Training

How to Boost Your Muscle With Antagonistic Training

Bring out your best by making your opposing bodypart compete.

by
Arnold-Posing-Chest
Zeller/(c)Fitness Publications, Inc/Courtesy of Weider Health and Fitness / M+F Magazine

Ali vs. Frazier, Batman vs. the Joker, Apple vs. Samsung—fierce rivalries bring out the best in both combatants. And sometimes, antagonists can join together to double their effectiveness. Think Magic Johnson and Larry Bird on the Dream Team. Your physique is an amalgamation of antagonists, triceps on one side, biceps on the other. By training them in pairs, alternating exercises or sets, you can achieve a synergistic effect that brings out the best in two opposing forces.

OPPOSITES ATTRACT

Arnold no-last-name-necessary blasted chest and back together in the ’70s when he was annually expanding his Olympia trophy collection. He liked pumping up the two sides together, and, frequently, he superset them, combining bench presses with pullups and incline presses with T-bar rows. Chest and back is a rare pairing today. Many trainers divide their body into six workouts, so it’s a given they’ll hit chest and back on separate days.

Today, the most common antagonistic combo is biceps and triceps. Charles Glass favors this, so his Jedi knights, including Dexter Jackson, will alternate a biceps exercise with a triceps exercise, going back and forth like that on arm day, keeping both muscles pumped and stretched. To boost intensity, they’ll superset biceps and triceps exercises, alternating after each set. If it works for Arnold and Jackson, antagonistic is a workout split you need to try.

Antagonistic muscles oppose the actions of each other. When your quadriceps contract, your hamstrings relax and stretch, and when your hams contract, it’s your quads that are taking it easy and elongating. Quads/ hams and biceps/triceps are true antagonists, because they share single hinge joints.

Due to the ball-and-socket joints of your shoulders, pecs and lats are not precise antagonists. However, it still makes sense to pair pushing motions for chest with rowing motions for back, since these are opposing actions. Likewise, flying motions can be teamed with rear laterals.

Deltoids also have no true antagonists. However, you can combine overhead pushing movements, like dumbbell shoulder presses, with overhead pulling movements, like front pulldowns. Abs can be coupled with lower back. For calves, do at least some work for the tibialis at the front of your lower legs.

 

PAIR UP

There are several reasons to go antagonistic.

First, working two sides together keeps both warm and stretched. Second, it boosts the pump by driving more blood into one via its neighbor. You’ve never experienced a maximum arm blowup until you’ve superset bi’s with tri’s. Thirdly, it forces you to think of your physique as more of a whole unit, and less as a collection of parts.

If you hit chest with back or have a “width day,” in which you combine shoulders with pulldowns, you’ll feel a synergy by doing a movement with its opposite. And you can better incorporate exercises like pullovers for chest/back and lunges for quads/hams, which work both sides.

The last reason to go antagonistic is to conserve time. Let’s say you currently divide your physique into six workouts. Our sample routine has four sessions. So you can take three days each week, or you can cycle through your body more quickly by going four on, one off . The reason many people balk at this is the increased workout volume. However, the genius of antagonistic training is that you can use your rest periods to work one body part while the other recovers.

Our sample chest and back thickness routine has 28 sets, but any of those front/back exercise pairings can be combined without stopping. Your chest will be recuperating as you grind through dumbbell rows facedown on an incline bench, just as your back will be chilling when you zip around and pump out dumbbell inclines. Antagonistic training gives you the ability to do more work in less time

ANTAGONIST BASICS

  • Train a body part with its antagonist, alternating exercises or sets.
  • When one muscle is contracting, its opposite is stretching
  • Supersetting antagonists is especially effective.
  • If a body part doesn’t have a true antagonist, focus on opposing movements

ANTAGONISTIC TIP SHEET

  • When possible, pair an exercise with its closest counterpart, such as barbell rows with barbell bench presses.
  • Also when possible, choose exercises that allow you to work both sides with the same equipment and/or weight.
  • Not every exercise has a good counterpart. Deadlifts, lunges, and shrugs don’t.
  • You don’t have to train your entire body this way. Experiment with specific workouts. 

ANTAGONIST FOUR-PART ROUTINE

QUADRICEPS / HAMSTRINGS

QUADRICEPS / HAMSTRINGS
Exercise Reps Sets
Leg Extension 15 4
Lying Leg Curl 15 4
Leg Press 10-12 4
Stiff-Leg Deadlift 15 4
Hack Squat 10-12 4
Seated Leg Curl 10-12 4
Walking Lunge 30 3

CHEST / BACK THICKNESS

CHEST / BACK THICKNESS
Exercise Reps Sets
Barbell Bench Press 8-12 4
Barbell Row 8-12 4
Dumbbell Incline Press 10-12 4
Dumbbell Incline Row 10-12 4
Dip 10-15 3
Low-Cable Row 10-12 3
Machine Flye 10-15 3
Machine Rear Lateral 10-15 3

SHOULDERS / BACK WIDTH

SHOULDERS / BACK WIDTH
Exercise Reps Sets
Seated Military Press 8-12 4
Pullup 8-15 4
Wide-Grip Upright Row 10-12 4
Front Pulldown 10-12 4
Dumbbell Side Lateral 10-15 4
Cable Front Raise 10-15 3
Dumbbell Shrug 10-15 4

TRICEPS / BICEPS

TRICEPS / BICEPS
Exercise Reps Sets
Lying Triceps Extension 10-12 4
EZ-Bar Curl 10-12 4
Two-Dumbbell Extension 10-12 4
Two-Dumbbell Curl 10-12 4
Pushdown 12-15 4
Cable Curl 12-15 4
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