David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.
The Opposing Muscle Groups Workout Routine
If you’re looking for a training method that will pack on muscle as quickly and efficiently as possible, you may want to take a look at the opposing muscle groups routine.
This type of training is also known as agonist/antagonist training, and it was Arnold Schwarzenegger's (and many of the other '70s bodybuilders) favorite way of working out. He always believed that training opposing muscle groups in the same workout made sense, and it certainly worked well for him.
So what does an opposing muscle groups routine look like, and why is it such an effective way to train? In this article, I’ll give you the answer to those questions, and I’ll also provide you with an example of a workout routine that you can use to get started with straight away.
What Is the Opposing Muscle Groups Routine?
In an opposing muscle groups workout, you train antagonistic muscle groups together. For example, you would train chest and back together. Quads and hamstrings are also trained together, as are biceps and triceps.
Shoulders would normally be trained together with arms, but you could do a vertical pressing/vertical pulling workout if you wish. And calves and abdominals are usually trained in the same workout as quads and hamstrings.
So, laying it out in that way means you can get a great three-way split routine.
Chest and back are trained in one workout, legs and abs in another, and arms and shoulders are trained in a final workout. These three are then alternated over the course of the week.
So, you might want to do each one just once per week, for a total of three training days per week, e.g., Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But this is not the best way to do it, as each body part will only be trained once per week, and as I’ve said before, this is not an optimal frequency for muscle growth.
A better way would be to train four days per week and alternate the workouts over these four training sessions. So you could do Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, or Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. It doesn’t matter which days you choose but avoid training more than two days in a row.
Or you could use the rotating five-day cycle. This is where each workout is done over a five day period, i.e., 2 on, 1 off, 1 on, 1 off. I prefer this method because it means that you train each body part once every five days, and this is about ideal for the more experienced trainee. Using this method also ensures that you never have to train chest and back the day after arms and shoulders, which would lead to insufficient recovery.
Why Use an Opposing Muscle Groups Routine?
If you train opposing muscle groups together in the same workout, you get better intra-workout recovery than you would get if you were training related muscle groups, like in the push/pull/legs split.
This means you’ll be able to put the maximum amount of effort into each body part, which is something that may not always be possible when training related muscle groups.
For instance, if you train shoulders after chest, your shoulders will already be fatigued to some degree by your chest work. You don't get this in a routine that works on the opposing muscle groups principle.
Another advantage of using this type of split routine is that it ensures you’re doing roughly equal work for both sides of the body, so you achieve a good level of muscular balance. Muscular imbalances are common amongst gym-goers who do too much pressing and not enough pulling, or too much quad work and not enough hamstring work.
There is one small disadvantage, though, and that is that there is more of an overlap between workouts, i.e., in your chest and back workout, you will also be working your arms and shoulders quite hard, and then you will train them again in your arm and shoulder workout. But that's not really a problem if you set it up properly, as it’s only an indirect overlap, and, as I’ve said before, the smaller body parts (particularly biceps) respond well to more frequent training anyway.
An Example Opposing Muscle Groups Workout Routine
Here’s a great example of an opposing muscle groups split. It's well structured and properly balanced, and is sure to give you exceptional results.
Workout 1 – Chest & Back
- Bench Press 3 X 5 – 7
- Bent-over Row 3 X 6 – 8
- Incline Dumbbell Press 3 X 8 – 10
- Pull Ups 3 X 8 – 10
- Dumbbell Flyes 2 X 10 – 12
- Face Pulls 2 X 10 – 12
Workout 2 – Legs & Abs
- Squats 3 X 6 – 8
- Romanian Deadlifts 2 X 8 – 10
- Leg Press 2 X 10 – 12
- Leg Curl 2 X 10 – 12
- Calf Raise 4 X 8 – 10
- Hanging Leg Raise 2 X 10 – 15
Workout 3 – Shoulders & Arms
- Overhead Press 3 X 6 – 8
- Side Lateral Raises 2 X 10 – 12
- Barbell Curl 3 X 8 – 10
- Lying Triceps Extension 3 X 8 – 10
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl 2 X 10 – 12
- Triceps Pressdowns 2 X 10 – 12
3 X 8 - 10 = 3 sets of 8 - 10 reps.
The sets listed here are your work sets. But you always need to make sure you warm up properly before these in order to prepare your body for the heavier work, as well as to help prevent injury.
