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Smith machine seated calf raises will turbo-charge your solues growth

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

To say that most lifters have underdeveloped soleus muscles would be the fitness understatement of the century. Heck, some folks don't even realise that they have a soleus muscle!

And looking at their calves, you'd think that it's true. You see, the soleus is a stupidly growth-resistant muscle—3 sets of 10 won't do squat. You need to hammer it with high reps AND high volume to make it grow.

close up of a man's calf muscles
Sporty Legs Calf

However, because the dominant gastrocnemius always takes over the reins during calf raises, it's painfully challenging (literally) to develop a strong set of soleus muscles.

The trick is to put the gastrocnemius at a mechanical disadvantage. We do this performing bent-leg calf raises.

Since the gastroc attaches to both the knee joint and the ankle joint, it's in an extremely poor position to produce force while our legs are bent. In other words, it can't contract your calf while your quads are lengthened. As a result, our stubborn soleus has to pick up the slack, and we're one step closer to curing chicken leg syndrome.

This is why the Smith machine seated calf raise is one of the most effective Smith machine lower body exercises for building proportional legs.

"The only way to properly train your soleus muscle is to do calf raises with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle."
Jim Stoppani, PhD

Smith machine seated calf raise exercise details

  • Main muscles: Soleus
  • Supporting muscles: Gastrocnemius, tibialis anterior
  • Exercise type: Isolation
  • Difficulty: Beginner
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine, step-up platform, bar pad
  • Recommended gear: Occlusion bands
  • Exercise purpose: Add size to your hard-to-grow soleus muscles

How to do a seated calf raise on the Smith machine

  1. Place a bench horizontally in a Smith machine and then sit on it so that the bar is resting just above your knees.
  2. Attach a thick bar pad to the barbell if you're going heavy or performing multiple sets.
  3. Position a step-up box or block of wood directly underneath the Smith bar and then place the balls of your feet on the edge of the elevated surface, hip-width apart.
  4. Raise your ankles upwards to unhook the bar and then drive your heels towards the ground until you feel a deep stretch in your calves [1].
  5. Reverse the rep by pulling your heels towards your calves until you feel an intense peak contraction.
  6. Lower under control and repeat for 3-6 sets of 15-30 reps.

Seated calf raise mistakes

Not using bar padding

big man working out in the gym

A whopping 80% of your soleus is made from type I muscle fibres, making it one of the slowest twitch muscle groups in the human body. Therefore, it responds exceptionally well to high rep and high volume training because it's incredibly resistant to fatigue [2].

This fatigue-resistance means that your legs are going to be spending a lot of time under the barbell. So unless you want a set of conspicuous thigh bruises, it's wise to invest in a thick barbell pad to put some distance between your skin and the machine.

Nothing kills your calf development faster than finishing the set early. So don't let your thigh discomfort be the limiting factor!

Shortcutting the range of motion

man using the seated calf machine

The stretched and contracted positions are the hardest part of the Smith machine seated calf raise. In these positions, your calves are at their longest and shortest muscle lengths and thus, are also at their weakest.

However, you need to spend some considerable time in these challenging positions if you want to grow your soleus muscles. The people who get strong at the extremes of the range of motion are the people who build muscle.

Pumping out reps with little regard for the range of motion can actually produce quite an intense burn in your calves. Just don't kid yourself into thinking that your pump will actually translate into tangible growth. It won't. You need to use a complete range of motion to grow big calves.

Otherwise, bodybuilders would be doing nothing but half-rep bodyweight calf raises.

Going too heavy

man doing seated calf raises on a gym machine

No, I'm not on about ego lifting (although that is a serious calf training mistake).

I literally mean lifting heavy.

Because the soleus is so slow-twitch—an endurance muscle, if you will—it responds much more favourably to high reps than it does to low reps [3]. In my experience, anything below 15 reps is sub-optimal. And anything below 12 reps...well, now you're just wasting your time.

It's counterintuitive, but when it comes to building your soleus, you definitely need to "go light or go home". Your calves will thank you for it.

Recommended training gear for seated calf raises

1. Thick bar pad

reehut squat pad

As the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger was fond of saying, that last few reps—the ones that really hurt—are the reps that count and make you grow.

However, by "hurt" I'm pretty sure that Arnold was referring to the throbbing pump in your muscles—not the pain in your bones or joints.

So, if you want to make sure that your soleus muscles are the limiting factor during the Smith machine seated calf raise, then investing in a thick, durable bar pad is a sound idea.

I personally use the Advanced Squat Pad.

reehut bar pad

It's made from 1.25" thick high-density foam so that it can absorb the shock of heavy barbells. More importantly, though, it doesn't slip and slide like the other cheaply made bar pads, which you invariably find in most commercial gyms.

My old gym used to have the Beast Gear Professional Bar Pad.

I prefer the Advanced Squat Pad because it offers a bit more support, from what I can tell. However, when I used the Beast Gear pad for seated calf raises, I had no pain in my thighs, either. So I say just go for whichever is the cheapest.

