How to train your legs and calves properly is a topic most people are clueless on. As the summer is approaching and most people will like to wear shorts without caring if their calves are shredded or not. If you are on of these then the article is not for you! On the other hand some fellas would love to sport a nice chiseled, muscular set of wheels underneath those shorts and this article has been written for these saintly souls.
We are all familiar with classic chicken leg syndrome: massive and well developed upper body supported by toothpick legs that looks neither aesthetic nor athletic. Unfortunately this is a state exhibited by a lot of street workout enthusiastic and hardcore gym rats. They resemble Johnny Bravo:
Now we don’t want to see you end up looking like Johnny Bravo so we have decided to help you build those legs the old school way just like we did to earn our well-developed, symmetrical physiques. Contrary to what most people and bodybuilders say you can build your legs up to their potential with calisthenics successfully.
Building muscular, ripped, well developed strong legs requires lots of hard work, patience, pain and consistency if done by the book. Remember all the “Day after leg day” memes on social media!
For solid results you will have to train for years using different approaches and techniques (which will be discussed down below) and the process will be a slow one. Even if people know how to train their legs this slow progress coupled with pain intolerance is the reason they don’t achieve their goals and don’t push themselves hard enough. This is one reason for imbalance between upper and lower body. Or maybe they don’t know how to train their legs the right way. Either way I find it unacceptable as your legs are just as important as other body parts.
I may sound ridiculous but when you ask a person with well-developed legs about his journey he will laugh and say that it was a painfully slow one! And believe me, I haven’t discovered an easier way so far. The Old School method is still the best way.
Before going any further I would like to clarify that our methods are for increasing athleticism, functionality, muscularity, strength and endurance in legs. And to top it all you will build some decent mass in those toothpicks as an extra.
Here are 5 must follow steps for you to understand:
Use Only Basic Compound Movements and Exercises
We do not train with any fancy, isolation type movements and hence do not recommend others to do so. Our training revolves around basic movements and compound exercises that are natural to body’s inertia. Compound exercises (like sprints, squats etc.) involve movement of all leg muscles in a synchronized manner. There are ten different compound exercises that we use.
- Weighted squats (using a partner as external weight, weighted vest or barbells etc.).
- Pistol squats or one legged squat (Bulgarian split squats, assisted pistols and its basic variations).
- Bodyweight squats and its variations.
- Walking lunges (with or without external weights).
- Jump squats and variations (burpees, frog jumps, stair jumps etc.).
- Sprints and variations (hill sprints, medium to long distance sprints).
- Skipping rope.
- Calf raises and variations.
- Wall sits (isometric leg exercise).
Deadlifts are a great leg exercise and deserve to be mentioned but we haven’t included them in our list as we train outside using what nature has provided us with. However if you have access to heavy barbells then we recommend you to include them as well if you like to. But the exercises in the list are fine on their own and you needn’t worry if you can’t deadlift.
As you can see that we do weighted squats with a training partner on our shoulders because nature didn’t provide us with a barbell and we have to use our imagination! The only issue is that you can’t regulate your partner’s weight and you have to either be able to lift him/her or not. Thus you need to do some progressive exercises in order to prepare you for this feat. This we will explain later on.
Alex is doing squats using a training partner as resistance. We call this: weighted calisthenics
Organize Your Exercises in a Weekly Routine that Works for Your Goal
I recently interviewed an athlete, Mike Joplin, who has been doing calisthenics for longer than I’ve been alive; he said:
“…simplicity should not be mistaken for being easy, and complexity doesn’t always mean advanced – and that patience and consistency are necessary for success.” – Mike Joplin
What Mike is telling us is the exact same advice that we recommend to train simple but hard. My workouts have become simpler over the years as I have become advanced and gained more strength and endurance.
The list provided above contains at least 20 exercises if I count the variations and any sane person will conclude that it is not possible to do all of them at once. So here are some tips to help you program your routines.
- To build athleticism and stamina: Running, Rope skipping, Burpees, Stair running, Jumping on stairs, Jogging, Sprinting over long distances (over 100m).
- To build strength: Bodyweight squats, weighted squats, Sprinting short distances (normal or hill sprints), box jumps and long jumps.
- To build muscular endurance (also called strength endurance): bodyweight squats, walking lunges, burpees, jumping and running on stairs, calf raises, wall sits and sprints.
- To build muscles or hypertrophy: all the exercises from the list (reason will be explained later on).
In my opinion everything is connected to each other and if you train only for one purpose than imbalances and other problems surface. And this is bad!
I believe that the trigger for muscle growth aka hypertrophy is actually the sum of all the methods combined. You can’t train everything in a week but you could do them in cycles of 2-3 weeks and repeat them. You can easily mix and combine workouts in between.
Mixing high volume (endurance) workouts with low volume (strength) workouts is the key to hypertrophy and muscular legs. Changing intensity from light to heavy is also crucial. Now before you get confused I will give some sample workouts for you to understand.
