They're simple in concept, but really bring the burn.
If you want to improve balance and strength in your lower body, consider incorporating some calf raises into your daily or weekly workout regimen. This relatively small, simple movement can be done almost anywhere—even while you’re brushing your teeth or waiting for the kettle to boil—and might not look like much to write home about. But don’t be fooled: Calf raises (or heel raises) can pack a punch physically, and come with some impressive benefits not just for your calves and ankles, but for supporting the subtle foot muscles, the glutes, and even the lower back.
What Are Calf Raises?
A calf raise, or heel raise, is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: The physical movement of rising up onto the balls of your feet (aka tip toes), then lowering your heels back down to the floor. It’s a straightforward movement that really engages the calf muscles in an isolated, low-impact exercise.
It’s a movement that involves “concentric [vs. eccentric] action of the calf muscle and flexion of the ankle joint,” explains John Russolillo, certified personal trainer and fitness manager at New York Sports Club. “The concentric action, or the action of pushing away from the floor or surface you’re standing on is the main movement, followed by an isometric action (holding at the top and resisting returning back down) as well as a prolonged eccentric action (lowering your heels on the way down).”
“Calf raises are more of an ‘isolation’ exercise rather than a ‘compound’ exercise—the difference being one muscle group working vs. multiple muscle groups working as one," Russolillo continues. “Typically these exercises are done during a workout, but toward the end of the workout.”
Modifications and Variations
Calf raises can be done in shoes or barefoot, standing or sitting, on one leg at a time (unilateral) or both legs simultaneously (bilateral). To make them more challenging, you can add load by holding weights while doing them. You can also make other exercise moves, like glute bridges or sumo squats, more advanced by incorporating either bi- or unilateral calf raises.
The easiest variation would be bilateral calf raises with assistance, and the hardest variation would be something unilateral (on one leg), off the edge of a step, and/or with external load added, Russolillo says. Some gyms offer machines dedicated to calf raises, which can be either “seated” variations or standing variations that add the load for you.
The Benefits of Calf Raises
1. Targeted, isolated calf strength.
Calf raises are a great way to build muscle in the calves, which have an important function in many other physical movements and positions, both in formal exercise and everyday life. For athletes and recreational fitness enthusiasts who run, sprint, change direction, and/or accelerate, the muscles in the calves play a major role in not only adding to the performance of these movements, but also in injury prevention for the ankle and knees, Russolillo explains.
2. Foot and ankle strength and mobility.
Working the calf muscles with raises also strengthens and mobilizes the ankle joint and surrounding ligaments and tendons, as well as important muscles in the foot whose importance is often overlooked.
3. Overall balance and control of the body.
“[Since the calves are] so close to the point at which we make contact with the ground, building strength and range of motion in our calf muscles and ankle joints can help build awareness and proprioception (perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body) on our lower extremities, aiding overall balance.”
4. Activation of muscle groups throughout the back of the leg.
While calf raises are primarily an isolation exercise that target a specific muscle group, you may also feel other muscles along your posterior chain (or back-side of the body) firing up and activating, including in the glutes and hamstrings, especially if these muscles are on the weaker side for you.
However, if you’re really looking to target and strengthen other muscles in your body by doing just calf raises, it may not be the best workout on its own. “There could be an argument made for the calf raise working other parts of the body, but since it’s an isolation exercise and not a compound exercise, the best outcome would be for the calf raises to target the calves and the calves only,” Russolillo says.
How to Do Calf Raises
Determine your overall fitness goal with calf raises, as well as your current level of fitness, strength, and balance. As a beginner, you’ll want to be on a stable, flat surface, use a smaller range of motion, start with both feet on the ground, use just your bodyweight, and potentially hold something—like the back of a chair or sofa, the wall, a bar/railing, or countertop edge—to keep your balance and maintain proper form.
Modifications and variations: Someone a bit more advanced, or hoping to progress from beginner level, can make one, some, or all of these foundational elements more difficult. For example:
Increase ankle range of motion by doing calf raises off the back of a step or raised platform so that your heels come down even lower than the level of the step and must work even harder to rise back up.
Add external load by holding weights in each hand.
Try single-leg calf raises.
Or simply progress and test your balance by trying to do calf raises without holding onto anything for support.
Determine the number of sets and reps you will do. As a beginner, a sufficient starting point would be doing three sets of 10 to 12 bi-lateral (both legs simultaneously), assisted calf raises (holding something for support).
Modifications and variations: Someone who’s adding load, increasing range of motion, and/or doing them unilaterally (on one leg at a time), do three sets, but fewer reps—try five to eight—due to the added intensity.
To get into position, stand up straight with feet no wider than hip width apart, engage your core, keep a neutral spine (not rounding forward or arching backward), and remember to continue breathing steadily.
Lift your heels off the ground with control, rising up onto the balls of your feet (you should immediately feel your calves contracting).
Pause at the top for one second, then lower your heels back down to the floor in a slow, controlled fashion—the lowering motion is part of the exercise, so don't rush it.
That’s one calf raise. Repeat, doing three sets of 10 to 12 calf raises.
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