2. Blood flow restriction bands

man wearing occlusion cuffs while training his arms

Blood flow restriction training is a time-saving workout technique that enables you to blast your calves with as little as 30-40% of your one-rep max and still see concrete muscle growth.

You can use it for arms too, but it's especially useful for seated calf raises because the soleus responds more rapidly to high rep, high volume training than ANY other muscle group.

I was using the Bear Grip Occlusion Training Bands with excellent results for the longest time. And I still use them every week for arms.

However, one day I decided to do BFR training for legs. And because my Bear Grips are designed explicitly for arm training, I needed something tighter.

power guidance floss band

So I bought some Power Guidance Floss Bands.

And boy, were my legs on fire! They're much easier to wrap around your calves than on your arms. And the pump? Well, quite frankly, I've never felt a muscle burn so satisfying yet so intense in all my training career.

It's a feeling that's unique to occlusion training. And it's definitely something that you need to experience if you struggle to push past the pain barrier during calf training.

Seated calf raise muscles worked

Soleus

Illustration of the soleus anatomy

Whether you do a seated calf raise Smith machine style or use a dedicated machine, the soleus is always the prime mover. In fact, bent-leg calf raises are just about the only non-whacky soleus exercise that you can do.

Gastrocnemius

The gastrocnemius is a biarticulate muscle, meaning that it crosses two joints. In this case, the ankle and the knee [4].

Illustration of the gastrocnemius anatomy

Therefore, it reaches what's called active insufficiency when your ankle is in plantar flexion (pulled up to your calf), and your knees are concurrently bent. In other words, the gastrocnemius can't contract properly because you've put it at a great mechanical disadvantage.

It's why a Smith machine seated calf raise can feel a bit weird at first—your poor little soleus' simply aren't used to the resistance!

Tibialis anterior

medical illustration of the tibialis anterior

The tibialis anterior is the long muscle on the front on your lower leg, and it contracts whenever your soleus stretches. However, it won't grow much from seated calf raises because it isn't under any direct tension. But, if you keep reading for another minute, I'll show the most effective Smith machine tibialis exercise for 3D calves.

Seated calf raise benefits

Complete calf development

close up of muscular calf muscles

The soleus doesn't contribute to calf mass as much as the fast-twitch gastrocnemius. However, developing it naturally pushes your gastrocnemius out and makes your calves appear more three-dimensional.

Also, the mere fact that most so-called "lifters" skip soleus training will make your legs stand out, should you choose to develop your soleus.

Enhanced endurance

man in blue vest running on the road

If you're a keen runner or hiker, you can turbo-charge your lower body endurance by including direct soleus training in your workout routine. It'll help your calves to cope with the agony of lactic acid while also reducing your injury risk by adding a layer of stability to your ankles.

But even if you're a bodybuilder who's allergic to the word "cardio", you can still reap the rewards of increasing your muscular endurance. Acclimatising yourself to endurance rep ranges enables you to handle more training volume. This, in turn, leads to faster muscle growth, because training volume—not strength—is the driving force behind hypertrophy [5].

Improved mental toughness

man wearing black boxing gloves

I won't sugar coat it. Doing a seated calf raise on Smith machine stations can suck at times.

The exercise just burns!

This is because you need to perform very high reps and train to absolute failure if you want to force your stubborn soleus to grow.

Most people quit when they feel the slightest burning sensation in their calves. Those are the people who stay weak. And they're the same people who complain that they have "bad calf genetics".

However, by pushing past the pain barrier, you not only build attention-demanding calves, but you also develop the attitude of a winner—someone who's willing to do whatever it takes to reach their goal. And this attitude, no doubt, carries over to more than just leg training!

Seated calf raise alteratives

Besides the Smith machine one leg seated calf raise, there are 3 amazing alternatives for bigger calves.

Standing Smith machine calf raises

Smith machine standing calf raises are one of the best mass-building exercises that you can do for calves. They enable you to overload your lower legs with more resistance than virtually any other movement.

A standalone calf machine might go up to 100kg—or 125kg if you're lucky. But, with a Smith machine, the sky's the limit. By the time you max out the weight capacity for Smith calf raises, you'll already be in the Guinness World Record Book for having the world's biggest calves.

Smith machine reverse calf raise

Unless you train at a hardcore bodybuilding gym, then you probably don't have access to a dedicated tibialis machine. That's fine. You can still achieve complete calf development by performing reverse Smith machine raises. And they're a must, in my opinion, if you want to build true diamond-shaped calves that look spectacular from every angle.

Dumbbell seated calf raise

adjustable dumbbells in their case

If you work out at home and can't do the Smith machine seated calf raise, you can still build an awesome pair of calves if you have a good pair of dumbbells handy.

Essentially, you just need a sturdy household object or a step-up platform to elevate your feet on. Positioning a dining chair so that it's facing your stairs would work fine for this also.

From there, you simply place the dumbbells on the bottom of your thighs and elevate your heels.

Building big calves at home has never been so accessible, yet so unknown!

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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