Opposing muscle groups may not set your hair on fire with excitement.
But training without thinking about them is an invitation for injury.
Especially if you’re exercising with a program that wasn’t developed by a trainer.
But what are they?
You may have noticed that you can bend your arm at the elbow, and then straighten it again.
The reason you can perform these actions is the opposing muscles in your upper arm: triceps and biceps.
So you can bend your elbow and make it straight: What’s the big deal?
Because they work in conjunction, opposing muscle groups need to be balanced in power and function.
Out of balance muscle groups can lead to big problems. Particularly given our love of abs and biceps. I found this out the hard way.
After months of obsessively performing crunches and push ups (ah, youth) and years of desk work, I found myself with a bad back and poor posture.
Read on to learn:
- The implications of imbalanced opposing muscle groups.
- How I’m fixing mine.
- What you can do to avoid these problems.
What Are Opposing Muscle Groups?
I mentioned in the introduction that opposing muscle groups operate our limbs. I also mentioned that when they’re out of balance, our body won’t operate properly.
This is an understatement.
Opposing muscle groups are responsible for the smooth function of every movement of your body.
Every time you move, opposing muscle groups are at work.
The most important opposing muscle groups are:
- In your legs: hamstring and quadriceps
- In your arms: triceps and biceps
- Your upper torso: pectorals and back (trapezius and rhomboids)
- Your lower torso: abdominals and lower back (erector spinae)
These are the muscle groups we train the most, and are most commonly unbalanced.
Why Do We Care About Opposing Muscle Groups?
Imbalanced opposing muscle groups can result in injuries, compromised performance and bad posture.
I used the example of your elbow in the introduction.
Another example you may be able to relate to is the knee.
As mentioned, our legs are bent and extended by the hamstrings and quadriceps, two opposing muscle groups.
- We’re more likely to injure the least powerful group.
- A knee injury is more likely. A serious injury (like cartilage damage) can be life-changing.
- You’ll be slower and less agile.
But it’s not just that.
Another common feature of desk-bound life is rounded shoulders.
This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time.
Back when I was a university student no one told me about the effects of long hours in front of a computer.
I was just trying to get the most work done that I could.
I continued this behavior in my professional life. Luckily, physical training set me slowly on the right path.
Finally, my posture is recovering and I’m injury free.
When we spend a lot of time with our shoulders hunched over a computer, out chest muscles (the pectorals) become shorter and tighter.
At the same time, the muscles in our back become longer and weaker.
Add to this problem that nearly 100% of my body weight training was pushing exercises, with no pulling to compensate for them.
The front of my body was over trained, and the back under trained.
So I had a permanent hunch and not enough strength where it counts to correct it.
This, and similar problems turned into back pain that wasn’t chronic, but never far away.
Fortunately I’ve found ways to correct these problems.
How To Train Opposing Muscle Groups
I mentioned earlier that many of my problems arose from too many pushing exercises and not enough pulling exercises.
This is a great way to think about balancing opposing muscle groups: the actions used to train them are opposite.
I was doing a lot of push ups. This tightened and shortened the front of my shoulders and pectoral muscles.
The fix has been to do rows, the opposite of a push up. The rows exercise the upper back, rear shoulders and biceps.
The opposite of everything I’d been doing for years.
I’ll be discussing exercises like this and how you can do them at home, without gym equipment in a later article.
Another problem: I was doing loads of crunches (because I just had to rock those abs, right?).
This, combined with my office desk, made my lower back (the erectors) weak by comparison.
Although I was doing bridges in my training, I wasn’t doing back extensions. A steady regime of back extensions soon fixed my dodgy lower back.
I don’t mean to give you my entire medical history, but just illustrate the kinds of problems these imbalances cause.
And how simply you can fix them.
But it’s not just broken-down martial artists who can benefit from this.
Greats like Arnold Swarzenegger have based their entire training regime around working opposing muscles.
He found that this not only provided balance – a minimal requirement – but he benefited more from his exercises when he structured them this way.
So, What Exercises Balance Our Opposing Muscle Groups?
These are exercises we can do at home with body weight, or as part of a resistance regime in the gym.
You might not do these exact exercises, but they’ll give you an idea of the kind of movements that activate the opposing muscle groups:
|Body part||Exercise||Opposing exercise|
|Arms||Pull ups / chin ups||Dips|
|Upper torso||Push ups||Rows|
|Lower torso||Crunches||Back extensions|
|Legs||Squats||High box step ups|
As I said earlier, I’ll be covering these exercises, and how you can do them at home, in upcoming articles.
I hope you can see by now how important it is to balance opposing muscle groups, and to integrate this idea into your training.
You might have a program designed by a fitness professional: that’s great, and opposing groups will be getting an equal workout.
But we don’t always have a fitness professional on hand (unless you’re dating your trainer 😉 ).
This article should give you the knowledge you need to adapt and develop your training program without getting out of balance.
Are opposing muscle groups something you’ve considered before? Do you consciously think about them when you train?
Let me know in the comments!