The squat is the perfect exercise. It takes a full-body effort to perform, burns calories, and builds strength and muscle. It not only develops the muscles of the lower body but is a tremendous core strengthener. But we tend to think of the squat as only building and strengthening the quads and glutes, but what about the other muscles of the lower body? For example: Do squats work calves?
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This will be a look at how the squat can be used to work your calves and how they compare to other calf exercises.
What Makes the Squat So Effective?
As mentioned, the squat requires a full-body effort to perform. When you have a bar balanced on your back, it requires total body coordination and effort. This is why the squat is a great calorie burner and muscle builder–for the entire body.
When squatting a barbell, your body is put into a defensive position. This recruits your sympathetic nervous system which you probably know best as your fight-or-flight system. The squatting motion causes the body to release hormones like testosterone and growth hormone. These are the hormones that lead to gains in strength and muscle.
So, not only are you building muscle in your lower body, but the hormonal release can lead to gains in muscle throughout the rest of your body. This is what makes the squat a true full-body exercise. The same hormonal response is also responsible for improving several other health markers such as lowering hypertension and combatting conditions like diabetes.
Do Squats Work Calves?
We mentioned how the squat is the go-to exercise to build powerful quads and glutes. They also work your hamstrings, and yes, they work your calves. There are so many muscles involved when squatting, and the calf muscles are one of the most important.
First off, your calves are critical in supporting your body. They are recruited even more so when you have resistance on them in the form of a weighted barbell. While the barbell is on your back, your calves are supporting the additional weight.
They are also critical for ankle support and knee flexion. Simply put: you wouldn’t be able to squat without the work of your calf muscles. The next important use of the calves is they assist the other muscles of the lower body through the squatting movement. All of your lower body muscles work together to perform a squat, and the calves work in conjunction with your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors to perform the movement.
And all of this is just for stabilizing and lowering the weight. Next, the calves are worked as you drive the weight upward back to the standing position. The calves are needed to push the weight upwards while still keeping the body stabilized while doing so. The major work of the calves begins when we are at the lowest portion of the squat
An interesting study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning looked at the activation of the muscles of the lower body through both controlled squats, and higher tempo ones. Different muscle recruitment took place depending on the speed of the squat, but the calves showed increased activation no matter what type of squat was performed. So, yes, squats definitely work calves.
What Calf Muscles Are Used During the Squat?
When we use the word “calves” we are technically describing the gastrocnemius. But there are many muscles that make up the lower leg, or calf area. Here are some of those key muscles:
Gastrocnemius: The main part of the calves. They are visible from both the front and the back. There are two parts to the gastrocnemius and they sit higher up on the lower leg.
Peroneus Longus: This is the outer portion of the calves that is also longer and continues down the lower leg.
Soleus: This can be considered your “front calves.” The soleus muscle is not very big but is important for ankle and foot flexion. It sits on the front of your lower leg, but to the interior.
Tibialis Anterior: This is similar to the soleus, but is longer and is on the anterior part of your lower leg.
Peroneus Brevis: This is the longer part of the calf muscle which extends lower down to the ankle.
How Does the Squat Compare to Other Calf Exercises?
Training the muscles of the calves is pretty straightforward. They simply move up and down. You can vary your foot position, but you don’t want to put them at extreme angles–both interior and anterior–as you can risk pain in the knees.
Training calves simply involves keeping your feet around shoulder-width apart, with your feet pointing forward. This leads to a limited amount of options such as the seated calf raise, and standing calf raise. You can also perform calf raises using one leg at a time while standing on a step or stair.
The way to create additional stimulus on the calves is by adding resistance. As mentioned, there are only so many ways to perform a calf raise, so the exercises are somewhat limited, but the resistance provides many options. The calves tend to respond best to higher repetitions and don’t need to be trained in the 3-5 rep range.
It can take some trial and error to see what you best respond to, but sets of 15-20 reps often work best. You might find that more is better. Remember, you are working your calves all day, whether you are standing, walking, running, or climbing stairs, and through any sports, you may play.
Jump squats can be a good way to work the calves. This is a great athletic movement that can help improve explosive jumping power. But it’s hard to do these with a lot of resistance. Usually, just your body weight is enough. Various forms of jump squats also serve as a conditioning workout as much as a muscle-building one.
The big difference with the squat is the range of motion the calves go through. You are usually able to lift heavy weight while performing a standing calf raise, but you may not get full muscle recruitment through the lower leg. While squatting, not only are your calves stabilizing your body and the weight, they are supporting everything as you reach the lowest part of the squat. This results in full muscle recruitment. Then, there is the muscle activation as you drive the weight upward to the starting position.
There is no calf exercise that can create this same activation and muscle recruitment. Not only are the key muscles of the gastrocnemius used, but so are the other smaller, stabilizer muscles such as the Flexor digitorum longus, the Extensor digitorum longus, and even muscles in the ankles and feet.
The EMG data from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning showed substantial calf activation through the various forms of squats.
A great combination is to combine both squats and supplementary calf training through the use of standing or seated calf raises, single-leg calve raises, and even jumping rope. This way, you will fully target all the muscles of the calves while being able to alter the resistance and range of motion.
Not only do squats work calves, but they may also be the best way to directly target them. The calves play a critical role in a proper squat and it’s easy to forget how much we are actually working them.
So, if you want to build bigger and stronger calves, you need to make squats a part of your regular training routine. You also get all of the other benefits that come from squats such as an anabolic hormonal release, improved strength, better balance and stability, and improved athleticism.