Gastrocnemius – neglected, stubborn or misunderstood?

By Gareth Ramsden aka OoOGazOoO

What is the Gastrocnemius?
The gastrocnemius is the muscle more commonly known as the calf muscle. The main function of the gastrocnemius is ankle plantar flexion, i.e. moving the toes and top of the foot away from the body, as well as dorsiflexion, i.e. moving the toes and top of the foot towards the body.

The main muscles of the calf include:

  • Gastrocnemius
  • Soleus
  • Tibialis (anterior and posterior)
  • Peroneus (longus and brevis)

The Gastrocnemius
The gastrocnemius (or gastrocs) is the superficial muscle on the back of the leg. It has two heads, the medial head and the lateral head. It attaches the femur (the thigh bone), on the posterior medial condyle, which is located to the inner portion of the leg, near the knee area. The insertion area of the gastrocnemius is the Achilles tendon, known as the calcaneous, which is referred to as the 'heel' bone.

The Soleus
The soleus is a flat muscle, which is located below the gastrocnemius, on the sides of the lower limbs. The soleus attaches to the tibia and fibula on the posterior surface as an insertion point, and has an origin point of the Calcaneous, much the same as the gastrocnemius. The origin point attaches via the Achilles tendon also, and is attached to the posterior surface of the calcaneous.

The soleus is responsible for plantar flexion of the foot and ankle; moving the toes and top of the foot away from the body.

Tibialis Anterior and Posterior
The tibialis anterior is the muscle which attaches to the front of the tibia and inserts onto the tarsal bones in the feet. The tibialis anterior runs down the side of the tibia bone, and is responsible for dorsiflexion of the foot and ankle; moving the toes and top of the foot towards the body. It is very prominent when individuals are walking on uneven terrain as it helps to adjust the position of the foot and therefore the leg.

The tibialis posterior is the muscle which attaches to the posterior surfaces of the tibia and fibula, and originates from the calcaneous (posterior surface). The tibialis posterior is also responsible for plantar flexion of the foot and ankle. It provides stability for the foot and the leg and is heavily involved during inversion of the foot.

Peroneus Longus and Brevis
The peroneus longus attaches to the proximal head of the fibula, and runs along the fibula bone and acts during plantar flexion of the foot and ankle. The peroneus longus is the most superficial of the peroneus muscle. The insertion point of the peroneus longus is the base of the first metatarsal in the foot, which actually passes into the plantar ligament.

The peroneus longus works in combination with the tibialis posterior, which help to extend the foot, when making contact with the ground. The peroneus longus is also very prominent in foot placement as it helps to stabilise the leg, making sure that all of the pressure is not placed towards the midline of the foot; a potential cause of injury.

The peroneus brevis originates from the lower location of the fibula and attaches to the base of the fifth metatarsal of the foot as an insertion point. The main action of the peroneus brevis is to aid with plantar flexion and help with evertion of the foot and ankle. It is a smaller muscle than the peroneus longus and actually lies beneath it, and is vital for providing lateral stability to the ankle and foot.

Muscle Fibre Types of the Gastrocnemius
Many people often claim to have lagging calf muscles. Is this through neglect? Under training? The wrong type of training? Or another reason?

It is important to consider the muscle fibre make up of the gastrocnemius in order to gain the most from your training, which could potentially lead to better gains for your calf muscles. The gastrocnemius muscles contain almost a 50/50 split of muscle fibres in relation to type 1 and type II muscle fibres, also known as fast twitch (type II) and slow twitch (type I) muscle fibres. Type I muscle fibres, also known as slow oxidative muscle fibres, have a fairly high endurance due to the content of mitochondria and myoglobin. Type II muscle fibres, also known as fast oxidative muscle fibres, have a somewhat low endurance, and therefore are possibly better for lower rep and heavier weight training movements. Out of all the muscle fibre types, the type II fibres are the fibres which tire the most quickly.

Dr Hyght stated that the gastrocnemius is made up of around 51% of type I muscle fibres, which means that they can be trained with lower weight and higher reps. The remainder of the muscle fibre, 49%, is type II muscle fibre, which means that the calves can also be trained with lower reps and higher weight. The fore-mentioned is in relation to the lateral head of the gastrocnemius.

The medial head of the gastrocnemius is made up of 56% of fast twitch muscle fibres, with 44% of the muscle fibres being slow twitch, type I muscle fibres.