The opposing muscle group regimen is useful in another way too. That is it lends itself perfectly to using alternating sets.
This involves alternating back and forth between sets of one exercise and sets of another, for the opposing body part. This makes your workout very time-efficient, and it also helps you maintain strength between sets more effectively than doing straight sets of a single exercise.
So, for example, you could do a set of bench presses and then rest for two minutes before doing a set of bent-over rows. You would then rest another two minutes, and do a further set of bench presses—and so on.
In the above workouts, just about all the exercises can be paired up in this way. But it's not a good idea to use this method with squats, so do your squats and Romanian deadlifts as straight sets.
Who Should Use the Opposing Muscle Groups Method?
The opposing muscle groups routine is an excellent method of training that can be used to great effect by both intermediate and advanced trainees. But it’s not ideal for beginners, who would do better with a full-body workout performed three times per week.
Beginners will be using lighter weights and will recover quickly, so it makes sense to work the entire body, to some degree, on a more frequent basis. But when you get stronger, and the weights you are using get heavier, recovery will become more of an issue. So, after you’ve been training a while and have made some good gains in strength and siz, you’ll probably find you’ll make better continued progress if you switch over to doing upper/lower splits.
But you could go straight to the opposing muscle groups split if you wish. Or you could alternate upper/lower splits with the opposing muscle group split, in order to experience all the benefits that each of these training methods has to offer.
But either way, the opposing muscle groups workout routine is an extremely effective method of training that should give you exceptional results. Just apply yourself to it diligently and consistently, eat a good muscle building diet, with a calorie surplus and plenty of protein, take some proven supplements, and make sure you get sufficient rest and sleep. Best of luck.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: I've had rotator cuff surgery on both shoulders and cannot perform overhead presses. What exercises could I subsitute?
Answer: It depends on how you feel when doing the movements, but you may not be able to do any shoulder training for a while. Movement, however, will help to facilitate healing, as it will encourage blood flow to the area. So move your arms through various planes of motion (overhead, out to the sides, internal and external rotations etc.). Then, when that feels comfortable, start using very light dumbbells, and build up very slowly. If there is any pain, stop and reduce the weight, or go back to no weight. Certain supplements, such as a good omega 3, can also help speed up healing.
Question: Could I do a 3 on, 1 off cycle, instead of taking a day off after legs?
Answer: You could if you have exceptional recovery ability, or if you are on steroids. Otherwise, I wouldn't recommend it.
Question: If I use the antagonist split, it means I have to train shoulders, triceps, and biceps on day 3, and then do chest and back on day 4. This means I am using pushing muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps) 2 days in a row, is this okay?
Answer: Yes; that's why I prefer the rotating five day cycle, as it means this will never happen. But it's not that big of a problem really, and if you only train two days in a row once per week (i.e. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday; or Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday; or Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday), it will only happen once every three weeks anyway.
Question: I am thinking of adopting this opposing muscle group workout. I am not very comfortable in doing the leg press, however, so can I replace it with the Bulgarian split squat?
Answer: Yes; the Bulgarian split squat is an excellent exercise, and can certainly be used here instead of the leg press.
Question: I can only train Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, what would work best for me?
Answer: I would not train four days in a row, so do Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, or Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. If you want to work each body part more than once per week (recommended) do an upper/lower split and rotate, rather than doing an opposing muscle groups split.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on September 04, 2020:
18 sets in a day is plenty, but you can add an extra exercise if you want to, and if you still find you are recovering well enough.
Aznan Uddin on September 03, 2020:
Should i not use more than 18 sets in a day, i want to add one more exercises in chest & back day and arms & shoulder day?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on August 08, 2020:
Perhaps, if you are thinking about movement patterns. But I'm focusing on body parts in this article.
Jens on August 07, 2020:
Sir, wouldn’t horizontal push/pull, vertical push/pull and legs be a more true version of an antagonistic split?
Only your w/o #1 can really qualify as obeying an antagonistic protocol.