Barbell vs Dumbbell Calf Raise – Head to Head

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Last updated on February 7, 2023

The calves are a stubborn muscle to train. When you’re working out at home, they can easily get neglected. After all, few people have got a calf raise machine in their home. But that shouldn’t stop you. You can still get a great calf workout with barbells and dumbbells. In this article, I’ll put the barbell and dumbbell versions of the calf raise head to head to find out which is best for building huge calves.

Calves Overview

Your calves are made up of two muscles; the gastrocnemius (or gastro) and the soleus. There is debate, however, whether it is actually just one muscle with two heads (similar to the biceps). The reason for this is that the gastro and the soleus converge on the Achilles tendon. They also have only one function, which is to extend the ankle.


Whether you can separately work the gastro and the soleus is also a matter of debate. The reality of the situation is that the soleus cannot grow very much, being a flat muscle. So, big calf muscles are mostly due to growth in the gastro.


There are two parts, or heads, to the gastro. These are known as the inner head and the outer head.


Whether you are using a barbell or dumbbells to train your calves, you will need some sort of platform to raise and lower your calves to full extension and contraction. I recommend getting two pieces of 4 x 2 timber and cutting them into 18 inch lengths. Nail them together to form a platform that allows you to rest the balls of your feet on it and then lower your heels below the level of your toes by 3-4 inches. You can also put a non-skid covering on the top of the foot platform where you put the balls of your feet.

The Seated Barbell Calf Raise

The best way to set up for the seated barbell calf raise is to use a squat or power rack. Lower the rack to the level of your knees when seated. Place your bench in the rack and the calf platform that you have made at your feet.


Now place a barbell on the rack with a pad covering the middle of the bar where it rests on your thighs. There are plenty of squat bar pads out there. If you do not have one, use a rolled up towel in order to prevent the downward pressure on your thighs that causes pain.


Now place your feet on the platform so that the balls of your feet are resting on it and your heels are hanging down. Roll the bar onto your thighs just beyond your knees. There should be a 3-4 inch clearance between the bar and the rack frame.


Begin the exercise by rising up on your toes to fully contract the calf muscles. This should involve a movement of 3-4 inches. Hold the top position for a 2 second count to achieve a really good contraction in the calf muscle. Now lower slowly to drop the heels below the level of the toes to achieve a full extension of the calf muscles.


Be sure to perform this exercise in a slow and controlled manner. If you do not have a power rack to rest the bar on in the set up phase, you can simply sit on a bench and rest the bar across your thighs with the platform at your feet.

The Seated Dumbbell Calf Raise

The seated dumbbell calf raise involves the same movement but has you holding a pair of dumbbells on your thighs rather than holding a dumbbell. Having an individual weight on top of each calf muscle allows you to work the muscle unilaterally. This is an advantage because it prevents the problem of your stronger side taking over.


We all have muscle imbalances, where one side of a muscle is stronger than the other. For people who are right footed, the right calf is usually stronger than the left calf. When you do the barbell version of the calf raise, where the muscles must rise and fall together to lift the same weight, the stronger side will take more than 50 percent of the load. That will only make your strength and muscle imbalance worse.


Hold the dumbbells just below your knees on their ends. I suggest placing some form of padding on your thighs for comfort. Perform the exercise in the same manner as with the barbell version, except that you are able to concentrate on each calf individually. Come up all the way to full calf contraction, hold for 2 seconds, and then lower all the way down to full extension.

Standing Versions

In addition to the seated versions of the calf raise with a barbell and dumbbells, you can also do the exercise in a standing position. For the barbell version, this will require placing the bar across your trapezius and shoulders as if you were doing the squat. If you have a power rack or a squat rack, this will not be a problem. But, if not, you may struggle to get the bar in position.

Doing the standing version of the calf raise with a pair of dumbbells in your hands is a lot easier to set up for. You simply hold the dumbbells at your sides while standing on the platform as previously described. The other advantage of doing the dumbbell version of the standing calf raise is that it takes the compressive pressure off your spine that you get when the barbell is loaded on your back.


The Verdict

The dumbbell calf raise is a better option, whether you are doing the seated or standing version of the exercise. As well as allowing you to work each of your calf muscles individually so that you can avoid muscle and strength imbalances, using dumbbells also takes the compressive pressure off your spine and is easier to set up for when you are doing the standing calf raise.


About the author  Steve

Steve Theunissen is from New Zealand and is a qualified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist with over 30 years experience. Read more about Steve in the 'about us' page.

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