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Opposing Muscle Groups

One of the best ways to avoid injury while improving fitness is to create and maintain muscle balance. Stressing flexibility while using resistance training is important, but during the actual training, it is important to pay attention not only to the muscles used when lifting a load but also to the opposing muscle groups involved. Opposing or antagonist muscles are the muscles that do the opposite of the muscle that is working. For example, when a person performs a bicep curl, the elbow flexes as the bicep shortens. The opposing muscle group in this case is the triceps, which lengthen or elongate in order to allow this movement at the elbow. When performing a stiff-legged deadlift, the muscles that extend the hip (i.e. hamstrings and glutes) against the load shorten while the hip flexors (i.e. iliopsoas) lengthen.

During resistance training, it is important to create and maintain muscular balance. Neglecting opposing muscle groups is a recipe for injury. One muscle group should not overpower another, but this can happen when training muscles unevenly. Muscular imbalance can torque and pull joints out of alignment as the stronger muscles overpower the weaker ones at a particular joint. Returning to the bicep/triceps example above, an overly developed (i.e. tight) bicep can limit extension at the elbow if the triceps are underdeveloped (i.e. weak). Another example is the pectoral muscle and its opposition, the latissimus dorsi, or lat. If one’s pectoral muscles are tight from excessive focus while not spending enough time on the lats, range of motion at the shoulder can be affected, as can one’s posture. You’ve seen people with rounded shoulders and often, this can be the result of tight or shortened chest muscles along with long or weakened back muscles. The same thing goes for the quadriceps and hamstrings. An overdevelopment of the quadriceps in conjunction with an underdevelopment of the hamstrings can also compromise posture and one’s gate due to the muscular imbalance.

We tend to use the muscles in the front of our body more frequently—climbing up stairs uses our quadriceps, and lifting things engages our biceps first. It’s also natural to favor the muscles of our dominant side so if you are right-handed, you tend to utilize the right side more than the left, or vice versa. In order to be symmetrically balanced, working the less dominant side a bit more is part of the goal of having balanced opposing muscle groups.

An easy way to avoid muscle imbalance is to work opposing muscle groups congruently. For example, if you’re going to work your quadriceps with leg extensions, you should work your hamstrings with leg curls. It’s a good idea to work with resistance close to equal for opposing muscle groups. A factor in achieving opposing muscle group balance would be to not increase the amount of weight being used on your biceps until your triceps have increased in strength. The same principal applies to muscle groups like chest/back and quadriceps/hamstrings. If one notices an imbalance, then one should work to strengthen or elongate those muscles that appear to be “inferior” to their opposition. For example, we can balance out hip extension with hip flexion, whether that’s done through resistance training or flexibility training.

Working opposing muscle groups equally even applies to the core. Everyone knows how important the abdominal muscles are for core stabilization but balancing work on the abs with work on muscles that create back extension is important for overall core strength and muscular balance around the spine. Weakened back muscles can put one’s spinal stability and posture at risk, especially when lifting heavier loads than one is used to lifting over time.

When all is said and done, muscles that have gone through resistance training recover best when a stretching routine is applied after the lift. When muscles (and tendons) are trained with resistance, they can become tight or short. It is important to stretch the tight, recently worked muscles so that they can keep the elasticity that they had before the resistance training exercise. Keeping the muscles flexible will allow joints to move more freely through their full range of motion.

No one wants to be sidelined with an injury—to avoid this and keep the muscles balanced, train the opposing muscles properly and stretch after exercise. With a balanced lifting routine that allows you to work opposing muscle groups equally, the chance of injury greatly decreases while stability, range of motion and posture improve. Thus, a well-rounded workout routine will establish a sound, strong body.

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Lissa Christman





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