Identifying the Antagonist Muscles

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Your anatomy lesson of the day starts with knowing how the muscles of the body are arranged. Most of the muscles in the torso, arms and legs are arranged in opposing pairs. That means, when one muscle is contracting, like say the biceps muscle, that muscle is the agonist muscle during an exercise. The antagonist muscle is the opposite muscle which, in this case, would be the triceps.

As you contract the biceps, you're actually stretching your triceps muscle, which is one reason that dynamic stretching works so well. For example, say you're doing a quad stretch for the front of the thigh. If you contract the glutes and hamstrings, the antagonists of the quads, you'll feel a much deeper stretch.

What this also means is that when your agonist is working, your antagonist can't work. In fact, they have a fancy name for it called reciprocal innervation or reciprocal inhibition. I know. TMI.

The point of all of this is that you can actually use this information (I promise) as a way to plan out your strength training routines.

Opposing Muscle Groups

Another way to look at agonist and antagonist muscles is opposing muscle groups and knowing your opposing muscle groups can give you new ideas for how to lift weights. In fact, opposing muscle groups is one of the most popular methods of strength training because you get rid of the rest periods and that can save you time.

The idea is that, while you're working the agonist muscle, the antagonist muscle is resting, so you can immediately go right to the opposing muscle group right after working the agonist muscle.

Sample Workout with Opposing Muscle Groups

So, if you wanted to set up a program focusing on opposing muscle groups, you have tons of options. You can split it into upper body opposing muscle groups and lower body opposing muscle groups. You could even split it further, doing 3 days of upper body training and working different muscle groups. Like chest and back on one day, shoulders and legs on one day and then biceps and triceps.

My favorite is doing a total body workout. Because there are no rest periods between exercises, you get a nice intensity going without overworking your muscles. And the workout flies by because you're always doing an exercise rather than resting.

Below is a sample total body workout with a focus on working agonists and antagonists. You can do this in a variety of ways:

1. Do each pair of exercises, one after the other, and repeat for 1-3 sets. You would rest about 30-60 seconds between sets, shooting for about 8-16 reps of each exercise.

2. Do each pair of exercises, on after the, other and go through the entire series of pairs, resting briefly between pairs. This is a circuit style format that will keep your heart rate up and make the workout a bit more intense. You could do one circuit or up to 3, resting between circuits. This is probably my favorite because the workout really flies by and it's over before you know it.

Focusing on your agonists and antagonist muscles is an excellent way to train your body. You save time and you work all of your muscles so your body is balanced and strong. Try it whenever you need a change in your routine and you'll find your body works in a different way.

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  1. Balsamo S, Tibana RA, Nascimento Dda C, et al. Exercise order affects the total training volume and the ratings of perceived exertion in response to a super-set resistance training sessionInt J Gen Med. 2012;5:123–127. doi:10.2147/IJGM.S27377

Additional Reading
  • American Council on Exercise. ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 5th Edition. San Diego: American Council on Exercise, 2014.