Born with large calves and really wish you could make them smaller?
It’s one of the classic ironies of the fitness world.
If you have small chicken legs or say scrawny skinny little arms, there’s a truckload of literature on how you can make them bigger.
Hit heavier weights, eat more food, down the protein shakes and meal replacements, do them isolation moves, use progressive overload. Yada yada!
But what if you are at the other end of the spectrum?
What if you are born with gigantic legs and calves and you want to make them smaller?
Is that even possible?
Believe it or not, thousands of Americans are born with calves that look, err, ungainly…to put it nicely.
The only problem is that very few people actually know how to get them back into shape, or shall we say, smaller and slimmer.
If you are one of them, then you are at the right place.
Today, we are going to talk about turning your tree-trunk thick calves into smaller more aesthetically pleasing ones.
First though, before you learn how to make your calves smaller you need to figure out why you have larger calves in the first place.
Why are your calves big and thick, rather than small and slim?
The first thing to figure out is why your calves are disproportionate as compared to the rest of your body,
There can be and usually is more than one reason for it.
This is what makes calf-reduction such a difficult subject. Are you genetically prone to bigger calves? Did your parents also have big calves? Are your hands also bigger? Sorry to be a bummer right off the bat, but if that’s the case, then the chances that you can do something to change their size are slim.
That said, it is possible to tone them and change their appearance to a more toned and pleasing look. But as far as size goes, if you are 250+ lbs and naturally stuck with large calves then they will likely remain the same.
If you are prone to storing most of your body fat around the hips and legs, then chances are that your calves look big because they are covered with a thick layer of fat. Losing weight will help you reduce the size of the calves.
However, it’s easier said than done.
For most people, women in particular, the calves are one of the hardest places to lose weight from. In all probability, it will be the last place that you lose fat from. So it might be a long ride. But I am here to help.
If you squat often or have been focusing on building bigger legs or a bubble butt, then an uncanny side effect is that your calf muscles will grow in size as well. That’s usually the case if you are genetically predisposed to store more muscle in your calves.
In this case, losing some of the ‘bulk’ in your calf muscles might be easy. Also, if you lose the pump, (the blood pump that is caused from having large amounts of muscle) they will lose that engorged look, which could be making them appear bigger.
Why Do People Want to Make Their Calves Smaller?
We agree that the aesthetics part is subjective.
There are some, who would prefer thick, burly calves as compared to lean and slender ones. And vice-a-versa.
For women though, having large calves is not the most ideal feature to have.
On the left, a woman with very large calves. On the right, a woman with smaller leaner looking calves…
See what I mean?
But the appeal behind smaller calves for athletes in particular, also stems from better performance on the field.
Here’s a study published in the Journal of Sports and Medicine that says that long distance runners tend to perform better when they have smaller calves. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3761913/)
Since slimmer calves require lesser effort, it allows the athlete to cover a longer distance, provided they have the respiratory endurance and stamina for it.
No matter how minuscule the connection, it’s undeniable. Smaller calves let you run longer distances.
Also, a smaller calf circumference is considered to be a marker for lower levels of a dangerous type of body fat called ‘free fatty acids (FFA)’.
More FFA levels have been linked to insulin resistance, more oxidative stress and also puts you at increased risk for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
So that right there, is an added incentive to lose a couple of inches off your calf.
How do you find out if your calves are muscle or fat?
As much as we’d all like to have calves that are built of muscle rather than fat, it’s very unlikely that you have thick calf muscles, unless your folks passed them on to you.
Calf muscles are the toughest ones to build. Ask Arnie that.
He struggled with small skinny calves for the longest time and would spend days obsessing over calf workouts. At a point of time, he was hitting 500 lbs. standing calf raises. Jeez! (http://simplyshredded.com/oak-roots-how-arnold-turned-his-biggest-weakness%C2%97-his-calves-into-a-showcase-muscle.html)
If you aren’t sure about whether your calves are all muscle or just a hint of muscle and a thick layer of lard, then here are some ways to find out.
- Check your BMI. If you are a woman who likes to stay fit, then your body fat percentage should be between 20-25%, whereas if you are an elite athlete, that average will be between 12-20%. Anything more than 25% could indicate that your calves are covered with fat rather than muscle.
- Here’s an easier way. Just flex them and pinch them with your fingers. Can you feel the hard part? That’s the muscle. Everything else is fat.
How To Make Calves Smaller & Slimmer
Listed below are the ways that you can both make your calves smaller and slimmer and also create the illusion to make them appear slimmer
Eliminating Body Fat to Make Calves Smaller
Assuming that your calves are fat and not big muscle, here are a few surefire ways to make them smaller.
- Eat in a calorie deficit: You don’t need to reinvent the wheels when it comes to fat loss. It’s simple, tried and tested methods that work best. Start by eating in a calorie deficit. You can reduce just 250 calories a day and work your way from there until you are comfortable with a 500-1000 calorie deficit.
- Low to moderate intensity cardio works better than high intensity workouts for losing calf-fat and making them appear leaner.
- Stick to it. Like we mentioned earlier, there’s a very good chance that you will lose your calf-fat at the end, after losing body fat from everywhere else. So it’s important that you stick to it, even if you don’t see results immediately.
- Build muscle: If you are stuck with fat calves, then building muscle is one of the best ways to make them appear smaller. As your calf muscle develops, the layer of fat covering it will begin to diminish slowly. You don’t want to go overboard with it though. Bodyweight exercises are just as effective as weighted ones.
