The calves will forever be any athlete’s greatest insecurity because they’re never quite big enough and are notoriously difficult to grow.
But just how big of an impact will doing heaps of calf raises have on your vertical jump?
Calf raises will indeed help you jump higher, however calf training is actually a fairly minor aspect of vertical jump development, and it’s important to instead focus primarily on the hip and knee extensors.
In this article we’ll take a look at the role the calves play in the vertical jump, how important they are to train, and best practices when it comes to calf raises for increasing your vertical.
Impact Of The Calves On Vertical Jump
The vertical jump is all about triple extension.
That’s the ankles, knees, and hips all extending together to generate force.
The calves are your ankle extensors and their role is to plantarflex the ankle, allowing you to generate power in the ‘toe off’ moment.
Most experts seem to agree that calves contribute about 15-20% of the overall force production in the vertical jump.1Vertical Jump Bible 2.0, Kelly Baggett
While this isn’t insignificant, don’t think that training calves all day is a particularly efficient way to increase your vertical jump.
It’s important, but definitely not the be all and end all.
The only study I could find that looked at the relationship between calf size and vertical jump performance concluded that there was only a weak positive correlation.2https://www.journalofsports.com/pdf/2018/vol3issue1/PartG/3-1-109-605.pdf
The Primary Role Of The Calves Is Stabilization
Aside from contributing some amount of force to the vertical jump, the primary benefit of having strong calves is that you’re able to transfer force from your hips and knees more efficiently.
Your quads and glutes do the vast majority of the grunt work when it comes to generating force in the jump.
If you have weak calves, you’ll ‘leak’ some of that force through your lower legs during the plant sequence.
This is why your vertical jump is a chain that’s only as strong as its weakest link.
If you have big and powerful upper legs, but your calves are letting you down, you have a weak link in your chain and won’t be able to jump as high as your upper legs want you to!
It’s also worth mentioning, in the same spirit, that if you’re training your calves a lot you, should be doing some tibialis anterior training as well.
This is the antagonist muscle on the front of your shin opposite your calves.
Be sure to read my full article to understand more about the role of the tibialis anterior in vertical jump training.
Calves Are More Important For Jumping Off One Foot
If you’re doing much jumping off of one foot, now suddenly that 15-20% power contribution may increase to 30-60%!
Your ankle extensors play a major role in the unilateral vertical jump because of the various biomechanical differences with this style of jumping.
Single leg jumping is far more like pole vault where your leg is the pole; your calves become the primary stabilizer of your plant foot where the toe-off phase now becomes more like a single leg calf raise, causing far greater calf activation.
So while the primary message I’m trying to get across in this article is that the calves aren’t ultra important in the vertical jump, if you’re a single leg jumper, the case is very different.
These athletes definitely should be spending considerably more time working on their calves than us bilateral jumpers.
For more information on the differences between unilateral and bilateral jumping, check out my article on how to jump higher off one foot.
How Many Calf Raises To Increase Vertical Jump?
Realistically your calves should just be trained as a supplement to the bulk of your lower body strength work.
The reason for this is because your calves get worked out reasonably well just from simple tasks like walking, running, and plyometrics.
Some elite strength coaches choose not to bother prescribing any calf work for their athletes who are already taking part in intensive plyometric exercises, because they believe they’re already getting enough attention just from this non-specific training.
However if you feel as though you would benefit from bigger and/or stronger calves, it’s perfectly fine to include calf raises in your training.
And if you’re a serious jumper, you’ll definitely want stronger calves so I would strongly advise training them.
I recommend doing them at least twice a week mainly as an accessory exercise on your leg strength/hypertrophy days.
I’d aim for between 10-20 reps per set and do 5 sets to failure per workout.
You can do seated or standing calf raises and ideally you’ll regularly do both kinds.
How Much Can You Realistically Improve Your Calves?
Your calves are primarily comprised of slow twitch muscle fibers.
Slow twitch fibers don’t typically respond amazingly well to strength/hypertrophy training.
This is why you hear so many people complaining that they can’t get their damn calves to grow!
So long as you’re training them at least once a week, don’t be too disheartened if they’re not growing.
As vertical jump aspiring athletes, we’re far more concerned about strength as opposed to size anyway.
Best Calf Raise Variants For Vertical Jump?
I typically suggest the standing bilateral calf raise as the best variant for vertical jump training.
The reason for this is because the standing position best reflects the toe-off position of the vertical jump.
Having said that, seated calf raises are also fantastic as they work the calves in a slightly different manner where the focus is on the soleus and not the gastroc.
They also activate the toe flexor muscles in a slightly different manner.
If you have access to both a standing and seated calf raise machine, I’d recommend using both and alternating each week so you’re getting a well-rounded training stimulus.
You can do single leg calf raises pretty much anywhere you can find a ledge.
You can even just use a sturdy chair.
If you don’t have a dumbbell, fill your backpack with some weight (water bottles work fine) and do as many single leg calf raises as you can before switching legs.
Around five sets to failure on each leg will be plenty.
Knees Over Toes Calf Raise
I’d also recommend doing the KOT calf raise from time to time as well…
This is a great way to target the soleus when you don’t have access to a seated calf raise machine.
It’s also great for your Achilles tendon.
Don’t Waste Too Time On Calf Raises For Vertical Jump
The primary message I want to get across here is that the vast majority of your time should be spent focusing on your knee and hip extensors.
Your glutes and quads contribute to upwards of 70% of the force generated in the vertical jump.
This means you should probably spend upwards of 70% of your time training these primary force producing muscle groups.
I wrote an article explaining which muscles are most important in the vertical jump, so for a more detailed breakdown, be sure to check that out.
Spend more time focusing on exercises like the barbell back squat, glute ham raises, hip thrusts, and Bulgarian split squats.
Your workouts should be centered around these exercises and then you should throw in calf raises as an auxiliary exercise towards the end of your workout.
What’s The Verdict?
Because the calves only contribute 15-20% to the vertical jump, they are important but not nearly as much as some may think.
Many strength and conditioning coaches will have their athletes mostly ignore calf work or will prescribe infrequent calf raises simply as a supplementary exercise.
The thing is, if you’re already doing plenty of plyometrics or running, you’re training your calves without even realizing it – to the point where you likely don’t have to do many calf raises at all.
If you already have decently strong calves and are doing plenty of jumping already, maybe do calf raises once (or twice) a week at most to ensure they stay solid.
If you have weak, small calves and feel as though they need some more development, do calf raises 2-3 times a week and you’ll be on the right track.