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Leg Exercises for Women

Form and Function Calf Exercises

These two essential calf movements will sharpen every facet of your lower leg.

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Your calves are composed primarily of your gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, and they are responsible for plantar flexion at the ankle — i.e., getting you up on your tippy-toes. Unilateral exercises such as this one focus on one leg at a time, promoting both muscular and aesthetic balance while improving ankle stability and preventing injury.

Single-Legged Calf Raise

Form: Single-Legged Calf Raise

  • Stand on a short step with the heel of one foot off the edge and the ball of that foot squarely on top. Lift your other foot so that leg is supporting all your weight, and allow your heel to drop as low as it can, getting a good, controlled stretch in your calf and Achilles tendon. Although you’re standing on one leg, don’t shift or lean heavily on that side; keep your hips squared so your weight stays centered.
  • Press smoothly through the ball of your foot to rise up as high as you can while keeping your heel in line with the second and third toes and the pressure in your big toe. Don’t allow your foot to tip outward, which can stress the lateral aspect of the ankle and foot, promoting an inefficient movement pattern that can eventually affect your gait, balance and ankle stability.
  • Pause at the top, then lower slowly back to the start. This eccentric component is one of the most important in terms of causing adaptation and growth, applying stress to your muscle fibers throughout the full range of motion.
  • Play with different foot positions to target the medial (inner) and lateral (outer) heads of the gastrocnemius by rotating the entire leg inward or outward from the hip (not the knee). According to a recent study, an internally rotated foot placement activates the lateral gastrocnemius, and an externally rotated placement switches the focus to the medial gastrocnemius.
  • Though they are primarily slow-twitch, your calves do have some fast-twitch fibers. Hit them with a burnout set at the end of your routine using both legs at the same time.

Sample Form Calf Workout

Do these exercises at the end of a leg workout that focuses on the posterior chain.

Exercise Sets Reps Weight Rest (min.)
Single-Legged Calf Raise: Straight On 2-3 8-10 10-25 1-2 minutes
Single-Legged Calf Raise: Internally Rotated 2-3 8-10 10-25 1-2 minutes
Single-Leg Calf Raise: Externally Rotated 2-3 8-10 10-25 1-2 minutes
Two-Legged Burnout 1-2 20-30 light/bodyweight 1-2 minutes

Your calves are the last link in the kinetic chain that functions to propel you upward: When you run or jump, each footfall quickly stretches the Achilles tendon, which then springs back like a rubber band, giving you some lift. Having a certain amount of stiffness in the lower leg can maximize this stretch-shortening, encouraging reactive power in the lower leg, giving you more height while stabilizing your ankles. A jump rope is the perfect training tool for developing this lower-leg stiffness, resulting in a higher vertical and a faster 5K.

Jump-Rope Jog

Function: Jump-Rope Jog

  • Begin with a basic two-footed jump: Turn the rope with your wrists, not your arms, keeping your elbows in and your knees slightly bent. Land lightly on the balls of your feet, and don’t jump too high or too fast; maintain an even pace and find your rhythm.
  • Transition to a stationary jog, skipping over the rope with alternating feet, keeping your torso tall and your upper body relaxed. If you notice any hiccups in your rhythm, it can indicate a dominance of one leg over the other when you run.
  • Now lean forward from your ankles to start traveling forward into a jog. Don’t break at the hip, which can place undue stress on your back and waste energy, slowing you down. Instead, keep your torso and hips stable as you jog forward, moving evenly and steadily.
  • Avoid lifting your knees up high in front of you or kicking your heels up toward your glutes: High knees cause your torso to tip backward, and butt kickers waste energy; both put you at risk of getting tangled in your rope and losing your rhythm.
  • If you want more intensity, increase the rotational speed of your rope and cadence or take it into a run. Feeling brave? Try moving laterally or backward to train your lower leg 360 degrees around.
  • Perform this move as a warm-up drill before a run or a lower-body/plyometric workout. You also can combine it with other drills that develop lower-leg stiffness (see chart) to improve your speed and power.

Sample Function Calf Workout

Do these drills to focus on training reactive power in the lower leg.

Exercise Sets Reps/Time Rest Between Sets
Jump-Rope Jog 3-4 1-3 minutes 30-90 seconds
Power Skip 2-3 20 reps (each leg) 30-90 seconds
Bounding for Distance 2-3 10 reps (each leg) 30-90 seconds
Jump-Rope Double-Under* 2-3 10-20 1-2 minutes

*If you can’t do double-under, do single-under for twice the reps.