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Smith machine reverse calf raises will add muscle to your tibialis and prevent injuries

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th November 2020

If you want to build a proportional lower body, then reverse calf raises should always be a part of your leg workout on the Smith machine.

It's embarrassing to admit. But for years, I didn't actually realise that my body even had a tibialis muscle—2 of them, to be precise. I figured that the calves were just one big muscle (well, averaged-sized in my case) and that all I needed to maximise my results was standing calf raises. But a simple anatomy chart would prove my teenage belief greatly wrong.

Yeah, I didn't listen much during GCSE Biology...

It turns out that humans actually have 3 major calf muscles: the gastrocnemius, the soleus and the tibialis anterior.

The latter muscle is the one that I'm focusing on today. Your tibialis anterior runs down your shin and is the antagonist of the calf's main muscle—the gastrocnemius. When the tib contracts, the gastroc says "let's relax". It's this symbiotic relationship that you need to pay close attention to if you want to build your calves.

So let's dig into the tactics.

Smith machine reverse calf raises exercise details

  • Main muscles: Tibialis anterior
  • Supporting muscles: Gastrocnemius
  • Exercise type: Isolation
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine, step-up platform
  • Recommended gear: Bar pad, Converse shoes, compression socks
  • Exercise purpose: Develop the front part of the calves to give them a more diamond-shaped appearance
"In the beginning [of doing tibialis raises], use a light weight so that you can get accustomed to doing this exercise and focus it on really feeling that tibialis anterior muscle."
Dr. Jim Stoppani

How to do reverse Smith machine calf raises

  1. Set the Smith bar to shoulder height.
  2. Place a wooden block or step-up platform directly under the barbell.
  3. Grab the bar with a wide overhand grip and place it on your traps. You might want to use a thick squat sponge to reduce the discomfort.
  4. Step underneath the bar and unrack it by extending your knees and hips. Think of it as squatting the bar up.
  5. Position your heels on the edge of the elevated surface and allow your toes to dangle over the edge.
  6. Begin the rep by raising your toes towards your shins.
  7. Lift your toes as high as they'll go and then hold the contraction for a second or two.
  8. Lower your toes back down over the edge of the elevated surface and repeat for 3-5 sets of 10-20 reps.

Reverse calf raises tips

Start light

man doing a weighted calf raise with dumbbells

The Smith machine reverse calf raise is a pure isolation exercise for your tibialis—let's keep it that way. Start off with just the empty bar and work your way up to multiple sets of 20. Once you've mastered the form, you can start to add extra resistance.

However, keep the weights within reason.

There's no prize for a world record reverse calf raise. So focus on your form, and the results will take care of themselves.

Never shortcut the stretch

man training his calves on a gym machine

Since the contraction is the hardest and most intense part of performing reverse Smith machine raises, many lifters naturally shortcut the stretch portion of the lift. This kind of sloppy form turns the movement into what's effectively a glorified isometric hold.

Isometrics can build muscle—that's for sure. However, for the fastest and best results, you need to get a full contraction AND suffer the pain of the weighted stretch.

Squeeze like your life depends on it

muscular man training his lower leg muscles in a gym

Ok, here's what I want you to do: place your feet flat on the floor as if you were sitting perfectly upright in a chair (you know, like you would if you were at someone's house for the first time).

You'll notice more tension shifting onto your feet.

Now, here's where things get interesting: raise your toes towards shins but don't squeeze. Just raise them up like it's no big deal.

Now I want you to do the same thing. Except this time, you're going to squeeze your tibialis as if your life depends on it.

It feels like a totally different exercise, doesn't it?

That's the power of the mind-muscle connection. The people who get strong at the contracted part of the range of motion are the people who change their bodies. You can apply this tip to virtually any muscle group with excellent results. But it's most effective for exercises like the Smith machine reverse calf raise, where you're training only one body part at a time.

Recommended training gear for reverse calf raises

1. Converse trainers

black converse trainers

I stumbled across Converse Chuck Taylors while looking for an affordable deadlift shoe. I was never going to pay a hundred quid for some powerlifting trainers. So I decided to give Chucks a go. And to my surprise, they worked wonders for maintaining lower body tightness while pulling off the floor.

I started using them for all my workouts and found that they enable me to get a really potent contraction in my calves. When I used to do reverse calf raises and the like in running shoes, I'd get a good sweat going, but I'd invariably end up feeling the tension in my feet, mostly.

Frank Zane's build your calves book

As a result, my calf development never really went anywhere for a long time. However, by combining the calf training tips that I learnt from 3x Mr Olympia Frank Zane in his book Build Your calves, with lifting in my Converse Chuck Taylors, my lower legs have improved dramatically.

