • Slowly lower yourself down, keep descending until you reach full extension of the ankle joint
  • When your calf is at full stretch, pause and stand back up on your tiptoes quickly
  • The tempo should be 1 second up, 4-5 seconds down
  • Repeat for 30 seconds

3. Seated calf raise

Although the movement pattern for all calf exercises is the same, the knee angle is important here. By performing this exercise with the bent leg, we activate the soleus more than the gastrocnemius.

This means that although the movement looks the same as the standing calf raise from the ankle joint perspective, it’s actually training the muscles differently.

There are 6 sets to complete – 2 of them with the toes pointing out, 2 with the toes pointing directly ahead, and 2 with the toes inwards.

Equipment needed for seated plate calf raises:

  • A step of at least 5 inches height
  • Seat or bench

A weight plate (or more, depending on how much weight you need)

REP AB-3000 Bench

REP AB-3000 Weight Bench
Read our best weight bench guide here

This is the weight bench we recommend for ‘most people’.

We compared over 70 benches against 12 criteria. This is our highest-ranked flat, incline & decline (FID) bench.

Some adjustable benches can be a bit wobbly when on the incline. But the AB-3000 is very sturdy.

With a height 18mm it’s comparable to benches that cost twice as much.

How to do seated plate calf raises:

  • Sit on the bench with the balls of your feet, put your weight plates on your lap
  • Go up onto your tiptoes and pause
  • Slowly lower yourself down, keep descending until you reach full extension of the ankle joint
  • When your calf is at full stretch, pause and stand back up on your tiptoes quickly
  • The tempo should be 1 second up, 4-5 seconds down
  • Repeat for 30 seconds

4. Tiptoes farmers walk

A farmers walk is an excellent exercise generally, but with this little tweak you can make it super functional. Most calf exercises are done in a stationary position, but if you add the dynamic element of walking, it brings about an extra level of challenge.

Stick with the same 30/30 protocol across the 6 sets. You can use dumbbells, kettlebells or even a hex bar for the weight.

Equipment needed for tiptoes farmers walk:

  • Dumbbells, kettlebells or a hex bar
  • Space to walk in

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Adjustable Dumbbells

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Classic
Read our best adjustable dumbbell guide here

These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.

The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.

The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.

How to do tiptoes farmers walk:

  • Take the weight in both hands, stand up straight
  • When the weight is stable, stand up on your tiptoes
  • Walk for the required time, staying on your tiptoes throughout

The whole calf workout will take you 25 minutes from start to finish. We know this because everything is done on time, not reps. This allows for short drink breaks and recovery time, whilst still making you work hard.


Calf to Cow Program – Bonus Tips

Calf to Cow Program bonus tips

A few little extra nuggets of help to get you the most from the program…

  1. Work hard!

You’d think this is obvious, but it appears not so to some! The idea here is that you pick a weight that you can manage for around 30 seconds, but by the end of the 30 second work interval, you should be reaching fatigue.

  1. Don’t ignore the foot positioning

As mentioned earlier in the article, the foot positioning is important for the effectiveness of the workout. The middle two exercises specifically tell you to perform 2 sets toes out, 2 sets toes in front and 2 sets toes inwards. Follow this – it’s part of the plan.

  1. Maintain progress

You should be looking to add weight each week, but only if you can cope with it. Try to stick to increases of 2-5% each week. The focus is more on rep quantity than weight lifted, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t be looking to increase weight.

  1. Maintain the program as long as required

There’s no end point to this program – keep it going as long as you like. Calf training is often overlooked, so as long as you keep your training sensible, you could follow this for months at a time. I’d probably give yourself a week off every 8 weeks or so, but you’ll be fine either way.

  1. Stretch!

It’s a good idea to thoroughly stretch your calf muscles at least a couple of times per week when you follow this program. Any calf stretching will be sufficient, but make sure you stretch the muscles with both a straight knee and a bent knee, so you’ll stretch the soleus too.


Calf to Cow program: The bottom line

This calf workout program seeks to address a common problem – training the calf muscles effectively. We made the case as to why they need to be trained, and using the available evidence we’ve shown you how to train them effectively.

This is a simple program, but it’s very effective. It’ll help you grow thicker, stronger calf muscles that are both helpful athletically and less injury prone.

All of the exercises can be done in a home gym, so you won’t need to invest heavily in fancy new equipment. The only thing you may need to consider is space to do your farmer’s walk in, but that doesn’t cost you anything, you just need to get outside! 

Read the workouts and instructions, watch the videos and get busy.

Good luck!

Want to Improve Your Own Home Gym?

Check out our guide on how to build a home gym for any budget.

Our team of fitness experts has spent thousands of hours testing and researching equipment. It’s all compiled in one place with the essential items your gym needs to see results.

Photo of author
Hi! My name is Steve Hoyles. I’m a personal trainer, gym owner and fitness copywriter. Since graduating with my Sports Science degree in 2004 I’ve worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. My writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries.

Leave a Comment