Walk into any gym and you’ll see people performing calf raises with their feet turned and tilted in various directions. For years, bodybuilders and other fitness athletes have claimed that this strategy works different aspects of the calf muscles, thereby promoting greater muscular development. Unfortunately, research had never sufficiently investigated the validity of these claims. Until now…
A recent study appearing in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research evaluated the muscle activity of the gastrocnemius (the diamond-shaped muscle that is most prominent when you flex the calves) when performing a calf raise with feet in one of three positions: internally rotated (i.e. toes pointed inward), externally rotated (i.e. toes pointed outward) or neutral (i.e. toes straight ahead). EMG was used to determine muscle activity. The results? The lateral head of the gastroc (i.e. the outer aspect of the muscle) showed the greatest muscle activity when the feet were internally rotated while activity of the medial head (i.e. the inner aspect of the muscle) was maximized with the feet externally rotated.
The take-home message here is that you can in fact selectively target the individual heads of the gastroc (lateral vs. medial) by altering your foot position. Now from a practical standpoint, this really doesn’t mean much unless you have an imbalance between the two heads. A neutral foot position provides approximately equal stimulation of both heads, so keeping your toes pointed straight ahead will promote overall calf development. But if you want to bring up one aspect of the gastroc as opposed to the other (usually the lateral head is underdeveloped since its only about half the size of the medial head), turning your toes either in or out will help to improve muscular symmetry. As always, understanding the science will help you achieve your fitness goals.