Category: Exercise

High Rep Calf Raises

I was talking to a friend a couple weeks ago. He was doing off-season training for ice climbing and mentioned how his calves would get tired while leading. In leading ice you normally stand on your front points and lower your heels to lock in your knees and keep your weight on your bones, or skeleton. This saves wear and tear on your muscles. Be that as it may though, it still takes quite a bit of flexibility and strength to do most efficiently. This made me think about my own training with high rep calf raises.

Without going into too much detail about muscles, the calf is built with two different ways of moving. Basically, the calf lifts your heel, or pushes with the toes. It’s the same thing really. One set of calf muscles does this while the knee is straight. Another set does it while the knee is bent. In the High Rep Calf Raises we’re going to see here, your knees are straight. The calf muscles are pretty small overall, and for many of us don’t respond well to hypertrophy. That means they won’t get very big. You use your calf muscles all day long. Every step you take. So they’re pretty well tuned to high volume work. Lots of repetitions. I like 25 for the weights I use for my high rep calf raises.

High Rep Calf Raises Progression

One thing about any type of training, including maybe especially high rep calf raises, is that when you first begin, you might not be very strong. Many people will start with only their own bodyweight, possibly even supported. Let’s begin with a stretch. In the photo below I’m stretching one leg at a time, and I’m fairly flexible there. At first you can use two legs. I’m standing on a 6″ stepping box, but anything sturdy will work like stairs or a deck. Use your hands for balance. Let your heel drop below your toes as far as you can with just a mild burn in your calf. Hold that position for about 20 seconds. That’s it. You’re done. Do it before and after your calf exercise.

Stretch your calf muscles before high rep calf raises
Stretch your calf muscles before high rep calf raises

If you’ve never done high rep calf raises before, use that same step to lift your body up, keeping your knees straight, with both legs. Just your body weight is good for now.

Bodyweight 2-leg high rep calf raises
Bodyweight 2-leg high rep calf raises

When you can do 4 sets of 25 at bodyweight with two legs, then you can begin to add weight. Barbells can be tough to balance on your shoulders while doing calf raises, so I like to use the Safety Squat Bar. But you can just use anything that has weight. In the photo below I’m using a 25 lb olympic size weight plate.

Weighted high rep calf raises
Weighted high rep calf raises

If you’re feeling pretty strong and want to give it a go, you can do your weighted high rep calf raises on only one leg. Keep in mind though that for many people balance can really be an issue. Don’t hurt yourself.

Weighted Single Leg High Rep Calf Raises
Weighted Single Leg High Rep Calf Raises

High Rep Calf Raises Video

In this video I’m doing a set of high rep calf raises. 25 reps at 245 lb. (4 x 45) + 65 (for the bar) = 245 lb. This is a Safety Squat Bar and I’m glad it is. Notice how it swings when I step up onto the riser at the beginning and how it leans when I set it into the hooks at the end? If it were a straight bar I wouldn’t be able to use my hands to help with balance. But that’s just me. You might not have any issues at all. I love how my calf muscles shake the last few sets in the inset lower right. I did this after my squat training session for the day. I did that after my elliptical warmup. My legs were pretty warm by then. I recommend you warm up too. Calf muscles are pretty small and can be pretty tight, so make sure you properly warm up before you train them hard.

For myself that weight and volume works for me. You can experiment with other sets and reps to see what works for you.

Bodyweight Exercise One Legged Band Sissy Squat

I like to do some type of bodyweight exercise for warming up. It’s also great for working the smaller stabilizing muscles that I think shouldn’t be trained under heavy load. Unilateral bodyweight exercise is particularly good for the stabilizers and core.

bodyweight exercise is one tool in quad development
Quad definition is a combination of nutrition and training

In this example, the one legged band sissy squat, it takes a lot of effort to stay level. It’s definitely not for beginners. You should get in a few hundred reps on the two leg version of this bodyweight exercise before trying the single leg version. Try it with your feet and knees together to work your way into it. This simulates the balance of doing it with one leg.

If you’ve done the band version of the sissy squat all you need to do to convert it to the single leg bodyweight exercise is to lift one leg and place the ankle over your knee. Lower slowly the first time or two and don’t try the full range of motion until you get a feel for it. It’s quite different.

Bodyweight Exercise Video for One Legged Band Sissy Squat

The blue band I am using is the Jumpstretch Strong Band #6 but similar products from EliteFTS will work as well.

Setting up the bodyweight exercise for legs

I’m looping mine over the pullup bar on my power rack. You can use just about anything that will hold your body weight and is a little over head high. Like the top of a door. Think simple. You could loop a piece of webbing with a knot in it and slam it in a solid door. Be careful though to make it strong enough. This is a bodyweight exercise. Test your system with full body weight before you drop backward into the squat.