This is a hypertrophy type of workout:
- Bodyweight squats: 2 sets of 40 reps (this is like a warm-up)
- Weighted squats: 5 sets of 10-15 reps (use a barbell, a training partner or a 30 kg. weighted vest)
- Bulgarian splits: 5 sets of 10 reps
- Bodyweight squats: 5 sets of 40 reps
- Weighted walking lunges: 100 straight steps (use a 10 kg. vest)
- Calf raises: 5 sets of 50 reps
This is a strength-endurance type of workout:
- Bodyweight squats: 5 sets of 40-50 reps
- Frog jumps: 5 sets of max reps
- Jump squats: 5 sets of 15 reps
- Walking lunges: 5 sets of 40 reps
- Isometric wall sits: 4 sets of max time
- Calf raises: 5 sets of 100 reps
This is a routine to build stamina and some strength:
- 30 minutes running
- Sprints: 4 sets of 400 meters
- Sprints: 4 sets of 200 meters
- Skipping rope: 10 sets of 2 minutes
This routine is good for building muscles, strength and stamina:
- 3 km running (warm-up)
- Hill sprints: 5 sets of 50 meters
- Straight sprints: 5 sets of 50 meters
- Frog jumps: 4 sets of max. reps
- Bodyweight squats: 5 sets of 40 reps
This routine is good to build endurance, stamina and athleticism:
- 40 minutes to 1 hour running (run at low speed and intensity)
- Skipping rope: 10 sets of 2 minutes
This is another hypertrophy routine:
- Pistol squats: 5 sets of 10 reps
- Weighted squats: 5 sets of 30 reps (use a 10-20 kg. vest)
- Bodyweight squats: 5 sets of 30 reps
- Jump squats: 5 sets of max. reps
- Calf raises: 5 sets of 100 reps (you can use external weights if you want)
This is another strength-endurance routine, but also good for shredding:
- Squats: 10 sets of 50 reps
- Jumping squats: 5 sets of max. reps
- Walking lunges: 5 sets of 25 reps
As you can see, the workouts are all connected. If you want big-muscular legs then you will have to integrate each method of training.
Build a good stamina and muscle endurance and you’ll lose body fat faster and be more pain-tolerant to squats or sprints. Do a lot of bodyweight squats and weighted squats and you’ll get mass & strength (also, you will be able to sprint faster). Hill sprints and plyometric jumps will train your nervous system and make you stronger and more athletic, plus you will develop coordination too. Being stronger means that you will be able to squat at higher intensity. This goes over and over again. You don’t need to add any other progression. Stay with the basics.
The only thing remaining is to be patient and to work hard. I’ll discuss later about how to adjust the sets and reps and rest intervals for different levels of fitness.
Now you have to organize these workouts. You can do one or two types of workout routines per week. Anything over two different routines will be too taxing on your legs and core. Do the remaining routines over subsequent weeks and so on.
Watch this playlist on YouTube. We gathered there some of our LEGS routines.
How to Adjust a Routine to Serve Your Goals
In this step I will teach you how to approach the same routine for different purposes:
- 5 km. running
- Sets of 400 m sprint
- Sets of 200 m sprint
- Sets of 50 m sprint
- Sets of 30-90 sec. skipping rope
To attack certain goals (hypertrophy, strength, endurance) you’ll have to adjust intensity, the pause between sets, the number of sets and time under tension.
What is Intensity? It refers to the work you choose to put in a set from your overall capacity.
What is Time under Tension? It refers to the time for which your muscles are under tension/pressure and work during an exercise.
HYPERTROPHY: 70% intensity, 60-90 sec. rest in-between sets, 4-5 sets, high time under tension.
STRENGTH: 90% intensity, 3-5 min. rest, 4-5 sets, low time under tension (short distances for this workout).
ENDURANCE: 50% intensity, less than 30 sec. pause or not at all; more than 5 sets, high time under tension.
After you have completed running those 5 km which is like a warm up for sprints you will have to decide the purpose for which you are going to train.
- If hypertrophy is your goal, then do at least 4 sets, on 70% intensity and with pauses of 90 seconds in-between.
- If strength is the purpose, then do at least 5 sets, on 90% intensity with pauses of 3-5 minutes in-between. You will have to shorten the sprinting distance, because you have to reduce the time under tension. The reduction will be like this: 400m becomes 100m; 200m becomes 50m and 50m becomes 30m.
- Training for enduranceis basically easy, because it comes as a consequence of training for hypertrophy or strength. But, even so if you want to add extra stamina work, then modify the routine like this: run for 5-10 km (50% intensity) and then sprint for 5-6 sets (50% intensity) , Rest 30 seconds in-between.
- The skipping rope is there to get some extra work for the calves and to help you build extra stamina.
You can apply the same principle to squats, or you can mix the methods (time under tension, intensity, rest times, number of sets) between them in the same workout routine. And as a result you will not only get muscular and big but also be able to run for 1-2 hours at a decent pace like I can.
