How to Build Calf Muscles for Skinny Legs


Calves can be one of the most challenging muscles to build. In fact, most of us have calf muscles with no visible muscle tone. Some people are born with smaller calf muscles but the reality is that our calf muscles require intense training to build up. Just think about it for a moment: our calf muscles support our body weight every day. They are already strong but for them to be toned and feature lean muscle, they need some very specific exercises.

Some General Advice on Building Muscle Effectively   

One of the frustrations that many people have is not seeing results quickly when they’re exercising. For those who want to build muscle, weight training can seem hit or miss when it comes to results. There is certainly a genetic lottery in play. Genes do make a difference when it comes to how quickly muscles build and even how big they get. The truth is that there’s nothing we can do about this but with the right diet and exercise, it’s certainly possible to build from small to big.

Here are a number general guidelines that you can follow to build muscle quickly and optimize your weekly exercise:

1. Your Diet Is Really Important

One of the best ways to build muscle mass is to ensure that you eat plenty of protein. Muscles require protein as raw material to grow. Make sure that you eat breakfast so you give your day an immediate energy boost and also make sure that you add some of the following high-protein foods:

  • Red meats and poultry
  • Fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel
  • Dairy, including yogurt, eggs, and cheese
  • Nuts, tofu, and seeds

It’s also important to ensure that you also add plenty of fruit and vegetables to your daily meals.

2. High-Volume Training and Repetition

When training, it’s important to train at high volumes. This means training at medium intensity but with only a single minute of recovery between sets. Train until you feel that lactic acid burn across your muscles and train until you are near failure. That is, train until your muscles can’t push any more.

There is evidence to suggest that the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles due to high-volume workouts can actually encourage muscle growth.

3. Drink Plenty of Water

One thing that you need to do is make sure that you drink plenty of water during and after workouts. When you exercise, you lose water and will sweat. If you’re not drinking enough, this will cause dehydration and can cause muscle damage.

The other benefit to drinking plenty of water is that it also makes you feel less hungry. You’ll not crave snack foods and you’ll be able to stick to your diet more completely.

4. Make Sure That You Get Lots of Rest and Sleep

A good sleep routine is very important when you want to build new muscle. When you rest and do so regularly, you allow the body to repair muscles and build new muscle fibers.

Exercises for Building Your Calf Muscles

It’s not uncommon for people who work out in the gym to skip their calves or not put as much effort into building them. More often, people might exercise their calf muscles but find that progress is slow. This tends to result in an upper body that’s muscular and well-defined, and calf muscles that don’t have enough definition.

Your calf muscles are already strong. In fact, every time that you move around, they are helping to support your body weight. This means that they are already strong enough to do what they have been designed to do. In this context, they need extra work to really build up and define.

Here are some of the best exercises for building your calf muscles:

1. The Calf Raise

This is the classic calf exercise and is a common part of many exercise routines. The double-leg calf raise proceeds in this way:

  1. 1
    Stand with your back close to the wall so that you have some balance available.
  2. 2
    Place your feet apart to the width of your hips.
  3. 3
    Ensure that all of your leg joints, knees, ankles, and hips are in alignment for best balance.
  4. 4
    Push down to the balls of your feet with both feet so that you are standing on your tip-toes.
  5. 5
    Repeat this as many times as you can so that you feel the burn of lactic acid buildup.
  6. 6
    Ensure that you have tightened and pulled in your abdominals so that you move in an upwards fashion and maintain good balance.

The best thing about this exercise is that you can do it even if you don’t have any free weights available. It’s effective because it uses your own body weight to build definition and tone. If you want to add some more weight to increase intensity, you can simply hold a dumbbell in one hand and hold the wall with the other for optimal balance.

Sometimes the double-leg calf raise is not quite enough. If you want to increase the intensity even more and place more stress on your calf muscles in order to build them, you can try the single-leg calf raise instead. This exercise proceeds as follows:

  1. 1
    Start in the same position against a wall, just as you would for the double-leg calf raise.
  2. 2
    Raise one leg and bend it backwards behind you so that you’re only standing on one leg.
  3. 3
    Push down into the balls of your one foot and proceed just as you would with the double-leg calf raise.
  4. 4
    You can then swap legs.

This is a great variation for placing your entire body weight on one calf. This effectively doubles the normal work that your calf needs to do to support your weight. You can also add a single dumbbell to add even more weight.

2. Variations on the Calf Raise

There are two variations on the classic calf raise that you can do if you want to mix your exercise routine up a little: the elevated surface calf raise and the seated calf raise.

The elevated surface calf raise is great if you have stairs in your home or have access to some other elevated surface.

Here’s how to proceed:

  1. 1
    Place your feet on the edge of the elevated surface or step and hang your heels off the edge.
  2. 2
    Stand up straight and engage your abdominals so as to maintain good balance and ensure an upward movement.
  3. 3
    Push down into the balls of your feet and raise yourself.
  4. 4
    Then slowly lower your heels down below the parallel of the step or elevated
    surface until you feel your calf muscles stretch out, and then repeat.

This exercise is effective because you move your calf through a full range and also stretch out your calf muscles. Effectively, this is a two-in-one exercise. You can vary it by holding a dumbbell in one hand for extra weight or doing one calf at a time.

The seated calf raise is excellent for isolating and building your soleus muscle. It proceeds in this way:

  1. 1
    Sit on a chair or a bench with your back straight and your core engaged.
  2. 2
    Hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest them on top of your thighs, just above your knees.
  3. 3
    Lift up both of your heels at the same time and then slowly lower them back again.

You can vary this exercise by elevating your feet in the same way that you would in the elevated surface calf raise. This has the advantage of also stretching your calf muscles as you extend downwards below the parallel of the elevated surface.

3. Jumping Rope

This is another classic exercise and has many benefits beyond the calves. Quite simply, get a jump rope, hold each handle, engage your core for maximum balance, lower your shoulders, and then jump the rope.

You’ll start to feel the burn in your calf muscles as you continue this exercise but there are also other advantages. It’s great for endurance and general stamina, and also improves balance and coordination.

4. The Jump Squat

The calf muscles are engaged when you run and when you jump. The jump squat exercise is excellent at building power in your calf muscles and engaging them in a natural, explosive plyometric movement.

It proceeds as follows:

  1. 1
    You can hold a dumbbell in each hand or hold a single dumbbell close to you in front of your chest.
  2. 2
    Stand up straight with your feet placed to the width of your shoulders.
  3. 3
    Lower yourself down as you would during a squat, ensuring that you push your hips backwards until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
  4. 4
    Straighten your legs in one single explosive movement and jump off the ground.
  5. 5
    When you land, make sure that your knees are bent and you land softly back into the squat position.

This exercise is great for balance and ensures a natural, explosive movement of the body.

Final Thoughts

The calf muscles are often ignored in favor of other exercises but there are some very simple exercises that can be done in the gym or in the home to build those skinny legs. So, how to build calf muscles for skinny legs? The calf raise is a classic exercise and can be varied for extra weight or to isolate different areas. These exercises build tone and definition and can be done with a minimum of equipment.

If you would like to learn more about how to rebuild leg strength while you have bad knees or are recovering from a knee injury, then you can read my article all about that subject HERE. The article opens in a new window on this website. 

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"Leg anatomy" by alfance is licensed under CC BY 4.0