Identifying the Antagonist Muscles

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Muscles in the torso, arms, and legs are arranged in opposing pairs. The main muscle that's moving is called the primer, or agonist. For example, if you pick up a coffee mug from the table, the agonist muscle is your bicep. The opposing muscle is the tricep, which is referred to as the antagonist.

Both agonist and antagonist muscles work together to produce a controlled motion. As you contract the biceps, you're simultaneously stretching the triceps muscle. Alternating between agonist and antagonist muscles during a workout can help you plan an effective strength training program.

Training Opposing Muscle Groups

Engaging your opposing muscle groups is a popular method of strength training because you can avoid waiting periods of rest in between sets. While you're working an agonist muscle, your antagonist muscle is resting. Switching to the opposing muscle group means you can immediately move into your next set.

For example, you could do a set of chest presses, immediately followed by a set of rows. You may recognize this technique as a "superset."

Study results on the benefits of superset exercises have been mixed. While the American College of Sports Medicine cites supersets as a way to optimize power and strength, other experts suggest that a "pre-fatigue" occurs in the antagonist muscle, making reps with the opposing muscle less effective.

If you're looking for a balanced and challenging workout, supersets are a great option. Supersets are a popular choice for novice weight lifters and athletes alike. However, some advanced athletes may choose to follow different training protocols based on their trainers' preferences and opinions.

Sample Workouts

There are several ways to set up a workout program focused on opposing muscle groups. You could do one day of upper-body muscles, followed by a day of lower-body muscles. You could even split it up further, with three days of specific upper body training, like chest and back on one day, shoulders and legs on the next day, and biceps and triceps on the third day.

Many people prefer to do a total-body workout on one day. Total-body workouts make sense for the majority of active people, especially if you're not looking to isolate or overtrain specific muscle groups. For a decent calorie burn and overall strength improvements, a total-body resistance program makes sense.

Be sure not to overdo resistance training by forgetting to rest and recover in between workouts. Muscles need a chance to heal after being challenged with weights. Take a day off every other day, or go for a walk or bike ride to switch things up.

Remember to stretch after exercise to reduce soreness, prevent injury, and aid recovery. Try dynamic stretching, like lunges or arm circles, to enhance your training program.

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

  • Option 1: Do each pair of exercises, one after the other, and repeat for 1 to 3 sets. Rest for about 30 to 60 seconds between sets, shooting for about 8 to 16 reps of each exercise.
  • Option 2: Do each pair of exercises, one after the other. 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 three, resting between circuits. 

Agonist and Antagonist Movements

The following exercises are examples of ways to engage your opposing muscle groups:

A Word From Verywell

Focusing on your agonists and antagonist muscles is a sensible way to train your body. Save time and engage all of your muscle groups to provide balance and strength from head to toe. You don't have to be an experienced weightlifter to do resistance training. Even if you start out with very low weights (or just your body weight) focus on learning proper form and build up to higher weights over time.

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Article Sources
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  1. Oregon State University, Anatomy and Physiology. Describe the roles of agonists, antagonists and synergists.

  2. Balsamo S, Tibana RA, Nascimento DdaC, 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

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Understanding the difference between dynamic and static stretching. Updated May 29, 2020.