No longer do I dread wearing shorts in the summer. In fact, I relish the opportunity to show off my hard work! And so should you!

2. Bar pad

Since Smith machine reverse calf raises have a relatively small range of motion, you can actually lift quite a lot of weight once you master the proper form.

However, because you're training on a Smith machine, you can't place the bar across your delts because that'd make you lose your balance. Instead, you have to slump the bar across your upper trap/neck area, which can be really quite uncomfortable once you reach an intermediate strength level.

reehut squat pad

To combat this quite literal pain in the neck, I've been using the Advanced Squat Sponge.

While it's not anything to get excited about, it's easily the most comfortable bar pad that I've used (and I've tried a lot). Unlike similar products, the Advanced Squat Pad distributes the weight evenly across your back, which reduces the stress on your spine.

The Advanced Squat Pad also has an anti-slip finish, meaning that it doesn't suddenly start sliding around in the middle of your set, which is extremely annoying when it happens.

Anyway, any bar pad will do. This is just what I use for the most amount of comfort.

Reverse calf raises muscles worked

Tibialis anterior

medical illustration of the tibialis anterior

The tibialis anterior is the prime mover during reverse calf raises. So don't be surprised if you have to limp away from the Smith machine if it's the first time that you've done this exercise [1].


Illustration of the gastrocnemius anatomy

Much like the biceps and triceps work synergistically to flex and extend your elbow, the gastrocnemius assists the tibialis while it performs dorsiflexion (lifting your toes towards your shins).


Illustration of the soleus anatomy

The soleus is barely active during the reverse calf raise because it requires bent-knee positioning to produce force. I'll show you the best exercise for the soleus a bit later. But for now, let's take a look at the 2 amazing benefits of performing Smith machine reverse calf raises.

Reverse calf raises benefits

Proportional calves

a close up of a man with his foot on a basketball

Despite being more slender than the gastrocnemius, the tibialis is still a crucial calf muscle to develop if you want your calves to look three-dimensional.

Most people have reasonable calf development when you look at the belly of the muscle from the inside of their leg (check out the picture to see what I mean).

However, from the front, most people's calves simply disappear—literally. They have no tibialis development whatsoever (if they even know what their tibialis is), and it causes other people to accuse them of skipping leg day.

But, by performing reverse calf raises, you not only create proportional calves, but you also give your physique a distinct advantage. Because as we've just established, most people never train their tibialis muscle directly.

Increased injury resistance

female runner with shin splints

Believe it or not, running is a pretty good exercise for the tibialis. Ironically, this means that many endurance runners actually have better calf development than so-called "bodybuilders". But let's not make the leg-day-skipping gym bros feel any worse. After all, they've got enough plain chicken and rice on their plates...

Besides the aesthetic, reverse calf raises are also useful for increasing your injury resistance because they balance out the muscles in your legs. And having balanced legs is important because research shows that 50% of all lower-body injuries in runners are stress fractures of the tibial shaft. [2] [3] [4]

So if you want to minimise shin pain while having more spring in your step, then doing reverse calf raises is definitely a wise idea. Something as simple as 3 sets of 15 with just your bodyweight will go along way in the beginning. Tibialis development is all about the technique.

Reverse calf raises alternatives

Tibialis raise

Unless you train in a specialist bodybuilding gym, then you probably won't have the opportunity to use a dedicated tibialis raise machine. However, there is a cheap and simple workaround. And it's especially useful if you train at home.

Put on some trainers, or better yet, some safety shoes (you'll soon learn why) and then hold a weight plate just above your toes. While maintaining a firm grip on the weight disc, raise your toes up towards your knee like you would do in a Smith machine reverse calf raise.

That's it, your done. And your tibialis will be pumped.

Obviously, this isn't the most comfortable exercise unless you wear safety shoes. However, I train at home. And I've done this exercise hundreds of times in regular trainers with only a mild amount of discomfort. It all depends on your pain tolerance.

Smith machine calf raise

Few exercises are as effective as Smith machine calf raises for adding mass to your gastrocnemius. Even with a dedicated standing calf machine, you're limited by the weight on the stack. However, with the Smith machine, you'll have ginormous calves way before you even come close to maxing out the unit's weight capacity. It's the perfect complement to Smith machine reverse calf raises.

Smith machine seated calf raise

Performing a seated calf raises with the Smith machine is the fastest way to build your soleus if your gym doesn't have a dedicated seated calf station. You'll need a thick bar pad to prevent your thighs from bruising. However, once you see the results in your lower calves, you'll wish that you'd started getting serious about calf training years earlier.

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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