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Smith machine calf raises will fix your chicken legs if you avoid these 6 catastrophic mistakes

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

Despite the calves being one of the most universally underdeveloped muscle groups, most gyms have roughly 5-10x more chest and arm stations than calf stations. Heck, some so-called "gyms" don't have any dedicated calf machines.

And you wonder why most lifters are still walking around with chicken legs...

calves anatomy illustration

However, all hope is not lost. In fact, with only a mild amount of creativity, you can perform some brilliant Smith machine leg exercises that'll quickly perk up your calves—diet permitting.

The good old standing Smith machine calf raise is my favourite mass-builder. Why?

Well, like with a standalone calf station, the Smith machine removes the balance factor from the equation. This extra stability naturally creates an effective isolation exercise that allows us to focus 100% of our attention on building our calves.

So let's get into the meat and potatoes that makes our calves grow—the lifting technique.

Smith machine calf raise exercise details

  • Main muscle: gastrocnemius
  • Supporting muscles: soleus, tibialis anterior
  • Exercise type: Isolation
  • Difficulty: Beginner
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine, step-up platform
  • Recommended gear: Compression socks, Converse shoes, foam roller
  • Exercise purpose: Build bigger and stronger calf muscles
"Get a deep painful stretch all the way down with your calves."
Dr. Mike Israetel

How to do Smith machine standing calf raises

  1. Set the Smith bar to shoulder height.
  2. Place a step-up platform or block of wood directly under the barbell.
  3. Step onto the elevated surface with the balls of your feet. Your heels and midfoot should hang off the edge.
  4. Place the bar across your traps and then squeeze your shoulder blades together to tighten your upper back. You may want to use a thick bar pad to reduce discomfort.
  5. Raise your heels to unrack the bar and then lower them towards the ground until you feel your feet start to come off the elevated surface.
  6. Pause for a split second in the stretched position.
  7. Pull your heels up towards your calves, aiming to get as high onto your toes as possible.
  8. Hold the contraction for a second and then repeat for 2-5 sets of 8-20 reps.

Smith machine calf raise mistakes

Bouncing

man with impressive calf muscles

Bouncing is the worst mistake that you can make while performing standing calf raises smith machine style. Not only does this bad habit rob your calves of growth by taking the tension off the muscle, but it also causes deep ankle pain by stressing your Achilles heel. Now that's what I call a terrible two for one deal!

Jumping the weight up

muscular man training his lower leg muscles in a gym

If you're an athlete who's training for maximum explosiveness on the pitch, then I can see merit to jumping the weight up during your Smith machine calf exercises. Why? Because athletes need to become proficient in triple extension, which is where you generate max power by extending your hips, knees and ankles together.

However, if you just want bigger calves, or have even a semblance of knee pain, then you should avoid jumping the weight up. It doesn't take a biomechanical genius to realise that cheating the weight up essentially turns your "calf raise" into a quarter squat.

And as you probably know. Quater squats suck for building your quads and glutes, and they're even worse for developing your calves. Don't do them.

Wearing running shoes

close up of a person's legs in running shoes

Despite barefoot running having concrete, scientifically-proven benefits, most modern gyms don't allow their members to train barefoot, or even in socks.

That's a shame. Because it's my favourite way to perform Smith machine standing calf raises.

Training legs in running shoes is the logical solution. However, this practise often leads to you feeling calf raises mostly in your feet—rather than in your actual calves.

I've found that wearing simple Chuck Taylor Converse Trainers gives me a much more potent calf contraction than when I wear running shoes. Since the soles are completely flat, I can get up onto my big toes and squeeze the heck out of my gastrocnemius—and it takes my calf pump to another level.

Not elevating your feet

Look, I know that hunting down a step-up platform AND keeping your Smith machine can be Mission Impossible in some gyms. However, if you're trying to cure yourself of chicken leg syndrome, then I can assure you, the resulting increase in range of motion (and thereby muscle growth) is worth the extra effort.

Shortcutting the stretch

man doing a weighted calf raise with dumbbells

It's a well-established fact that eccentric contractions (lowering the weight) lead to faster muscle growth than concentric contractions (lifting the weight).

Of course, you can and should perform both types of contractions (collectively called dynamic contractions). But that's not the point of me exposing this Smith machine standing calf raise mistake.