Train Your Calves More
You do not have to train your calves at every angle, because if you’ll do what I have already told you, then your calves will get plenty of work. But, if they are stubborn and don’t want to grow, then you’ll have to integrate some more exercises:
- Calf raises (one leg, two legs, with added weights)
- Jump rope
- Hill sprints or sprints
- Jumping on stairs
However, the handiest exercises will definitely be calf raises and skipping rope. These can be integrated with any upper body routine. From experience, I know that calves only grow when I put a lot of volume.
Our basic calf raises routine: 5 sets of 50-100 reps.
Learn How to Adapt the Workouts to Your Own Fitness Level
There is a saying: “In life, we must first learn to crawl, then stand, then walk, then run, and only then, fly. We cannot crawl into flying”.
You may find the pistol squats, weighted squats or any kind of sprint extremely intense, but this means you will have to work with easier progressions for enough time to get stronger. If you want to be able to sprint you will have to build your stamina/endurance by running/jogging and skipping the rope to a low intensity for at least 3-4 times a week.
“Repetition is the mother of learning…” If you don’t know how to jump the rope, then practice it every day till you learn the skill (that is the way I did it).
If you can’t run for too long, then begin by jogging for 10-20 minutes gradually increasing the pace and time to 1 hour (it might take you several months). Then, start sprinting for 100 meters at a lower intensity and build up, progressively, to 400 meters at a higher intensity (this could take you 1-2 years).
If pistol squats or squats are too hard, then you might want to assist yourself by grabbing a steady bar/support with hands till you get strong enough to work freely. Then, buy a weighted vest of 10 kg to challenge yourself.
By now you should understand how to adjust the exercises.
The sets and repetitions should always be pretty high. I have done from four to ten sets ever since I was a beginner and this is the reason why people recognize the Old School Calisthenic method to be a high-volume type of work. Call it whatever you like, this method is proven!
Our High-Volume Training Method is applied even for Upper-Body and hence if you are interested to learn more then go and read this article:Training with Basic Calisthenics exercises, but choosing the High-Volume method means training with only compound exercises like dips, pushups, pull-ups, wall assisted handstand push-ups, squats, leg raises and some other full body movements such as burpees, jumps, skipping rope, sprints with all their basic variations, working up to muscular failure. To exhaust your muscles, you need to put in a high amount of sets and repetitions while resting for as minimum as possible. By doing this, all the routines would automatically become very intense…
If you've been working on your sprinting for a while but are still being left in the dust, the problem might be with your calf muscles. Your calves are the muscles that give your legs their explosive power, which propels you forward and increases your speed. With a regular workout routine of stretches, exercises and running, you should be able to shave precious tenths of a second off your time within weeks.
The two primary muscles in your calves are the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius stretches from your knee to your ankle and plays a part in both knee flexion and ankle dorsiflexion while your knee is straight. The gastrocnemius is also responsible for that drumstick shape of your calf. Your soleus is hidden beneath the gastrocnemius, and controls the dorsiflexion of your ankle when it your knee is bent. As you sprint, your toe or the ball of your foot strikes the ground first, causing these calf muscles to shorten as you land. Then, as you push off, your calves contract forcefully, giving you explosive forward momentum. By stretching and strengthening these muscles, you can increase your sprinting power.
Stretching your calf muscles is important, both for loosening them up before a run and for preventing possible pulls and tears. There are several effective calf stretching exercises, including the standing wall stretch, the calf raise, the one-legged calf raise and the sprinter calf raise, all of which work either the gastrocnemius or the soleus.
Exercises that mimic the action of running or jumping are the best for working out your calves. Rocket jumps, box jumps, jump curls and flying step ups are all examples of exercises that increase the explosive power of your calf muscles. Jump roping is another highly effective exercise for sprinters, as it not only causes your calf muscles to contract over a hundred times a minute, but is also a great cardio workout to build up your endurance. The best calf exercise for sprinters, however, is simple stair running, preferably using real steps rather than stair climber machines. By sprinting up steps, you are training your calves to explode up an incline, particularly if you take two steps at a time. Like jump roping, stair running is an excellent cardiovascular workout as well.
Your goals as a sprinter will determine your training routine. If you've got Olympic aspirations, training your calves twice a week isn't going to cut it. But for those interested in losing weight or their general overall fitness, a regular weekly workout routine of 5-7 days of stretching, 2-4 hours of jump rope and two high intensity sessions of stair running or sprinting will provide remarkable results. Additionally, two days a week of strength training for your core and upper leg muscles will also make an impact. Just make sure to rest between stair running sessions, to allow your calf muscles to rebuild themselves.
About the Author
Todd Maternowski began writing in 1996 as one of the co-founders of "The Chicago Criterion." He joined the local online news revolutionaries at Pegasus News in 2006, where he continues to work to this day. He studied religion at the University of Chicago.
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