Agonist Muscles and Strength Training

Shot of a senior man working out at the gym

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Exercise and everyday activities require the use of your muscles. Reaching up, leaning over, or bending down all use a series of muscles that are arranged in opposing pairs. When the muscles in the front of your body contract, the muscles in the back stretch and vice versa. 

The muscle group that is contracting is known as the agonist muscle and its opposing muscle group is the antagonist. This is great information to know when putting together your own strength training workouts.

For example, as you contract the chest, such as in a chest press, you're actually stretching the back. If you lace your fingers together and stretch them forward as you round the back and you squeeze the chest, you'll feel a deep stretch in your upper back. That means that, while your agonist is working, your antagonist decreases activity. This is called reciprocal innervation or reciprocal inhibition.

Opposing Muscle Groups

There are lots of ways to train your muscles and one is by opposing muscle groups, or agonist followed by antagonist. In this method of strength training, you do each exercise, one after the other, without rest.

While you work the agonist muscle, the ​antagonist muscle is resting, so you can immediately work that opposing muscle group next. This results in a faster, more efficient workout.

Sample Workouts With Opposing Muscle Groups

There are a number of options for how you can set up a workout with opposing muscle groups. One option is to do an upper body opposing muscle group one day and a lower body opposing muscle group on different days. 

You can also split your workouts further like this: chest and back on one day, shoulders and legs on one day and then biceps and triceps.

Total Body Workout With Opposing Muscle Groups

Opposing muscle group total body workouts provide added intensity without overworking any one muscle group. The workout moves quickly because you're always doing and 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:

Workout 1

Do each pair of exercises, one after the other, and repeat for 1 to 3 sets. Rest about 30 to 60 seconds between sets, aiming for about 8 to 16 reps of each exercise.

Workout 2

Do each pair of exercises, one after the other, going 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 to three circuits, resting in between.

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

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."