By shortcutting the stretch and coming back up too early, you're literally depriving your calves of the stimulus they need for growth. If you look around your gym, you'll see that most people are guilty of this grave calf training mistake. And you'll also notice that most people don't have particularly impressive calf development, either. I wonder why...

"Most people lack calf development, not because it's genetic or because it's the hardest muscle to build, it's because most people have no idea how to contract their calves."
Ben Pakulski

Forgetting about the contraction

a woman on a bench doing a calf raise.

"Pull your heels towards your calves" is single-handedly the best calf training tip I've ever received.

"Point your toes like a ballerina" is a close second.

The take-home message is that you must—and I mean must—come all the way up during standing Smith machine calf raises. As a rule of thumb, if the belly of your gastrocnemius doesn't feel like it's about to knot up, then you're not raising your heels high enough.

Recommended training gear for Smith machine calf raises

1. Converse trainers

converse hi-top trainers

There are countless pairs of expensive fitness trainers out there that promise all kinds of crazy benefits. However, during my decade long weight training career, I've not found a shoe that tops the stability and breathability of Converse Chuck Taylors.

These shoes are particularly practical for calf training because they enable you to get onto your toes and really contract your gastrocnemius. I initially thought that running shoes would perform better. However, the wide fit and jagged soles make it insanely hard to feel my calves working because my smaller feet muscles always seem to fatigue first. Which is really quite annoying

2. Build Your Calves book

Frank Zane's build your calves book

This hidden-gem from three-time Mr Olympia winner Frank Zane has improved the aesthetics of my lower body significantly. I already had decent quads from heavy squatting. But for the longest time, my calves were lacklustre in comparison.

Believe it or not, Frank Zane actually had similar problems to me in the early stages of his bodybuilding career. But, through trial and error, he overcame his genetic weakness and developed contest-winning calves that still turn heads to this day.

Mr Zane has now distilled the calf-building process down—step-by-step—into his latest and greatest calf training e-book, Build Your Calves.

I highly recommend it for bringing up lagging lower legs.

3. Foam roller

a black fit nation foam roller

"Calf raises suck!" At least that's what I said to myself after experiencing calf DOMS for the first time. Heck, I had to practically hobble down the stairs!

I still get pretty intense calf soreness from time-to-time. But the pain has got a lot more manageable since I started doing some self-myofascial release with my Fit Nation Foam Roller.

I won't lie to you, though, foam rolling is uncomfortable at first. But that 15 minutes of mild discomfort is more than worth the reduction in DOMS. Plus—call me crazy—but I actually enjoy foam rolling nowadays (and it turns out I'm not alone). Many people online report that their mental stresses disappear after a good foam rolling session, which is exactly the case for me.

fit beast foam roller set

I've also been experimenting with this 4 Piece Foam Roller Set.

It comes with 2 massage balls to get the knots out of your back, which is a welcomed relief after doing heavy lat pulldowns. Moreover, you also get 2 foam rollers of different strengths; one for deep tissue work, and one for managing day-to-day inflammation. And it's much cheaper than a professional massage!

Smith machine calf raise muscles worked

Gastrocnemius

Illustration of the gastrocnemius anatomy

The gastrocnemius, or" gastroc" for short, is the prime mover when you perform the standing calf raise Smith machine style. It's the largest of the 3 major calf muscles, and it gives your lower legs that coveted "diamond" appearance when it's well-developed.

Soleus

Illustration of the soleus anatomy

Because the soleus is a much weaker muscle than the gastrocnemius, it's only minimally active during the Smith machine standing calf raise (in any exercise, the stronger muscles do the majority of the heavy lifting)

Therefore, if you want to develop your soleus, you'll need to put the dominant gastrocnemius at a mechanical disadvantage by performing bent-leg calf exercises—more on this in a bit.

Tibialis anterior

medical illustration of the tibialis anterior
medical illustration of the tibialis anterior

The tibialis, commonly referred to as the "tib", is the gastrocnemius's antagonist. When the gastroc contracts, the tib says "let's relax". And I'll show the best way to use this antagonistic relationship for faster calf growth in just a minute.

Smith machine calf raise benefits

Reduced injury risk

runner with cramp in his lower leg

As many runners are all too painfully aware of, weak calves can often cause your training progress to come to a grinding halt. What's worse, is that having weak calves also sends your injury risk through the roof.

