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Genetics or exercise: The mystery behind the sizes of your calves

Some people prefer bigger calves, some prefer smaller calves. Can you do something about them, or are they just down to whether you won the genetic lottery?


Can you get the calf size that you want or is it just due to genetics?

TLDR; yes how your muscle growth depends on your genetics.


It is safe to say that genetics play a big role on how your body muscles are shaped, formed and grown, but it is still possible to alter the fate that your genetics have given you.


Especially for your calves, you have the power to grow or shrink them - to a certain extent. It all depends on range, type and frequency of exercises you do.



Range of motion and control

A common sight in the gym is when a guy just spends about an hour at the seated calf raise machine, repping out hundreds of quick and short reps. There are two problems with this:


Problem #1: The range of motion is too small.

Take a step forward and analyse your step. You are essentially doing a very short range of motion equivalent to a calf raise. So when you do calf raises in the gym, it does not help with anything as your calves are already adapted to doing short range of motion reps.


Solution #1: Train your calves through a full range of motion.

All the way down and all the way up. Standing calf raises will help. Just grab a couple of weights and start tiptoe-ing fully. You will feel a burn just below the lateral side of your knee.


Try standing calf raises to ensure a full range of motion.

Problem #2: Rushing through the reps.

When you rush through the reps, you are basically just working on your achilles tendon. The stretch reflex of your achilles tendon gets the brunt of the weight and bounces it back up. Why would you want to work on your achilles tendon?


Solution #2: Take your time.

Train with slow and controlled reps. Pause at the bottom and top of EVERY rep. You will feel the calf stretch and remember to contract the muscle as hard as you can.



Frequency

Your calves actually already do a lot throughout the day. They are one of the primary muscles holding you upright when you walk. So if you want to grow them, you are going to have to do A LOT more.


You need to be training them AT LEAST 3 times a week to see a hint of change. If you are trully dedicated to growing your calves, train them for 10-15 minutes, 4-5 times a week. Increase your volume as you go - volume = sets x reps x weight.



And then there are those who want to slim them down instead...

Let's look at the causes of big and muscular calves.


1. Genetics

We're not going to lie. Genetics play a big factor in calf size. If you have not done much exercise that changes your shapes of your calves, chances are that there will not be any major changes.


2. Muscle/Fat

Some people have flabby calves, some people have very toned calves. But they might be of the same size. If your calf size is due to muscle, there are certain exercises to avoid to stop them from growing bigger. If your calf size is due to fat, all you need to do is lose weight. But losing weight on your legs is the hardest place to lose fat (especially for women), so it will take a lot of time and effort.


Your body type determines how much muscle you can grow or lose.

3. Exercise and body type

There are three body types - ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph - and all lose weight and build muscle differently.

Ectomorph: Lean, long and has diffculty building muscle.

Endomorph: Large in nature, high body fat, pear-shaped and has a high tendency to store body fat.

Mesomorph: Muscular, well-built and has a high metabolism with responsive muscle cells.

If you are a mesomorph or endomorph, chances are you do build calves very easily and some exercises will fuel that growth.



Slimming your calves

There are 4 exercises you can stop doing: cardio at an incline, skipping, running and plyometric exercises. Using them as little as possible will give a chance for your muscles to reduce by themselves.


1. Cardio at an incline

Running does build muscle in your calves, but it helps with slimming and toning your legs as well. If you are worried about building your calves, just make sure you are running on a flat surface. You may think that maybe walking at an incline will balance it out, but any uphill exercise will (unfortunately) building your calf muscles.


Any uphill exercises, no matter how relaxed will build your calf muscles.

2. Skipping

Skipping is a brilliant cardio exercise but it builds up your calves very quickly. If you want to slim down your legs, you are better off doing more walking or running.


3. Running

But, we just suggested running? Running is generally a good exercise to slim your legs down, but if you think that running has been the reason your calves have increased in size, then it is time to stop. Running does use your calf muscles and might make them bigger, but it also boils down to the technique. Avoid running on your toes and run with a heel to toe stride motion. Make sure your shoes support that motion.


4. Plyometric/HIIT Exercises

Plyometrics use a lot of jumping motions that will make your calves bigger. But that doesn't mean you should stop HIIT exercises. Just avoid an excessive amount of lower body plyometric exercises like jump squats, jump lunges and burpees - or anything that results in you landing heavily on your feet.


Try instead: A low intensity cardio that will help you lose excess fat on your lower half or losing weight overall (but bear in mind that this will take a longer time and even a diet change).



Extra info

It might help if you understand how the human muscle cells grow. According to consultant orthopaedic surgeon Dr Rajesh Singh, muscle cells "are the only cell that can grow up to 2 or 3 times it size and still remains as its function."


Here's a short video by Jeffrey Siefel on TEDEd on how your muscles grow:


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