I get it if ankle stability ranks about as high as organizing your sneakers or cleaning the inside of your oven on your to-do list. But it’s actually super important for daily movements like walking (yup).
“Strong calf muscles create strong and stable ankles, which is what helps you stabilize when your foot lands,” says Jacquelyn Baston, CSCS, owner of Triple Fit in Chicago. The stronger this muscle group, the more powerful your jumps, sprints, and lifts will be—and the lower your risk of injury.
Your calves are made up of two muscles that run down the back of your leg, the gastrocnemius and the soleus, says India McPeak, CSCS. Standing calf raises engage both muscles, making your calves stronger and leaner, while also stabilizing your ankles and feet.
Meet the experts: India McPeak, CSCS, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, former collegiate gymnast, and currently working on her masters in sports and exercise nutrition. Jacquelyn Baston, CSCS, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the owner of Triple Fit in Chicago.
Think quality over quantity with calf raises. Speeding through reps won't get you the many benefits that focusing on proper form will. Here are step-by-step instructions to do calf raises correctly and more lower-leg strengthening tips from experts.
How To Do Calf Raises With Proper Form
- Stand on a flat surface with your toes pointed straight ahead.
- Lift your heels off the floor to flex your calf muscle.
- Pause for moment, then slowly return to the floor. That’s one rep.
Calf raises are great for boosting ankle stability and overall balance. Plus calf strength!
Reps/sets for best results: Start with two sets of 10 to 15 reps, resting 30 to 60 seconds between sets. You should feel a burn (but not pain) by the end of each set; if not, up your rep count, Baston says.
Form tips: The one thing to watch is your ankles—if this area is weak, your ankles may roll in or out which can create imbalances and lead to injury at the ankles and knees, Baston explains. If this is the case, do ankle-strengthening exercises before you start bringing calf raises in to your workouts. And you can stand close to a wall for balance if necessary.
Benefits Of Calf Raises
Calf raises are just one way to strengthen calf muscles. When you work the gastrocnemius and the soleus (two muscles that attach to the heel bone via your Achilles tendon and make up your calves), here are some big perks you can expect.
Boost balance. This move is great for improving ankle stability, strength, and subsequently overall balance. Calf raises improve balance, which is important for bodily awareness, coordination, and mobility, according to 2020 research.
Improve power. If your workouts include a lot of explosive movements like jumping, calf raises will give you more oomph. That added ankle stability helps with landings and takeoffs.
Make Calf Raises Part Of Your Workout
One great thing about this move is you can do it pretty much anywhere—Baston says she likes to do them while brushing her teeth.
If you want to bring it into your structured workout, though, aim to incorporate calf raises two to three days per week.
Because calf raises are a single-joint, isolation exercise, it’s important to pair them with other movements that strengthen the joints this muscle group is attached to, Baston advises. In this case, that’s the ankle joint below and the knee above.
Start by adding calf raises as a superset following squats or lunges. As you become stronger, you can start pairing the burner with plyometric movements that isolate the calf muscle further, like jumping rope or jump squats. You can also make it harder, by performing calf raises standing on one leg or holding a dumbbell in your hands. (These knee strengthening exercises also pair well with calf raises.)
Want a complete lower-body workout? Try this routine:
And speaking of stretching, be sure you stretch after a workout that includes this move. “This is a muscle group that can have a hard time recovering and lead to injury in the arches of the feet, like plantar fasciitis, if you don’t stretch it after,” Baston says. Wall lunges and downward dog post-workout should do the trick.
Calf Raise Variations To Try For Added Challenge
- Increase the range of motion. Stand on the edge of a step or plate on the balls of your feet with your feet parallel and toes pointing directly ahead. Slowly lower your heels down as far as you can, before lifting back onto your toes as high as possible. If you need extra support, McPeak suggests standing next to a wall or squat rack for balance. “Using full range of motion will help you achieve greater strength gains and healthier tendons,” says McPeak. This variation also stretches the Achilles tendon.
- Add resistance. To level up your calf raises, McPeak recommends holding two dumbbells by your side or a barbell on your back (think back squat positioning). For an added bonus, keep your midsection engaged for a subtle ~core workout~.
- Bend your knees. Instead of doing calf raises with straight legs (which primarily target the gastrocnemius), try slightly bending your knees to activate the soleus muscle, says McPeak. Both muscles are just as important to train, she explains, but remember to keep your ankles strong and avoid rolling them in or out.
- Switch to single leg. All the above variations can be done on a single leg for increased difficulty. Make sure to build strength and stability with body weight variations first, says McPeak. And again, if you're aiming for one leg at a time but need some support, hold onto something sturdy to take pressure off your calves.
Common Calf Raises Mistakes
- Cutting range of motion. “The most common mistake I see people make is going too fast and cutting the range of motion short,” says McPeak. It’s more important to slow down and get full range of motion with proper form than use heavier weights and compensate on depth in the ankle joint, she explains.
- Ankles roll in or out. It may sound like a broken record, but keeping your ankles strong, feet parallel, and weight evenly distributed across the balls of your feet and toes will reduce injury and increase strength. If you feel your ankles rolling, McPeak suggests squeezing a tennis ball between your heels during calf raises to help strengthen the tendons that run down the inside of your ankle.
- Rushing movement. “Focusing on the pace of the movement is so beneficial for tendon health, mobility, and further strength gains, '' says McPeak. A good rule of thumb is “2-1-2-1,” she explains. Take two seconds to lift to full extension, one second pause at the top, two seconds to lower back down, and one second pause at the bottom before repeating.
Rachael Schultz is a freelance writer with years of experience covering health, nutrition, and physiology. In addition to Women's Health, she has written for Men's Health, Men's Journal, Cosmopolitan, SELF, and Weight Watchers, among other publications. She’s most passionate about hiking, traveling, mindfulness, cooking, and really, really good coffee.
Andi Breitowich is a Chicago-based writer and graduate student at Northwestern Medill. She’s a mass consumer of social media and cares about women’s rights, holistic wellness, and non-stigmatizing reproductive care. As a former collegiate pole vaulter, she has a love for all things fitness and is currently obsessed with Peloton Tread workouts and hot yoga.