Calf Muscle Strength Development

A different method of muscle development exists. Both muscle bulk and strength are quickly and easily increased. No cost is involved and no special time or equipment is necessary. This approach is somewhat like an isometric approach.

Many years ago, I accidentally happened onto a way of building muscle strength and bulk that I have not seen presented anywhere else. I would think that if someone else thought of it, they would probably be trying to make money from it, so it would be somehow publicized. But it isn't.

I am a healthy, fit, and athletic person. There would appear to be only a few minor natural flaws present in me, one of which is that I have always had very little fat under the heels of my feet. This has caused my heels to be particularly sensitive. As a small child, this condition tended to make walking and running somewhat irritating and even sometimes painful for me. Even just standing can sometimes be painful, if I let my bodyweight rest on my heels. As a result, I unknowingly adapted, apparently at a very young age, and developed a habit of usually standing with nearly all of my weight on the balls of my feet, with my heels a fraction of an inch above the floor or ground. The methods I unconsciously developed for walking and running were similarly modified, and so there were seldom any impacts on the heels of my feet.

Regarding the standing, this obviously requires some amount of balance! And the result is that occasionally, and usually briefly, my heels would be on the ground. I guess I have always tended to very slightly lean backwards, because I do not recall ever having "fallen forward" upon having lost that balance!

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Through much of my life, I was never even aware of this situation. I never even thought about it and I guess I assumed that all other people stood and ran the way I did. The ONLY fact that I ever noticed was that I never seemed to be able to run as fast or as far as other kids. But I was a scrawny little kid and I figured I just didn't have the muscles they had!

As a high-level College (Purdue) and then Tournament volleyball player, people were often amazed at how high I was able to jump. Also through my adult life, many people have complimented me on the size and tone of my calves. (I am now 62, and even though the rest of me has aged, my calves seem to appear [to me and to several women friends] as they did when I was around 20. I do not know if it is unusual, but my 62-year-old calves now measure about 18".)

On many occasions, bodybuilders have approached me to ask how I developed them so much and to ask what exercises I did to develop them, because they would spend many hours with weights in an effort to try to develop similar calves. My response always surprised them in that I NEVER did any exercises to try to develop them. Actually, being primarily a scientist and businessman, and pursuing a Degree in Nuclear Physics in College, it never even occurred to me to TRY to develop them or even see any NEED to try!

I have also always HATED "working out" and even in High School, I hated the calisthenics and running that Gym Teachers always insisted on!

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Another characteristic I have always had as an adult is in being able to jump extremely high and very quickly. I am 6'1". When I was 21, I could stand still under a (10 foot high) basketball basket and do a standing jump to touch both of my elbows to the rim. Since my elbows are at around 6'4" height when standing with arms raised, that represented a 44 inch Sergeant's jump, quite high. (Many good athletes have around a 20" to 28" Sergeant's jump). In both basketball and volleyball, I became an exceedingly good defensive player because of this. I could wait until an offensive player committed to some shot or hit and then jump. My jump was very quick, and since it was also very high, I could generally "catch up" with the offensive player to block their shot or hit. I would invariably lead my team in blocked shots and in blocked hits. (I was a pretty lousy shot in basketball, and unless I was dunking the ball, it was never certain whether I would make a shot!)

It was several years before I realized the connection between all of this. By almost continuously standing with my heels a fraction of an inch off the ground, the muscles in the back of my calves were consistently stressed. This continual tensing of the muscles in my calves made them keep getting bigger and stronger. Since they were stronger, that contributed to being able to jump higher. This is very similar to the general approach of isometric exercises, where opposing muscle groups are consciously tensed for potential benefit of strengthening both sets. In this case, the gravitational effect of my body weight was being continuously resisted by the tensing of the calf muscles.

Here is a more technical description of this: The motion of causing the foot to flex in the process of jumping is called plantar flexion. The foot actually acts as a lever in this process. The calcaneus (heel bone) is pulled UPWARD in order to cause the front of the foot to be pushed DOWNWARD, with a fulcrum of the bottom end of the tibia and fibula bones of the lower leg. The heel bone is pulled upward by the Achilles tendon along the rear of the foot and leg. That tendon attaches to the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles in the calf.

When the calf muscles are activated, they SHORTEN, just like all other muscles do. This pulls the bottom end of the Achilles tendon upward which pulls the heel upward, which pushes the ball of the foot downward. If this is done quickly, it results in a jump. If done to less of an extent, it simply raises the heel off of the ground, as when someone stands on their toes.

The LEVERAGE is important here. The DISTANCE between the attachment of the Achilles tendon and the fulcrum is around one inch in me. The distance from that fulcrum and the ball of my foot is around seven inches. Therefore, in order to simply SUPPORT my 200 pound body weight, the Achilles tendon(s) need to pull with a tension of 7 * 200 or 1400 pounds. The calf muscles must supply this tension force. By the way, the Achilles tendon is the biggest and strongest tendon in the human body for this reason.

