If you've got scrawny calves that don't grow no matter what you do, chances are good you're not doing the Donkey Calf Raise exercise.
It's simply one of THE best exercises for developing the calves. The reason is the strong stretch you can put on the calves at the bottom of every single rep because of how your body and legs are positioned during the exercise.
The Donkey Calf Raise, if you're not familiar with it, is a calf raise done in a bent-forward position. Your upper body is leaning over at 90 degrees and is horizontal while your lower body remains vertical. Then you perform a calf raise from there.
Because the calf muscles (the gastrocnemius, to be specific) cross the knee joint, putting a stretch on the hamstrings also puts a greater stretch on the calves. So bending over at the waist in this fashion will put a greater stretch on your calves than if you were standing completely straight up and down.
Here's the problem...when you don't have a donkey calf raise machine or a partner to sit on your back, how do you perform this exercise?
Donkey machines are not common in even in most gyms and if you're training at home, I have a strong feeling a donkey calf machine wasn't on your priority list of purchases (though hopefully, a power rack was).
One of the solutions I've come up with is using a dip belt to add resistance. You hang weight plates from your waist then bend forward and perform the exercise.
It works well but it's not a perfect solution either. The weight doesn't sit in the best spot to get the most out of the exercise (the belt ends up more on your lower back than sitting on the hips, where you'd get the best effect).
And, the stronger your calves are, the more plates you have to use. The more plates you have to use, the more awkward the exercise becomes and the wider you have to set your feet apart. It's not so bad when you're working with 2 or 3 plates. But I've gone as high as 6 plates and it gets VERY hard to perform the exercise effectively.
So here's my BETTER solution for Donkey Calf Raises…
Instead of putting a partner or the pad of a machine on your back, you're going to put a BARBELL on your back…but not how you NORMALLY would put a barbell on your back.
You're going to put it LENGTHWISE down your back.
In terms of positioning, I like to conjure up an image of Atlas carrying the world on his back. THAT is what your body position is going to be similar to while you're doing this exercise. You're going to be using a barbell as a lever type of machine, lifting up one end of the bar and using the other end as a pivot point.
This is a GREAT way to do Donkey Calf Raises…I find it's actually even MORE effective than using a machine or a partner.
Setting Up and Doing Barbell Donkey Calf Raises
This exercise should be done in a power rack not only for safety reasons but for ease of getting the bar into position.
The first time you do this exercise, you will need to experiment with the height that you set the safety rails - it'll vary depending on your limb length.
The first thing you'll need to do is set one safety rail of the rack about 3 feet off the ground. The other safety rail should be set one or two notches LOWER than that first rail.
Now set a barbell on the rails. It should slope downward. Load a 45 lb plate (for starters) onto both ends of the barbell because even though you're only going to be lifting ONE end of the bar, you'll need to counterbalance it with weight on the OTHER end as well.
You're also going to need a calf block to do the calf raise itself on. Set the calf block underneath the end of the bar that's lower and make sure it's perpendicular to the bar (i.e. it would form a cross if you looked down on it directly from over top of the bar).
If you have a barbell pad, that will be helpful as well (a rolled-up towel works just fine, too). It helps to have a little padding for your lower back where the bar contacts it (set the pad down at the lower end of the bar to accomplish this).
Now we're going to test the height of the bar on the rails. Get yourself underneath the bar so that the bar runs down the length of your spine (like Atlas with the world on his back). Grasp the bar with both hands up near where it's resting on the higher rail - that's the pivot point of the exercise. Set your feet on the calf block for calf raises.
Ideally, you'll want to have some bend in your knees at this point (before you lift the bar up). This is important so that when you're in the stretch position of the Donkey Calf Raise, the bar isn't hitting the lower safety rail and stopping the stretch.
So now that you're in position, straighten your legs and begin the exercise. Your legs should stay straight and stiff throughout the exercise to maximize the stretch on the calves.
If the bar IS hitting the safety rail at the bottom, you'll need to lower that rail one more notch to make sure it doesn't.
Now it's just a matter of coming up into a calf raise.
At the bottom be VERY sure to get a deep stretch. Come up fully into the calf raise at the top and squeeze the calves hard on each rep.
Once you've got the setup down, you can start adding weight to the bar. Don't sacrifice form or stretch for adding more weight, though. That'll defeat the purpose of the exercise.
This exercise setup is every bit as good as any donkey calf raise machine I've ever used...better, in fact, because your body isn't locked into the movement. Because the end of the barbell moves freely, you're not locked into the exercise and your body can find its own groove.
Also, this exercise beats using a partner for the simple fact that if you don't have a partner, you're out of luck. And if you need more resistance, you need to add more partners. And yes, it will be hard to find volunteers for this job. Not a problem with this exercise.
So next time you're hitting calves in the gym, take a crack at this one. And never mind the strange looks you get from everybody else in the gym. You'll see THEM doing this exercise the next time they're working calves.
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