Are squats all you need for awesome legs? Or do you also need to train your calves? We reveal the answer!
Squats, often hailed as ‘the king of exercises’, are a powerhouse of resistance training, effectively toning your lower body. In my 30-plus years in fitness, I’ve seen how squats not only shape leg muscles and enhance fitness levels but also activate multiple muscle groups, including hamstrings, glutes, calves, quads, and abs.
Want to build bigger legs? Do squats! Want to jump higher or run faster? Do squats! Want to increase functional strength? Do squats! Want to burn fat and get fit? Do squats! You get the idea – they’re a very versatile exercise you can adapt to almost any fitness objective.
And I’m not just talking about barbell back squats, either. In fact, there are so many squat variations that there is one for every level of exerciser. These include:
– Back squat
– Front squat
– Overhead squat
– Dumbbell squat
– Sumo squat
– Air squat
– Cyclist squat
– Trap bar squat
– Goblet squat
– Pistol squat
– Squat jump
– Hack squat
– Wall squat
– Split squat
Of course, all strength training exercises are beneficial and can improve how you look, feel, and perform. According to a study on PubMed, lifting weights can have a huge impact on almost every aspect of your health and fitness (1). As the author states, “Resistance training is medicine.” Nonetheless, few exercises provide as much bang for your buck as squats.
All types of squats work your hips and thighs. But, do they also work your calves? In this article, I explore which muscles squats train, and whether calves make it onto the list.
Squats – Muscles Trained
Squats are a compound exercise, meaning they involve multiple muscles and joints working together. In fact, squats involve virtually every muscle in your lower body. Furthermore, add some weight, and you can include many upper body muscles on that list. That said, most people do squats for the leg benefits, so those are the muscles I’ll focus on.
The main muscles involved in squats are:
– Quadriceps: Known as the quads for short, these are the muscles on the front of your thighs. They are the agonist during squats, meaning they’re the muscles doing most of the work. There are four quadriceps muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. These muscles work together to extend your knees.
– Gluteus Maximus: This is the largest muscle in the human body, and you’re currently sitting on yours! Known as the glutes for short, this powerful muscle extends your hip during squats. The deeper you descend, the more active your glutes become.
– Hamstrings: Located on the backs of your thighs, your hamstrings work with your glutes to extend your hips. The hamstrings comprise three muscles: the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris. However, the hamstrings are not as active as the quads or the glutes, and it’s best to think of them as synergists or helper muscles rather than an agonist.
– Hip Abductors: The hip abductors are a group of muscles that lift your femur or thigh bones out and away from the midline of your body. During squats, they act as stabilizers to prevent your knees from caving inward. As such, they are mostly working statically or isometrically. The main hip abductor muscles are the gluteus minimus, gluteus medius, and the tensor fascia latae.
– Hip Adductors: Like the abductors, the adductors work mostly as stabilizers during squats. They help prevent your knees from falling outward. However, wide-stance squats increase the use of these muscles e.g., sumo squats. The main hip adductors are adductor longus, brevis, and magnus.
– Core: Core is the term we use to describe the muscles of your midsection. These include the rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae. These muscles work together to stabilize your spine. They contract inward to increase intra-abdominal pressure. This maneuver is called bracing. Core bracing is critical for safe squatting, as it protects your lower back from unwanted stress.
But what about your calves? Are they involved in squats? Keep reading to find out!
Squats and Your Calves
While your calves are not a big player in squats, they are involved. However, they don’t work hard enough to be considered an agonist or prime mover. At best, they’re a minor synergist or helper muscle. More likely, they act as a stabilizer, minimizing unwanted movement of your ankles (2).
To understand the role of the calves in squats, let’s first take a look at the muscles that comprise your lower legs (3).
– Gastrocnemius: The gastrocnemius is the superior or uppermost calf muscle. It’s biaxial, meaning it crosses two joints – your ankle and knee. It’s this biaxial nature that means the gastrocnemius does not contribute much during squats. As you bend your knees, the gastrocnemius loses tension, limiting how much force it produces. So, even though your ankle moves during squats, the gastrocnemius is not overly active. However, because the gastrocnemius also crosses the knee, it helps stabilize the knee joint, although this role is relatively small.
– Soleus: The soleus is the inferior or lowermost calf muscle. Unlike the biaxial gastrocnemius, the soleus only crosses your ankle, making it a uniaxial muscle. During squats, your ankle flexes forward, which is a movement called dorsiflexion. This stretches the soleus. Then, as you stand up, your ankle plantarflexes (points) and returns to the upright position. This movement is similar to a very short-range bent-leg calf raise. As such, the soleus is active. However, while your ankles do plantar and dorsiflex during squats, there is not much load for the soleus to overcome. As such, while your soleus muscles are working, they don’t work very hard.
Because of this, it’s unlikely that squats will have much impact on either calf size or strength. However, tight calves can be a problem in squats and can cause your heels to lift, especially when you go deep. Because of this, some lifters do their squats with their heels resting on blocks.
In conclusion, squats are an excellent exercise for building leg muscles and improving overall fitness. While they involve multiple muscles in the lower body, including the calves, the calves do not play a significant role in the exercise. Nonetheless, squats remain a versatile and effective exercise for achieving various fitness goals.