Strong calves help in a variety of activities.
You'll find plenty of exercises that involve the calves - from lunges and squats to leg curls and presses - but fewer that specifically focus on the calves. The most common exercise that targets the major calf muscles - the gastrocnemius and the soleus - is the calf raise, while your alternatives include calf extensions. You can try many calf raise and extension variations, so the chances are good that you can give your calves a solid workout, no matter what type of exercise equipment you have.
Use Your Body Weight
The basic body-weight calf raise targets your gastrocnemius - the largest calf muscle - while the soleus assists in your movement. To perform the exercise, step forward onto a calf block or a similar raised platform, setting the balls of your feet on the block and leaving the rest of your feet hanging over the edge. You can hold onto a nearby object for balance, if you wish. Begin by flexing your feet to lift your heels as high as you can. Descend slowly and allow your heels to drop a bit below the level of the block to complete one repetition. Keep your knees and back as straight as you can and perform the exercise with smooth, fluid movements. If you're holding an object for balance, touch it lightly to achieve maximum resistance on your calves, or lighten your load a bit by grasping the object. You can also perform calf raises by standing on the floor.
Add Some Variety
Most calf raise variations are more challenging than the body-weight version because you're adding weight. To perform raises with free weights, hold dumbbells in both hands - or in one hand if you're balancing yourself with your other hand - or hold a barbell across the back of your shoulders, then flex your feet in the standard calf raise movement. The dumbbell version engages several stabilizing muscles in your back and around your hips. Attach a low pulley to an exercise belt to do calf raises with a cable machine. Standing calf raise machines typically place resistance pads on top of each shoulder. You'll engage trapezius and levator scapulae muscles in your back as stabilizers for those machine raises. Seated calf raise machines place the resistance pads on top of each knee. You can also sit and place a barbell across the tops of your knees. The seated raise targets the soleus, while the gastrocnemius assists.
Extend Your Calf
Calf extensions are similar to leg presses, but instead of pushing the resistance plate with your legs, you flex your ankles and push the plate with the balls of your feet. If you keep your legs fairly straight the exercise targets the gastrocnemius and uses the soleus as an assisting muscle. Calf extension machines that require you to bend your knees at right angles target the soleus while engaging your quadriceps and gluteus maximus as stabilizers. You can also do a reverse calf extension with your legs straight by placing your heels on the resistance pad, to target the tibialis anterior in front of each shin.
Prioritize Your Safety
Speak with your doctor before performing a new exercise routine, especially if you haven't exercised for a while or if you have any health concerns. Stop performing calf raises or extensions if either activity causes you pain. Warm up before a calf workout with five to 10 minutes of light cardio exercise. Loosen your muscles with dynamic calf stretches, such as toe and heel walks.