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Standing calf raises are pretty much the “go to” to build the calves, and barbell calf raises are about the most simple version you can do. Many think you need a machine or at least a leg press to work the lower leg thoroughly, but barbell calf raises allow you to get a good workout, no matter what equipment your gym does or doesn’t have. However, is it enough to build muscle by itself?
Any standing calf raise should be your primary lower leg movement, and therefore done early in your calf workout. This is because exercises like barbell calf raises primarily work the gastrocnemius, which is the two-headed “diamond” shaped calf muscle which gives the lower leg its aesthetics.
Because the calves are a stubborn muscle, you have to work them much more intensely than you do other body parts. Ideally, you’d want to use as heavy of a weight as you can. Load up a barbell that you think would limit you to 6-10 reps, then gut your way to at least 12-15 reps per set for 3-4 sets. Reducing the weight by 10-20% for a “burnout” set or two of 20+ reps afterward is an excellent way to finish them off.
While barbell calf raises are an excellent exercise, they do have one major drawback – balance. Because you have nothing to keep you stable, it can be easy to lose your balance by raising up onto the balls of your feet on a block. This is exacerbated even more if you’re using a tall(-ish) block to get a greater range of motion. Luckily, this can be addressed in a few ways.
The first is to do your barbell calf raises with no block. This means you start with your feet flat on the floor, and raise up into the contracted position. You’re obviously limiting your range of motion by doing this, but you are ensuring that poor balance is now only a minor issue.
Another way is to do them with a much slower rep cadence. You’d use much less weight, which should allow you to have greater control. Use a block that will allow you to touch your heel to the floor at the bottom for added stability. Lower yourself in 3-4 seconds, touch the floor, then perform the concentric in another 3-4 seconds. Maximize muscular development even more by holding the contraction for a count of 2 at the top.
If all else fails, you could do your reps inside of a cage-style power rack. Set your block such that it’s near the uprights, allowing you to lean the barbell against them as you do your reps. This would almost mimic how you’d do barbell calf raises if you were in a smith machine. Just check with gym staff first, as this will likely scrape the paint off the rack.
So the question still remains – are barbell calf raises by themselves enough to build muscle? The true answer is “it depends”. If you’re able to do them with a slower cadence, off a shorter block, or in a power rack, then they should be.
As said above, calves are a very stubborn muscle which are best worked with a combination of both volume and weight. If you can overcome the lack of balance, then you should be fine. If you can’t, then you’ll probably have to add more work into the mix and / or choose a different exercise.
This is because barbell calf raises are a sort of double-edged sword in that it gives you the freedom to be able to work your lower legs in any gym, but the nature of the exercise has drawbacks that can limit how hard you push yourself. However, if you’re smart, you should be able to use a variation that still lets you put size on your calves.