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Get Antagonistic: Work Opposing Muscles For Better Balance

By Mike Clausen

Sometimes our lifting commitments are greater than the amount of time we have each week. And when time gets short, most of us focus on the muscles that turn heads: chest and biceps. The problem is that overly focusing on the "pretty" muscles can lead to imbalances in your body, and eventually to injuries. So let's talk about the benefits of working opposing muscle groups—and some strategies for getting your balance back.

When you lift, your muscles work in opposing pairs, as agonists and antagonists. The agonist muscle produces the action of lifting: For example, in a bicep curl, the bicep is the agonist, causing your arm to bring the weight up. But the bicep does not act alone; the triceps are an antagonist muscle in that scenario, in an opposing role of lengthening as the bicep contracts to lift the weight. Even though the bicep is primary, both muscles (the agonist and antagonist) do some of the work of moving the weight. Because each muscle in an agonist/antagonist pair is implicated in the other's movement, the best way to work your muscles is in opposing muscle groups. Otherwise, when you strengthen one side of your body (such as your chest) without working the opposing side (your back, in this case) you are causing an imbalance in your posture and making your back round forward. In fact, the majority of us have horrible posture due to our lifestyle (working at a desk, driving to work, carrying a bag), and exacerbated by working out (focusing too much on chest or the front half of our bodies)—and we don't really do anything to help improve it. By reorganizing your workouts, you can take back control.

There are serious implications to muscle imbalances, including constant discomfort. For example, you may at some time have experienced chronic shoulder pain. While most people will tell you that your rotator is inflamed or injured, it's probably due to the fact that your shoulders are rounded because of bad posture and over-training of your chest. The tightness in your chest causes the rounding position, which pulls your shoulders and traps forward, when in fact you need to pull your traps back and down and squeeze your shoulder blades together. If you consistently work your back muscles when you do chest, this will help to alleviate some of your issues. When I lift chest, in order to balance out my posture and get rid of the pain, I start with shoulder retraction exercises such as single cable rows (standing or kneeling), lat pull downs, and single cable reverse flys. Why do I do this? To strengthen and stabilize my shoulders and retraction muscles. Only once I have created some sort of balance do I then move on to chest. And, once I'm finished with my chest exercises, I will go back and redo the shoulder retraction exercises. I also do these retraction exercises about two or three more times per week—all to balance out what I have done with years of bad posturing and over-training my chest.

The same strategies I use for chest and back (two of the biggest culprits in muscle imbalances) hold for your other muscles as well. Your major opposing muscles are: chest and back; biceps and triceps; quads and hamstrings. Here are a few tips for putting together an opposing muscle group workout:

  1. Superset it: You can string together your opposing muscle groups as supersets by putting opposing exercises back-to-back without a recovery in between. Try, for instance, barbell curls immediately followed by tricep cable push-downs. As one muscle is recovering, you're working the other, letting you fatigue them evenly, and together.
  2. Rethink the Split: Take a look at how you are organizing your lifting days, and put together splits that have you lifting opposing muscle groups on a single day. On your bicep day, do all of your bicep exercises before moving on to your triceps—but be sure to squeeze in that opposing muscle group, even if you feel like you don't have time, and rather than doing just one muscle-group per day. Think always in pairs.
  3. Change It Up: Do a month of lifting dedicated to opposing muscle groups. You may be in the habit of using your lifting to focus just on one bodypart—I do that myself—but I try to make sure to balance that out somewhere in the week. If you are not used to working antagonist muscle groups, start by doing it for just a month, as a special program. On your chest day, make sure you also lift your back and shoulder retraction muscles. With legs, make sure you don't just lift quads one day—get your hamstrings working as well. It's all about balancing out your body.
Remember that there are numerous ways to work out—and you can pick any one of these paths to follow. But try to remember, no matter what you do, to keep a balance among your muscle groups. You'll look—and feel—much better for it.

About Diakadi Fitness Tips: Diakadi Fitness Tips is a series of weekly articles and interviews with Billy Polson and Mike Clausen, founders of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want them to answer? Send an email to billyandmike@realjock.com.