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Calf strength is as important in day-to-day activity.
It may be tempting to think that you have just one major calf muscle, the meaty, two-headed gastrocnemius that is so obvious when you see someone's calf from the back. But in fact, there are two major movers in your lower leg, and both of them are active when you do standing calf raises.
Meet Your Two Calf Muscles
The most obvious muscle in your calf is the gastrocnemius. Its two "heads" or attachment points are what give your lower leg its characteristic, wider-on-top appearance when seen from the back. The other major mover in your calf, the soleus, lies between your gastrocnemius and the bones of your lower leg, so you'll only see it on lean individuals with well-developed muscles. But it's still there, helping out your gastrocnemius any time you plantarflex your foot, which is the anatomical term for the motion of standing calf raises.
If you were to do your calf raises while seated, the soleus becomes the main mover. This is because the gastrocnemius muscle crosses the knee, so when your knee is bent (in order to sit), the gastrocnemius can't bring its force to bear. So the soleus muscle, which does not cross the knee, takes the load instead.
How to Do Standing Calf Raises
Now that you know which muscles standing calf raises work, here's how to do them:
Step 1: Position Your Feet
Find a slightly elevated surface that your feet won't slide off of, with something sturdy nearby that you can hold onto for balance. Some gyms provide unassuming blocks of wood or low-to-the-ground platforms for this use. Place the balls of your feet on the elevated surface, letting your heels hang off the edge, feet parallel to one another.
Step 2: Lift Your Heels
Squeeze your calves as you lift your heels, rising up onto the balls of your feet. Aim for a smooth, controlled motion.
Step 3: Lower Your Heels
Lower your heels smoothly back to the starting position, level with your toes or slightly below them. This completes one repetition. If you're just getting started, a single set of eight to 12 repetitions is usually sufficient to build strength.
Make sure you keep your calf muscles under tension, even at the end of the exercise. Don't just relax them and let your heels plunk down as far as they'll go; doing this is a sure recipe for eventual injury.
Although you can do calf raises on flat ground, you'll get more benefit from doing them on a slightly elevated surface - a wide block of wood that won't tip over is ideal - because this allows you to keep your muscles under constant tension throughout the exercise.
Create More of a Challenge
As with any other exercise, if you do standing calf raises regularly they'll get easier over time. If you want to continue building strength and endurance, you'll need to challenge yourself in one of a few ways. The first and simplest is to switch from doing calf raises on both legs to doing them on one leg at a time, at least for a few reps out of your set. Make sure you hold onto something sturdy the first time you try this, as keeping your balance can be quite a challenge.
Another way to challenge yourself - assuming you don't need to hold onto anything during your calf raises - is by holding a dumbbell in each hand, or holding a barbell across your shoulders. You can also hold a dumbbell in one hand while you use the other hand to stabilize yourself, but make sure you keep your torso upright and core engaged. Don't let yourself list off to one side.
And finally, some gyms will have a strength-training machine designed specifically for standing calf raises, with a padded yoke that sits atop your shoulders. When you lift up to your toes you also press up against the yoke, which in turn lifts the weight stack or weight plates on the machine.