If you feel any level of pain or major instability stop immediately. You might have to work your way into this gently with something like one legged chair sitting or partial squats with one leg. I’m including the video for this easier bodyweight exercise below:

Core Week – Standing Side Abs with Barbell

You need to work your obliques, including the abs on the side. Bending side to side is a pretty good way to train your core and improve strength that applies to mountaineering, like picking up your really heavy pack, lifting a sled over a crevasse lip, digging out a tent platform.

The instructions for this one are pretty simple. In my case I like to use a barbell for the instability, but you could use something more compact and stable, like a kettlebell, dumbbell or weight plate. I grab the middle from a mid-thigh position off a rack, straighten my back and shoulders for good posture, then dip the bar up and down, lower and lift, pulling with my side muscles.

I avoid tilting my hip, bending my elbow and wrist, so that the force is applied better to the side ab muscles.

As for the other exercises, guard your back and joints, be careful, and really, you don’t need a lot of weight for this one. I usually use an empty bar (45 lb) for about 25 reps, but anything from 10 to 25 reps is good. These are tiny muscles overall, and don’t worry about bulking them up grotesquely – it would be really tough to do with a movement like this.

Core Week – Standing Band Ab Curls

The Standing Band Ab Curl is a pretty cool exercise for your core that works a lot harder than you would think. Gravity really doesn’t give you a boost, since you’d be pulling against the resistance from above and/or to the rear. Typically you’d use a little over-the-shoulder yoke hooked to a cable and a pulley to a weight stack, like in a lat tower. I prefer to use bands crossed over my chest. Pretty cheap and simple, and you can adjust the resistance by stepping forward or back as needed.

Lean into the bands and use your core to curl forward into a “C” shape, pulling your chest toward your knees. This can be as hard or easy as you like, but be careful not to go too heavy with bands that are thicker than you can handle. If you can’t make the curl correctly, you won’t get the best benefit from it. I also arch backward a bit at the top, but let your own flexibility and condition of your lower back be your guide to your range of motion.

I have my bands girth hitched to my power rack, but you can hang them from your door frame, or stair railing or something else convenient. If you do things like this a lot, you might consider a pullup bar that fits over a door or in the frame for the best multi-tasking opportunities.

Go easy on your back, be safe and in control. Steady and slow is the right way to progress for these. I’d say anything between 20 and 50 reps would be good. If you can’t do 20, then step back or use longer or thinner bands. If you are comfortable with the power to do sets of only 10, then I’d say 3 sets with about a minute of rest between. FWIW I normally do 2 sets of 25.

Core Week – Inverted Situp

So you want a set of six-pack abs? Or at least a strong core, which is probably more meaningful for ice climbing and hauling around an 85 lb pack while dragging a 45 lb sled (standard fare in Alaska). I really like this exercise – the inverted situp.

I do it a few different ways, but one of the easiest for me is on the Glute Ham Raise bench. If you go to a gym, there is probably some type of bench designed for inverted situps, or something you could improvise. At home you might be able to figure out how to use a deck or staircase, but don’t blame me if something goes horribly wrong…

Lock in your feet with the back of your knees up on the pad, and drop back down slowly and carefully. Use your core muscles to thrust/pull yourself up quickly, pause, and drop back down slowly to repeat for sets of 10 to 25 reps. This can be pretty intense for some people, and there might be minor risk of back and joint pain, so be careful and check with your health provider if you have any questions.

A couple of notes. I have a jacket under my knees so I can slide around a bit without sticking to the vinyl. At the bottom I almost touch the floor, so I hold my fingers out as feelers so I know how close I get without bonking my head. Don’t crank on your neck with your hands, in fact, don’t use them at all for any normal ab curl/crunch/situp motion. Especially be careful with your back in the extreme forward position like when I’m starting and stopping to free my feet (barely visible at the very beginning and end of the clip).

Core Week – Rotation Planks

Very simple and very effective – works your entire core, including your abs and obliques and the QL. I like to use something to take the stress off my wrists when I do planks. In the video below I’m using the Perfect Pushup handles to allow my wrists to stay in a neutral position and rotate a bit. I type and mouse for a living so that’s really important to me.

Just get down into a plank position with your feet wide and hands close, then put a hand up in the air above you, rotating into place off the balls of your feet, using your hips and shoulders to drive the motion. Gently return to the plank, switch hands and repeat on the other side.

For an ab exercise like this I recommend you do 10 on each side to begin and work your way up to 25 on each side. If that gets too easy you can elevate your feet, or suspend them in straps or bands to make it more difficult. Go slow, be careful, and protect your back and joints.