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Opposing Muscles: What are they?
Opposing muscles are sets of muscles that work together to assist you in moving your body. If these muscles are strengthened together, it creates a balance between the two.
Most of us have stronger muscles in the front of our body, simply because we use them more: we lift things with our biceps and we take steps with our quadriceps. In the meantime, the triceps and the hamstrings don’t work as hard, as they are not the prime movers of the arm and the leg, respectively.
Opposing muscles are sometimes referred to as the agonist (the prime mover) and the antagonist.
Why Train Opposing Muscles Together?
Dominant muscles will strengthen while their opposing muscle may lengthen and weaken unless both muscles are exercised. An imbalance can cause injury. You may want to do lots of crunches to improve your abdominals, but if you don’t do an opposite exercise to strengthen your back, you may end up with low back pain.
The Large Opposing Muscle Groups
If you consider any joint in the body — but particularly the larger joints — there are two major muscles which help to move that joint.
- Upper Arm (movement of the elbow): The Upper Arm: The Biceps and the Triceps
- Shoulder and Upper Back: Deltoids and Latissimus Dorsi
- Upper Chest and Upper Back: Pectoralis Major and Trapezius/Rhomboids
- Stomach and Lower Back: Abdominals and Erector Spinae
- Hip (Flexion and Extension): Iliopsoas and Gluteus Maximus
- Hip (moving leg out to side): Hip Adductor and Gluteus Medius
- Thigh (extension and flexion of the knee): Quadriceps and Hamstrings
- Lower Leg (standing, running): Tibialis Anterior and Gastrocnemius
Other Opposing Muscle Groups
We can’t forget the movement of other joints: wrist and ankle and neck, for instance.
- The neck has extensors and flexors to help us move it back and forward, and side to side.
- The wrist also has extensors and flexors.
Is there an order to exercising Opposing Muscle Groups?
As a general rule, it’s recommended that you exercise larger muscles first, then the torso, and then the smaller groups. If nothing else, this just makes it easier to remember which areas you have exercised and then hopefully don’t forget it later.
In Fitness Professional’s Guide to Strength Training the Older Adult 2, the following guidelines are suggested:
“Include at least one exercise for the quadriceps, hamstrings, Pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, deltoids, biceps, triceps, low back, abdominal, and upper trapezius muscles or include multimuscle exercises that cumulatively address all these muscle groups.
"Besides performing these exercises, older adults may benefit from exercises that strengthen the adductor and abductor muscles of the hip, the oblique muscles that surround the midsection, the calf muscles, and the forearm muscles.
"Also, exercises should be arranged in the workout so that larger muscle groups are exercised first.”
What Exercises will work the Opposing Muscle Groups?
Here’s a list provided by Fitness Professional’s Guide to Strength Training Older Adults with a couple added by me. Free weights, a resistance band, and a mat are needed to do all thirteen. One repetition is described:
- Dumbbell Squat (Hamstrings and Quadriceps): Hold dumbbells in hands, palms facing in, with straight arms. Lower body to sit on an imaginary stool and then rise again.
- Slide with Resistance Band (Hip Adductors & Abductors): Place resistance band under both feet and hold on to the handles. (If the rope seems too lose, grab the rope lower down.) Push a foot against the rope and let the other foot follow. Go back the other direction. Repeat.
- Dumbbell Heel Raise (Gastrocnemius): Hold dumbbells in hands, palms facing in, with straight arms. Rise up on your heels and hold for 30 seconds.
- Dumbbell Bench Press (Pectoralis major): Lie on a bench with your legs bent at the knee and the feet flat on the floor. Dumbbells should be in the hands with the palms facing away (thumbs toward each other). Press up with both arms at the same time until elbows are fully extended. Return to starting position.
- Dumbbell One-Arm Row (Latissimus dorsi): Place your left hand and knee on the bench, and the right foot flat on the floor. Keep the right leg straight. Grasp the dumbbell with the right hand and bring it close to your body. Then extend the right arm straight down and bring it back up. Keep your back straight and rotate the dumbbell so that the palm faces the bench. Switch to other side when set is complete.
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise (Deltoids): Stand tall. Place dumbbells in hand at side with palms facing in (towards the body). Raise arms in unison to the side, but keep elbows slightly bent. Stop when your arms are parallel to the floor. Then lower them.
- Dumbbell Standing Curl (Biceps): While standing, begin with the arms straight, dumbbells in hand, with the palms pointed out (thumbs to the side). Bend the elbow and raise the dumbbell bringing it almost to the shoulder. Lower slowly and repeat.
- Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension (Triceps): Place your feet in hip-width position. With dumbbells grasped in both hands, push the dumbbell upward until the arms are fully extended, directly above your head. Now the exercise begins. Bend the elbows so that the weights and hands go behind your head. Raise the arms straight up again and repeat.
- Trunk Extension prone on mat (Low back): Life face down on the mat and place your forearms on top of each other. Then place your head on your forearm. Raise the chest slowly, no more than 30 degrees off the floor. Hold slightly and then lower the chest slowly to the floor. Repeat as many times as you are comfortable.
- Trunk Curl supine on mat (Abdominals): This is similar to the old-fashioned “crunch” which is no longer used. Lie on your back and bend the knees so that feet are flat on the floor. Support the head and neck and simply lift the head and shoulders a small distance (about a 30-degree angle). You can also support yourself a little by having the arms at the side and bent at the elbow.
- Twisting Trunk curl supine on mat (Obliques): Begin in a flat position on your back on a mat. PUt your hands behind your head. Raise the upper back about 30 degrees off the floor while lifting both legs off the floor. Keep the right let straight and left leg flexed (bent at the knee) and turn slightly toward the bent knee (try to touch it if you can). Then twist and do the opposite knee and elbow. Do as many as you can before lowering back to the mat.
- Dumbbell Shrug (Neck Extensors and Flexors): Stand straight with dumbbells in hand, palms facing in. Lift your shoulders and hold. Lower shoulders slowly. Repeat.
- Dumbbell Zottman Curl (forearms): Assume the same position as for the Dumbbell Bicep Curl. Raise the arms at the elbow but when at the top of the movement, turn the palms so that they face down, and then lower. Turn again at the bottom, and raise, repeating the turn at both top and bottom throughout the exercise.
For a closer look at any of the muscles discussed on this page, here's a list of all the articles about muscles:
- The Abdominals
- The Adductors
- The Deltoids
- The Erector Spinae: Spine Muscles
- The Forearm, Elbow, and Wrist
- The Glutes
- The Hamstrings: Back of the Thigh
- The Hip Flexors
- Latissimus Dorsi: The Lats
- The Lower Leg: The Calf and the Shin
- Muscles of the Head
- Pectoralis Major and Minor: The Pecs
- The Quadriceps: The Front of the Thigh
- Taking Care of your Feet
- The Trapezius and the Rhomboids
- The Upper Arm: The Biceps and the Triceps
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.