How to Make Muscular Calves Appear Smaller
Muscular calves are an entirely different ball game and might be a tad more difficult to deal with, because it’s very difficult to reduce the size of a particular muscle, unless you ignore it completely and develop other body parts that look bigger in comparison.
That’s called atrophy and it’s one of the worst ways to reduce calf size.
Not to mention, it’s just going to make your legs appear more disproportionate.
Rather, we’ll focus on adjusting the existing routine so that you reduce emphasis on calves and avoid exercises that pump them up.
Exercises & Routines To Avoid if You Want Smaller Calves
There are certain exercises that will inadvertently make your calves grow bigger.
Running on an incline
Running is one of the best fitness activities in the world. It triggers a release of endorphins, it improves cardiovascular strength, it builds muscles, burns fat and it makes your legs leaner. But, if your calves tend to appear bigger after a run, then you might be doing it wrong. Stick to running on flat surfaces. No matter how much you crave for a bit of running on a treadmill that has an incline, or running uphill, or hopping on the stairmaster, avoid it. Instead, opt for a longer duration of steady state cardio to reap the same fat loss and muscle building benefits without placing additional strain on your calves. Even if you are switching over to walking, limit it to flat surfaces only. Avoid the incline.
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Plyometric / Jump Training
Plyometric exercise or ‘Jump training’ places a lot of emphasis on your lower body muscles. A bulk of it is on your calves which will begin to look bigger after a while. If you are doing plyometric exercise as part of your HIIT, we again recommend switching over to steady state cardio instead. Even if you absolutely must do HIIT, there are ways of doing it that doesn’t use your calves as much as Plyo does.
Just like running on an incline, sprinting places a lot of emphasis on your calves as it lengthens your calf muscles. When you are in the runner’s pose, your calf muscle is stretched which then translates into the momentum that you generate as you explode forward.
Sprints lead to large calf muscles which is something we are trying to avoid.
A lot of women assume that rope jumps are a great exercise to help slim/tone down their legs. In reality, it is the opposite. While rope jumps may help you burn fat, it will also use your calf muscles a lot as you land on the toes. So, look for alternatives if you are after smaller, leaner, and slimmer looking calves.
If you have been taking a leaf out of arnie’s book (most won’t get it) and going overboard on them standing calf-raises or donkey calf raises, you might want to back down a tad. Your calves will get a reasonably good workout even without training them as a separate body part. If you are doing that, then it’s no mystery that they will eventually look bigger than what you’d like.
Tips for Cardio
Did we make it seem like you cannot do cardio at all, if you are looking for slimmer calves?
That’s not the case at all.
Cardio is one of the most important components of any workout routine and if you are looking to burn fat, it is imperative that you do cardio.
Rather than limiting yourself to HIIT and Plyo, you can look for alternative methods of doing cardio.
Like the treadmill. You see when you run or walk on the tread deck which is constantly in a state of motion, you don’t utilize your calf muscles as much as you do when you run on asphalt.
You’d also want to consider making changes to your running strike from toe-to-heel to heel-to-toe.
Ways to Make your Calves Appear Smaller
Always remember that you don’t want your calves to appear scrawny. You want them to be lean and toned which allows you to rock them pair of heels.
There are numerous ways to achieve that without piling a ton of weight on your shoulders.
Yoga and Pilates
Both Yoga and Pilates focus on stretching and elongating the calf muscle rather than bulking it up. An added advantage is that regular stretches and exercises help improve your performance in all aspects of fitness and reduce the risk of injury. As a plus, both of these are low-impact activities.
With repetitive heavy weight lower body workouts, there’s a risk of shortening your muscle, which is a fancy word for tight muscles. Stretching helps release tight muscles and any tension that may be built up in your calf. By stretching your calves you stretch out the muscle which in turn will lengthen the muscles and may slightly make your calf appear less bulky.
Related: Best Leg Stretching Machines
Four Exercises to make your calves appear smaller
All said and done, here are our four favorite exercises that will help your calves appear toned, leaner and uniform.
Touch your toes
It’s pretty simple. Stand up erect, raise your hands above your head and then slowly bend down at the waist trying to touch your toes. Hold for as long as you can without feeling uncomfortable or pain in the spine. Repeat three to four times. Over a period of days, you’ll notice that this starts to get easier and if you found it difficult to touch the toe at the beginning, you’ll be able to do it with a lot more ease. This is your hamstring and calf muscles loosening up. You can also do this seated by the way. Just bend forward and try to touch your toes.
This is one of the simplest, yet challenging Yoga poses that allows you to stretch your calves, hams and glutes. It also helps stretch your vertebrae and your shoulders. This is an inversion pose where you start on all fours and raise your hips above the knees. The emphasis should be to keep a straight spine (no hunching) and straight legs.
Walk the dog
Think downward dog where you shift the weight of the body from one leg to the other, while bending the leg ever so slightly at the knees and lifting it off the ground momentarily.
Seated, banded calf stretch
Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Loop a resistance band around one foot and push your foot into the band and hold for 30-seconds. Now gently pull your toes inwards while tugging on the band and hold for 30-seconds.
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Hi there! I'm Ben, main author and chief editor at Fitlifefanatics.com. I have been obsessed with Strength Training and Fitness for 16 years now.
My passion for living a happy fit lifestyle is what made me realize that fitness is what I wanted for my future.
I went on to earn my Masters in Sports Training & Biomechanics.
My passion for Strength training & fitness and my love of helping others is what made me start Fitlifefanatics.
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