Way back in 2000, I was fortunate enough to hear legendary strength coach Mike Boyle speak at a conference about athletic development. In his presentation he laid out how he trained his college and pro athletes.
After he was done, and had shared all these great ideas about athletic development, one question stuck in my mind:
Why doesn’t he do any calf strengthening exercises?
So I emailed Coach Boyle and asked. His reply (paraphrased):
“We don’t feel it is important. Our lower leg training comes from our plyometric work.”
As a young strength coach who trained amongst football players and bodybuilders, this was a stunning viewpoint. And to boot, there was no deeper explanation as to why.
But here we are all these years later, and I can tell you with full certainty that Coach Boyle is 100% correct, and my mindset of getting bigger and pushing more weight was so profoundly off-base for this muscle group that it is borderline embarrassing now.
The Role Of Your Lower Leg Muscles In Sports
The job of both is extremely similar – exert a large amount of force in a very short period of time. For the hammer, that force is usually directed at a nail. For the foot, it is directed into the ground.
A toy hammer is not good at hammering nails simply because it is not rigid, and cannot hold its shape when applying maximum force. The advantage of the real hammer is how sturdy it is when moving at maximum velocity.
Your feet and lower leg muscles act the same way. In order to minimize the time you spend on the ground on each sprint stride, skating stride, or cutting step, they must be ultra rigid. And just like creating a hammer with a bigger handle won’t make it more useful, training to make your calves bigger serves no purpose to an athlete looking to play at faster speeds.
No, you need exercises that develop rigidity under progressively higher forces over time. Doing old-fashioned calf raises simply doesn’t cut it from an athletic development standpoint for two reasons:
- Your ankle does not move in athletics like it does in a calf raise, so the concept of raising weights has very little transfer to sports.
- Your feet must handle loads up to 10 times your bodyweight when sprinting at top speed! So even if calf raises were helpful, do you really want to be doing them with 1,000 – 2,000 pounds on the machine? And even if you could actually move that much weight with your ankles, can you do it at the speed of athletic competition?
3 Rules For Athletes Doing Lower Leg Training
Strengthening the muscles of the foot and lower leg are crucial to playing fast and avoiding injury. This part of your leg sustains extremely high forces when playing at top speed, so weakness here can limit what would otherwise be a much faster and less injury-prone athlete.
A wide range of exercises work well, but they must follow 3 key rules:
RULE #1 – You Must Move At The Speed Of Athletics To Get The Right Loading
This was the first thing that I missed all those years ago. The faster you move, the greater the force on your lower leg when your foot strikes the ground. The invisible weight stack is gravity, and its power is multiplied as you move with more velocity.
Sprinting is really the best lower leg strengthener you could ever do for athletic development. Perhaps you can overload slightly with 5-10% of body weight on occasion, but sprinting will get you 95% of the results you’re looking for provided you don’t break either of the following two rules.
RULE #2 – Your Foot Must Strike The Ground At The Correct Angle
When diving into a pool, is it more effective to jump in by taking off of the front or the back of the board?
It’s kind of a ridiculous question, I know.
Landing on your heels when sprinting is the biomechanical equivalent of using the back end of a diving board to get into a pool. There’s simply no spring effect at all, because that end of the board is not designed to unleash stored energy the way the front part is.
By learning to run and do plyometric exercises by springing off the front half of your foot, you’ll place a much higher strain on the lower leg muscles. The byproduct over time is they will become more rigid as an adaptation to the proper training load you are placing on them.
RULE #3 – You Must Minimize Ground Contact Time While Maximizing Force Production
For sprinting that should be obvious, but this rule is regularly violated in training programs when it comes to repeat plyometric jumps or depth jumps. When doing multiple hurdle jumps in sequence, the key loading factor is to hit the ground and get off as quickly as possible. The height of the hurdle is of secondary importance to how quickly you can spring off the ground against high gravitational forces.
3 Levels Of Lower Leg Training
With a high emphasis on quality movement that follows the 3 key rules above, you can gradually progress lower leg training to higher levels as your athletes physically mature.
In strength & conditioning literature you’ll see a lot of rules restricting how many foot contacts per day an athlete should safely make. They are all valid, if a bit too general in nature to be accurate for all athletes, but they do not take into account the quality of each repetition. 10 bad plyometric jumps can put far more strain on your legs than 100 good ones. So my advice is to, as always, keep your training at moderate loads and heavily emphasize landing technique.
By and large, there are 3 levels of intensity with lower leg training:
It’s old fashioned, but it still works. A jump rope can develop the rigidity and quickness you need for proper lower leg function as well as almost any other tool out there today.
Agility ladders and hoops are also effective tools, in large part because it eliminates the timing aspect of jump roping that can make it hard to execute for some.
In all 3 options, you can progress from simple foot skills to highly complex ones. Just be sure you’re still following the 3 rules above to get the proper training effect.
LEVEL 2: Plyometric Jumps & Skips
Moving up a step in the intensity department, we have true plyometrics. This involves repetitive jumping or skipping with maximum force, and minimal time on the ground.
There are a long list of drills you could apply here, but a few simple progressions would be to start with two leg jumps before moving to one leg, and to begin by doing a single jump and holding your position first before moving to repeat jumps. Patience in progressing to more advanced plyometric drills is highly recommended, as far too many athletes graduate from basic drills to knee and shin pain through their workout programs these days. Remember, the tortoise beat the hare in the end.
LEVEL 3: Sprinting and Bounding
At the top of the list you have sprinting. That’s right, the thing that kids go out and do naturally is the best strengthener of the lower leg.
WARNING! Old man rant coming up….
I strongly believe that the rate of lower leg injuries can be directly traced to the fact that kids do not go out and play on their own very often, if at all, anymore. Their exercise is structured, with sports practices that spend a lot more time distance running and doing lower intensity skill work, neither of which develop rigidity.
Unstructured play often times becomes a series of full out sprints followed by rest (tag games, etc). With that element of growing up fading, it is my opinion that the lower leg muscles in our kids today are not as rigid and stable as they would have in past years. And the ever-growing youth sports injury rate is a logical consequence.
OK, that’s over. Just remember that sprinting at top speed is a great lower leg strengthener.
And also remember that by training to make your feet, ankles and lower leg muscles more rigid, you can make a huge difference in your speed development. If you are spending even 0.01 extra seconds on the ground during each sprint stride, that adds up to more than 0.2 seconds in a 40 yard zone. That’s the difference between fast and average.
So ditch the calf raises if you are an athlete, and follow a movement-based approach to building up your lower legs. The difference will be profound in time.