Access to state-of-the-art, ergonomically-designed machines is not a standard—It is a luxury that most unfortunately don’t have.
And there are many exercises that are generally incapable of being performed without a very specific piece of corresponding equipment.
So does that mean that those who aren’t fortunate enough to have a well-equipped gym are SOL?
For as much as machines can make certain variations and patterns infinitely easier to perform and progress on, there are also ways to modify and replicate just about anything as long as you’re willing to think outside the box.
In order to properly substitute an exercise, you must first break it down into the goals of the movement, the reason it’s in your program, and the mechanics that it employs.
Let’s dive deeper into this…
Setting and adhering to the goals of your training is the most important tenet in programming. However, being able to align the technicality of execution with the specificity of your macro-vision is easier said than done. More often than not, verbally expressed goals tend to diverge quickly from physically carried-out actions. To ensure that you stay on the right track, zoom in on each exercise individually and analyze the related goals. If the sum of these continue to align with the overarching plan, you know you’re moving in the right direction. And if there comes a time when you need to change an exercise, either by choice or necessity, viewing this modification from the perspective of goals will reduce divergence and maintain specificity to the training goals.
Continuing down this line of thinking, every exercise you can think of, no matter how rare or obscure, must have a reason for existing in the first place. And if you can get to the heart of this reasoning, you may find yourself on the right track for how to emulate it.
Similar to goal-setting and alignment, the reason underlying exercise selection must track in accordance with a bigger picture. But here we must look more on the philosophical side versus the logic of goal-setting—
Does this exercise need to be in the program? Can it be easily filtered out or altered without the program changing? Does it serve a purpose that is exercise or equipment specific? Are there other ways to achieve the same outcome?
This all may seem somewhat semantic but narrowing down and answering these questions can allow us to view exercise substitutions from a different lens; one that may open up our minds to ideas that were previously shadowed.
Once the goals and reasons behind an exercise are parsed out, we can move onto the mechanics that allow that exercise to come to life. This is going to include all of the boring, nitty-gritty stuff like the joint angles, forces, lever lengths, involved muscle groups, resistance/strength curves, etc that allow an exercise to exert its unique effects.
While this can seem like an overwhelming amount of information needed just to make a modification, it can often be as easy as taking a visual snapshot and attempting to replicate that. The more you know and understand about biomechanics, the easier this approach is going to be, but it’s really not worth getting caught up in the weeds too much. If two variations require similar activity from parallel muscle groups, use consistent joint angles, and have analagous loading parameters, there is a good chance that swapping one for the other won’t make a substantial difference towards the outcome of the programming.
Now that we’ve gone over the components to look for when evaluating exercises, how can we relate them to the Seated Calf Raise, specifically?
The goal of most programs that include this movement is going to be for calf hypertrophy; more specifically, targeting the Soleus. This muscle is deep to the more well-known Gastrocnemius, but provides most of the total tissue volume for the lower leg. There are many different ways to train your Gastrocs, but training the Soleus is a bit more tricky as it requires knee flexion to be biased. And what do you know? Seated Calf Raises are the incumbent way to do just that!
But what about the reasoning? Does the Seated Calf Raise need to be in a program? Or can it be effectively replicated by other, non-specific variations?
Interestingly enough, despite the hyper-specific nature of the variation, there really aren’t many ways to achieve the same Soleus-centric outcome without directly aiming for it. You’re not going to get the same stimulation in your Soleus from something like a deadlift or squat that your Gastrocs experience. It seems as though the reasoning for the Seated Calf Raise is such that it must be prioritized else the goals of the training will shift. Thus, we must find a replacement if we don’t have the necessary equipment.
And then we get to the mechanics of the exercise and how to actually find a suitable heir…
Breaking this down, we get:
-Full range-of-motion plantarflexion and dorsiflexion
-Knees bent at ~90º (so are the hips but we’re only concerned about the ankle and knee joint)
-Force distributed through the balls of the feet
-Loading applied downward through the lower leg
-Consistant resistance curve
Putting it all together, we can find a few variations that match up well enough to slot in for the Seated Calf Raise in an equipment pinch:
Seated DB Calf Raise- This is going to be the most similar to the machine-version of the Seated Calf Raise but with a few caveats…The loading will be inherently unstable due to the DBs and it will be difficult to generate the same levels of intensity in the calves. I like to work around these issues by sticking with one leg at a time and really slowing the tempo down.
Prone Machine Hamstring Curl Calf Raise- Ok so I will admit that this is kind of cheating since I’m also requiring equipment that not every gym will have…But if you’re lucky enough to have a lying leg curl machine that has just the right ankle pad configuration, this version of the Seated Calf Raise may just be your saving grace. Some adjustments may need to be made to get the feel right (I like to place a small block under my toes for more ROM) but most people who try this tend to keep it in their program even when they have access to the right machine. I guess that says something for the efficacy despite the silliness?
Squatting Calf Raise- Alright, this is your “if-all-else-fails”, nuclear option for Soleus training…Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh and exaggerated but Squatting Calf Raises will allow you to replicate the mechanics and goals of the machine with nothing more than your bodyweight. Performing the exercise will highlight a few differences in how the variations feel (namely, the squatting version allows for more plantarflexion but limits the stretch in dorsiflexion), but in case of emergency, these can fill the gaps to ensure the Soleus isn’t getting ignored.
While this post is more specifically about the Seated Calf Raise, being able to modify an exercise based on its underlying attributes is a skill that transcends any single movement pattern. Next time you find yourself in a similar situation, take a step back in order to evaluate the goals, reasons, and mechanics of the exercise in question…Doing so will free you from the chains of rigid programming and set you on a new path; one that gives you the power to control your training destiny.