Calf Strengthening

Heel raises are one of my main strength building exercises in the program. On the site, you’ll see many variations of the heel raise starting with the seated heel raises in the beginner routine to the single leg heel raises in the advanced routine.

Initially, I struggled with single leg heel raises, especially on my right side. I could do them, but couldn’t lift up very high without relying on my arms to help.

I didn’t have a problem going up all the way with double leg heel raises, but my legs would fatigue quickly and didn’t feel very sturdy when being all the way up on my toes either.

The target was 20 single leg heel raises with good form.

It took a slow progression over several months to build up to the point where I could do high repetitions of single leg heel raises.

I began doing the exercise in sitting to develop the proper form and learn how to control foot movement during the exercise.

Heel Raise Progression

The progression I used to go from seated to single leg heel raises looked like this:

  1. Seated heel raises
  2. Standing heel raises (double leg)
  3. Alternating and eccentric heel raises
  4. Single leg heel raises

This wasn’t a strict progression. For example, sometimes I would work on seated heel raises even after progressing to the harder variations, or I would see how many single leg heel raises I could perform even though I was working on double leg raises.

Seated heel raises

The key for me with seated heel raises exercise was learning to keep the two front points of the tripod and the entire length of the big toe anchored on the floor throughout the movement — during both the raising and lower parts of the exercise.

Even though there is not a lot of resistance to the movement when done in sitting when I concentrated on using the correct form I could feel muscles in the calf working, especially on the outside of the calf.

And when I started, my right foot struggled a bit in that I had trouble keeping the base of the big toe pressed down and I would also get lots of clicking and popping noises.

So I went slow and tried to keep the ball of the foot engaged on the ground and eventually the movement began to look (and sound) a lot better.

This movement also helped with my walking mechanics. With walking, I worked on pushing off through the front two points of the tripod in a similar way.

Along with keeping the front of the foot pressed down, another key that helped my progress was focusing on going up as high as possible.

Standing heel raises

I applied the same principles as above when doing standing heel raises.

First, making sure I could keep good form with the double leg heel raises while using my hands (against a wall or on the back of a chair) only slightly to keep balance.

It was easy to fool myself into thinking I was stronger than I actually was by using my arms to assist or going quickly up and down.

But I saw the most benefit when I slowed everything down.

A good general cadence for this would be 2 seconds up, 1-second hold at the top, and then 2 seconds down.

Another useful training guide to make sure I was going straight up, and not forward, was to stand close to a wall.

I would stand facing a wall with the toes maybe 6 inches or so back from the wall with the hands up in a pushup position and the fingertips resting slightly on the wall for balance. Then, raise up as high as possible and try to avoid leaning into the wall.

Double leg standing heel raises were my main calf strengthening exercise throughout this process. I progressed over several months to being able to do 4-5 sets of 20 repetitions.

Once I began strengthening with standing heel raises, taking rest days between workout became important.

I almost always took days off from working on strengthening exercises if my muscles were sore from the last workout.

Most of the time I performed heel raises with the feet pointed straight ahead. Sometimes I varied the foot position by either angling both feet out or in.

Alternating and eccentric heel lifts

There were a couple of heel lift variations that helped the transition from heel raises standing on both legs to doing them on a single leg.

One was alternating lifts. This involves lifting one heel while the other is coming down — alternating back and forth.

The second variation was to raise up on both legs and then, from the top position, lift one foot off the ground entirely so that I was standing on one leg, then lower the heel of the leg I was standing on down to the floor.

This is the downward portion of a single leg heel raise and also what is called an eccentric exercise. It was much easier for me to control the lowering portion of the movement until I built up enough strength to properly do single leg raises.

Single Leg Heel Raises

I worked a lot more on double leg heel raises than single leg raises. The single leg heel raise was mainly used as a test for how my strength was improving.

Later on in the program, once I had developed a good amount of strength, I included them in workouts occasionally.

I think a lot of benefit can be gained just from doing double leg raises.

The single leg raises not only requires a lot of strength but also good balance. This means that you almost have to use your hands to help stabilize, which makes it easier to cheat on the movement.

But I was determined to get strong enough to do at least 5 good repetitions with good form.

What I consider good form is:

  • going straight up and down (not leaning forward)
  • minimal use of hands for support
  • going up as high as possible

Even when I was able to easily do single leg heel raises, double leg heel raises still remained my main calf strengthening exercise.

Other Variations

There are a few other variations of heel raises I experimented with. These variations were not central to the program and I performed them infrequently (less than once a week).

  1. Bent knee heel raises: these target similar muscles as the seated heel raises but are a lot more challenging because body weight resistance is added
  2. Heel raises with feet pointed in or pointed out: changing the direction the feet are pointing
  3. Heel raises on a step: these are a good option because they involve a larger range of motion which helps with ankle flexibility as well. I probably would have done more of these except I didn’t have a convenient place to practice them as you need a step and a good rail or other support to hold on to.