Training the Gastrocnemius
With the above in mind, we are able to devise a training regime in order to bring about the best possible gains for your gastrocnemius area. There are several exercises which are good ways to directly train the calf muscles; these are explained in more detail in the training routine:

  • Straight leg barbell calf raises
  • Bent leg barbell calf raises
  • Donkey calf raises
  • Seated calf raises

All directly target the gastrocnemius area and have the potential to add size to the lower leg, if trained with the correct rep ranges, providing the rest of your diet and training is in check.

Taking into consideration the above muscle fibre descriptions, it would be beneficial to include both high reps and lower weight and higher weight and lower reps into your training routine for your gastrocnemius muscles. Additionally, I also believe it would lead to sub-optimal gains if an individual was to stay with lower reps or higher reps, rather than having a routine which combines the two.

When training the gastrocnemius, it is worth considering, that when the legs are straight, more emphasis is placed on the medial and lateral heads, whilst taking the emphasis off the soleus muscles. Straight leg calf raises allow for more stretch to the gastrocnemius, which results in more recruitment during those exercises. When the knee is bent, the emphasis on the gastrocnemius is reduced, and places more recruitment onto the soleus muscles. The gastrocnemius muscles slacken when the knee is bent, so when the knee is straight, the muscles are more stretched. This results in the fact that when individuals perform seated calf raises, emphasis is taken off the gastrocnemius and onto the soleus muscles.

Higher rep ranges will also be beneficial in your calf training routine due to the fact that we walk around on them all day long, and they can take a great workload. Additionally, the Achilles tendon stores a large amount of energy. If you let the tendon relax at the bottom part of the movement, it will potentially allow for greater stimulation of the area.

The Stretch Technique
When performing repetitions during your calf training, make sure that you get the most from your reps by really stressing the gastrocnemius at the top of the movement, as well as giving a nice stretch at the bottom of the movement.

When you reach the peak of the ascent during your calf training, squeeze the gastrocnemius at the top of the movement, as if you were flexing the muscle, and hold that for 1-2 seconds. Once you have held the stretch for 1-2 seconds, descend slowly in a controlled fashion, and give a nice stretch at the bottom of the movement, allowing for the Achilles tendon to relax.

Putting it together – A Gastrocnemius Training routine
With the above taken into consideration, it is now possible to put together a calf training routine in order to maximize the potential gains of the gastrocnemius area. We will split this into two training days –

  • Higher reps with lower weight day
  • Lower reps with heavier weight day

Higher Rep, Lower Weight Day:

- Barbell Straight Leg Calf Raises – 2 x 25-50 reps
Perform with a weight that you can manage for 50 reps for 2 sets. Keeping the legs straight during the exercise will place emphasis onto the gastrocnemius and off the soleus.

- Barbell Bent Leg Calf Raises – 2 x 25-50 reps
Perform with a weight that you can manage for 50 reps for 2 sets. Keeping the legs bent during the movement will result in more recruitment of the soleus muscle, whilst taking the emphasis off the gastrocnemius.

- Donkey Calf Raises (weighted with dip belt) – 2 x 30 reps
Place weight onto a dip belt, and attach to the waist. Lean forwards and possibly place your hands onto a wall so that you are steady. This will place a nice pre-stretch onto the gastrocnemius area, taking away the work from the soleus muscle.

Lower Rep, Higher Weight Day:

- Barbell Straight Leg Calf Raises – 2 x 8-12 reps
Perform with a weight that you can manage for 50 reps for 2 sets. Keeping the legs straight during the exercise will place emphasis onto the gastrocnemius and off the soleus.

- Barbell Bent Leg Calf Raises – 2 x 8-12 reps
Perform with a weight that you can manage for 50 reps for 2 sets. Keeping the legs bent during the movement will result in more recruitment of the soleus muscle, whilst taking the emphasis off the gastrocnemius.

- Seated Calf Raises – 2 x 6-12 reps
Place your quads under the pads of the seated calf raise machine and place the feet onto the plate so that the heels are hanging off the platform. Perform strict reps by employing the 'squeeze' technique as outlined above, for the above sets and reps. The seated calf raises will help to work your soleus muscles whilst minimizing gastrocnemius use.

Tibialis Exercise
It is important to include some form of movement for your tibialis muscles. Superset one of the above exercises, with a set of reps for the tibialis. Place your heel on a step and let the toes and front of the feet hang off the edge of the step. Lift the toes towards the ceiling, so that the foot is flat again and inline with the heels. This will work the tibialis muscles, which are often neglected.