In other words, even when I simply STAND where my heels are slightly above the ground, my calf muscles are necessarily producing around 1400 pounds of tension force, on a continuous basis!

I actually wonder if this very consistent requirement in my body uses up enough (food) energy to have kept me from ever becoming overweight??? Is there some goofy new "diet" possible where some major muscles are stressed for long periods of time??? As a likely related note, my calves have always tended to have relatively warm skin temperature, as mosquitoes quickly discover! That MIGHT be due to those muscles using up food energy to produce that constant tension and thereby having to give off heat energy. Research might seem appropriate on that relationship.

YOU can confirm all of this right now! Stand up, and have a watch or clock handy. Slightly raise your heels off of the floor and start watching the clock! Before even one minute, you should start to feel some slightly sensation in the very back of your calves! By two minutes, you will definitely be aware that those muscles are being used harder than they normally are used to! And if you can do five minutes, you are likely to feel a somewhat stinging sensation in those muscles (as per comments of friends of mine who have tried this).

Most athletes seem to focus on developing the much larger, stronger muscles in the thighs. These muscles are used to flex and straighten the knee joint. I guess the thinking is that the larger, stronger muscles of the thigh, acting over the wide range of motion of the knee joint, would enable great jumping. But, in order to USE these stronger muscles, it is necessary for them to first flex and then straighten out their knees. That process takes many more milliseconds of time than just the action of straightening the ankles, where the calf muscles act. There is little doubt that this difference contributes toward the extreme quickness of my jump. Where many basketball and volleyball defenders tend to squat down and bend their knees to get ready to jump, I generally only minimally did that. I believe that the greater part of my vertical jump was and is due to the strong calf muscles quickly straightening out my ankles. THAT process can occur lightning fast!

I suppose this leaves open the question of what kind of jump I might have been capable of if I actually had tried to develop my thigh muscles to build up the effect of the "normal" knee straightening jumping motion! But, considering that I never did ANY jumping or leg strengthening exercises IN MY LIFE, I think it says something that I had that 44-inch Sergeant's jump.

There WAS one peculiar thing that resulted from my never actually trying to develop a jump. As I mentioned, the might of the thigh muscles through action at the knee are most prominent when an athlete has some time for preparation, specifically, a running start. Therefore, virtually every athlete can jump considerably higher with a running start than in just a standing jump. (Essentially, they are converting some horizontal kinetic energy of running into vertical potential energy of a jump). But, since I had never tried to learn how to jump, or more correctly a running jump, and since the majority of my jumping strength and power was in my calves and ankles, it always turned out that my standing jump and my running jump were virtually the same height! Yes, I could slam-dunk two basketballs like the big boys, but they generally take a running start to do it. (The two basketballs cannot both fit through the rim at the same time, so you have to jump high enough to dunk one AFTER the other!) I found it easier to hold onto the basketballs if I just stood still near under the basket and jumped up and stuffed them. It was probably sort of goofy looking! Oh, well! Again, if I had worked at building up the power of my knee-motion, I have no doubt that my running jump would have been significantly higher. But I didn't, so it wasn't!

Trainers, athletes and doctors often talk about slow twitch and quick twitch muscles, to differentiate between quickness and strength. All that may be true, but the point I'm making here is certainly also true. Slow twitch and quick twitch muscles may not have any effect at all in what I am describing. The mechanics of the ankle joint are such that it is just naturally able to move more quickly than the larger, heavier, and longer mass that must be moved for the knee joint. As a Physicist, I am aware of the mechanical leverages involved and the masses that must be accelerated and decelerated to move either the knee and the ankle joint. The minimal mass of the toes and front of the foot, only about seven inches away from the vertical pivot point, means that far less "torque" must be developed to quickly move it. Whether the muscle fibers were quick-twitch or slow-twitch, the mechanics of the joint allow it to move VERY rapidly.

As a side benefit of having extremely well developed calf muscles (I think), my ankles have been amazingly resistant to serious injury. Where teammates and opponents would often suffer minor and severe ankle sprains, I only suffered one serious one, and that was a result of an accident that all present said should have broken several bones (none were). (I believe this to be due to the very strong muscles that supported and maintained the ankle structure.)

The only downside to all this high jumping business that I ever found was that it was sometimes a disadvantage to have jumped so high as to be the last one to land on the floor. Occasionally, some teammate's or opponent's foot had already landed in that spot, and the possibility of a sprained ankle seemed often present. I am glad that the apparent strong muscles kept those many (several hundred, I'd guess) encounters to just that one injury.

There DID seem to be a peculiar side-effect for me while I was in high school gym classes. When the class was to do a series of leg-lifts, I guess their torsos were heavy enough and their legs skinny enough to be able to do that fairly easily. But since I was a very skinny kid, my torso was apparently not very heavy, and since my calves had already spent many years of being tensioned as described above, my calves were clearly already well developed, and specifically, rather heavy. So when I would try to do leg-lifts, the result was generally somewhat of being situps! I vividly remember one Gym Teacher coming over to yell at me, but then he saw that I was actually TRYING to do what he had demanded! I guess that GRAVITY was not really allowing me to do it very well. My legs WOULD rise up, but so would my head and chest. NEITHER of which was very good. However, many kids found it necessary for someone to hold their legs down when they were doing situps, and I never needed that assistance.