Calf pulls, shin splints, stress fractures and more are not uncommon side effects of neglecting direct calf training.

However, by performing specific exercises for your gastrocnemius and tibialis, you naturally habituate your calves to handling direct stress and high training volumes. As a result of this newly-acquired tolerance, your ankle joint will have more stability and will, therefore, be more resistant to injuries.

Amazing confidence

man using the seated calf machine

Anyone who's self-conscious about their legs has probably thought twice about wearing a pair of shorts in public.

While you can reliably cover up small quads and hamstrings with baggy clothing, not even the loosest-fitting shorts can hide a puny pair of calves.

But, by doing your calf raises on Smith machine stations, you can get rid of your bird legs by adding weight to the bar in manageable increments. Before you know it, you'll be brimming with confidence as you stroll along the beach because a little 1.25kg increase here and there makes a big difference to your calf circumference—I'm living proof of this.

Lightning-fast sprinting

athletic woman running over hurdles

Want more spring in your step? Want to dart across the finish line like a prime Usain Bolt? Then get strong at Smith machine elevated calf raises!

Research shows that one-rep max calf strength and sprinting speed are highly correlated. So, if you're a smart runner seeking an edge over your competitors, then perform direct calf training—it's a remarkable way to turbo-charge your sprint finish [1].

Calves like Bpak

When he was competing, Ben Pakulski had some of the most mind-blowing calf development in the whole of bodybuilding. And if you've watched any of his calf training videos, then it's obvious why—he was always way ahead of the game in the technique department.

By avoiding the mistakes I warned you about earlier, you can inch your calves closer Bpak proportions. And your physique will thank you for it.

Smith machine calf raise alternatives

Smith machine reverse calf raise

Performing Smith machine reverse calf raises is the best and most convenient way to train your tibialis anterior. Some hardcore bodybuilding gyms have dedicated tibialis machines, but they're few and far between.

The reverse calf raise Smith machine version lets you overload your tib with mass-building resistance. How much work is required?

Not that much actually (especially if you're not used to training your tibialis). But do at least 3-4 weekly sets if you're serious about building diamond-shaped calves that get people's attention.

Smith machine seated calf raise

Nothings develops the soleus faster than high rep Smith machine seated calf raises. Why high rep? Because the soleus is one of the most slow-twitch muscles in the human body. And as a result, it's a real workhorse. You need to hammer your soleus with high reps and high volume if you want to overcome its growth-resistant nature.

Smith machine donkey calf raises

Performing donkey calf raises on a Smith machine isn't what it sounds like—you don't put the bar on your back and start doing calf raises. Instead, you elevate your feet on a step-up box, attach weight to a sturdy dipping belt, and then hold onto the bar for support.

This technique removes a lot of the strain from your lower back. And because your body is in a more stable position, you can lift heavier weights, so naturally, this exercise is just great for building the calves [2] [3].

FAQ

Can you do donkey calf raises on the Smith machine?

Body Builder Putting Weights On Bar In Gym

Absolutely. Performing the donkey calf raise on Smith machine stations is one of the quickest ways to reap the rewards of this underrated calf-builder. It's a much better use of your time than the dangerous Smith machine calf press.

Is the single leg Smith machine calf raise effective for calf development?

close up of a man's calf muscles

Yes, it's a great Smith machine calf raise alternative because you can even out your muscle imbalances by training each leg independently. Definitely worth it if you like doing your calf exercises on Smith machine stations like I do.

Are Smith machine calf raises good for bodybuilding?

bodybuilder doing the most muscular pose

Yes, performing Smith machine calf raises bodybuilding style, where you employ the proven mind-muscle connection, is a brilliant way to bring up lagging calves [4].

What rep range is best for standing calf raises?

If you've never performed a calf workout on Smith machine systems before, then it's best to stick to higher reps initially (12-15) so that you don't rob your calves of growth by lifting too much weight.

Once you've nailed the form for Smith machine calves, then you can increase the weight and decrease the reps (8-12) to target more of the fast-twitch muscle fibres.

How many sets of standing calf raises should I do?

thinking women with question mark on white background

It depends on how advanced you are. A beginner can grow their calves from just 3 sets a week. However, since the calves are highly active (compared to other muscles) during everyday activities, then I recommend doing anywhere from 8-20 sets per week. Again, it depends on how long you've been training [5].

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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