The Premise

The logic presented seems to suggest that my strong and toned calves developed as a result of nearly continuous isometric-type tensioning that they were subject to. Never extraordinary weights or anything because I have always hated lifting weights and I haven't done that since I was required to in gym class in High School. So, just my natural body weight was enough to accomplish the muscle strengthening and growth. Now, the fact of that 7:1 leverage ratio may give the calves an unusual advantage here. Normal isometric exercises cannot load the muscles very much.

This seems to suggest that, whatever muscles you might want to develop significantly, find some behavior pattern where those muscles are as continuously loaded as possible. Not with extreme load, just as continuous a loading as you can manage. In the case of calf muscles, as with me, nearly always keeping the heels very slightly elevated appears to work. For the knees, I suspect that keeping the legs regularly very slightly bent (and not locked straight) might do it. For hand, forearm and upper arm, I would think extremely regular and consistent more normal isometric loading should do it. What about getting in a pushup position, but with the arms bent, so the forearms are NEARLY on the floor. The leverage situation in that would closely resemble the ankle loading, where the biceps would then have an isometric stress loading of many hundreds of pounds.

I do not believe that huge loads are necessary or appropriate. For example, I would think that if a student wanted to develop the biceps, then the hands could be pressed upward against the (often nasty!) underside of the writing table of the desk he sits at in class. I would think that only the equivalent force of supporting 5 or 10 pounds might be useful, and NOT applying SERIOUS force! If this is done for a total of two hours worth of the six hours he is in class each day, every day, the results should be noticeable in a few weeks and significant within a few months. Yet another reason to STAY IN SCHOOL, huh?

Pushing AGAINST an obstacle such as the desk is actually not necessary. A true isometric tensing requires a very conscious effort to tense both opposing muscle sets in some body area. For example, while sitting in a car or even lying in bed, it is possible to gradually tense the bicep, but then keep the forearm from moving by also tensing the tricep. This activity can be done with pretty surprising power, where both muscles are strongly activated, so much so that the muscles soon get exhausted and the forearm can start vibrating! This level is far beyond what I suggest. My recommendation is FAR less! As a guide, I'd suggest placing something about one pound in the palm of an outstretched arm and raising the hand a couple inches above the table. Try to note the feeling of tension in the biceps. Then, place the object down and try to establish balanced tensions in the biceps and triceps, such that the biceps has the same sensation of tension that it had while holding that pound weight.

Notice that this benefit can be had WITHOUT committing many hours to exercise routines, and that it can be accomplished without interfering with the every day activities of schoolwork or even work in the workplace. This suggestion is NOT meant to discourage regular exercise! Still do it!

I suggest trying this idea out. There is no cost. There is no training regimen that cuts into other activities you need to do. And there are clear benefits.

If you try this, I would appreciate hearing what results you notice, either positive or negative. Please indicate how consistently you tensed your muscles, and what method you used to accomplish it, and for how long. I hope to build a data-base over the years on this concept.


Since this page has been up, many people have asked for photos of my calves, or measurements or whatever. Hey, I don't even have any photographs of my very beautiful ex-wife, so how likely do you think it is that a Nuclear Physicist would have photos of his own calves?!

But, after an awful lot of requests, the scientist in me felt it appropriate to actually measure them. I am not really sure of what value it is, or even if my dimensions are larger than normal. But here they are:

I am fairly slim, 6'1", 200 pounds. My thighs seem to be around 21" and my calves around 17.5". That's all you get!

As a research scientist, I tend to always keep finding little details on all sorts of things. This may be an unimportant one, as they often are, but in 2006, I have noticed that there are some times when I walk with my heels FAR above the ground! I have not found any pattern to the times when I do this, but at those times, my heels are never within an inch or an inch and a half of the ground! (It has to look rather odd, I would think!) I have also noticed that I sense an extra "springiness" when I sense myself walking that way. In fact, since I am rarely aware that I even walk my special way at any time, I have recently come to notice an occasional springiness like that, and have then realized that my heels were especially high.

I have also noticed that there are other times when my heels are rather low, and even that they touch the ground on many steps, but I believe there is little weight actually on them then.

When running, the very high heel mode seems to always occur, which makes my mechanics for running rather poor! I believe that occurs because my body and brain do NOT want my heels to be hitting the pavement during the running process (as all other people seem to do, where their heel is the FIRST thing to contact the ground).

I have recently discovered another unexpected effect of this! After I have walked barefoot across fresh sand or mud, I generally do not seem to leave entire footprints! Only the front half of my feet seem to appear in the sand or mud. I bet that would drive future anthropologists crazy if they found such things! The footprints certainly do NOT look very human! Except for the toes!

This presentation was first placed on the Internet in February 1998.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago