The Opposing Muscle Groups Workout Routine for Massive Gains in Muscle Size

Updated on June 18, 2018
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David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.

Arnold liked to use the opposing muscle groups method
Arnold liked to use the opposing muscle groups method | Source

The Opposing Muscle Groups Workout Routine

If you’re looking for a great workout routine to pack on muscle as quickly and efficiently as possible, you can't go wrong with the opposing muscle groups routine.

Also known as agonist/antagonist training, this type of routine was a favorite of Arnold Schwarzenegger (and many of the other '70s bodybuilders), who always believed that training opposing muscle groups made sense. And you certainly can’t argue with the results it gave him.

So what does an opposing muscle groups routine involve, and what makes it such an effective way to train? In this article, I’ll answer those questions and I’ll also give you a sample workout routine that you can use to get started with straight away.

What is the Opposing Muscle Groups Routine?

As its name suggests, an opposing muscle groups routine is one in which antagonistic muscle groups are trained together in the same workout.

So that means chest and back are trained together, quads and hamstrings are trained together, and biceps and triceps are also trained together.

Calves and abdominals are usually trained with quads and hamstrings, and shoulders are normally trained with biceps and triceps.

So that makes for a great three way split routine where chest and back are trained in one workout, legs and abs in another, and shoulders and arms are trained in a third workout.

The three workouts are then alternated over however many weekly training sessions you choose to do.

So if you can only get to the gym three days per week you would simply do each workout once per week on its own set day, e.g. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This is not the best way to do it however as each body part is only being trained once per week, and as I’ve said before this is not optimal for muscle growth.

So a better way would be to train four days per week, and alternate the workouts over your four training sessions. So you might do Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, or Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday. It doesn’t matter as long as you never train more than two days in a row.

Or alternatively you could use the rotating five day cycle, where each workout is done over a five day period, i.e. 2 on, 1 off, 1 on, 1 off. This is probably the best way to do it as it means that each body part is being trained once every five days, which is about ideal for the more experienced trainee. It also ensures that you never have to train chest and back the day after arms and shoulders.

Why Use an Opposing Muscle Groups Routine?

By training opposing muscle groups 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 maximum effort into each body part; something which may not always be possible when training related muscle groups.

For instance if you are training shoulders after chest, your shoulders will already be pre-fatigued to some extent by your chest work. This does not happen in a routine that focuses on opposing muscle groups.

Another advantage of using an opposing muscle groups split is that it ensures you’re doing roughly equal work for both sides of the body so that you build and/or maintain muscular balance. Muscular imbalances are common amongst gym goers who do too much pressing and not enough pulling, or perhaps 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. But this should not be a problem if it’s set up properly, as it’s only an indirect overlap. And, as I’ve said before, some of the smaller body parts (particularly biceps) respond well to more frequent training anyway.

A Sample Opposing Muscle Groups Workout Routine

Here’s a great example of an opposing muscle groups split that’s well structured, properly balanced, and 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 are your work sets. Always make sure you warm up properly before these in order to prepare your body for the heavier work, and to help prevent injury.

Alternating Sets

Another useful aspect of opposing muscle group workouts is that they lend themselves perfectly to doing alternating sets.

Alternating sets, where you alternate back and forth between sets of one exercise and sets of another, are a very time efficient method of training, and they also help you maintain strength between sets more effectively than you would if you were doing straight sets of a single exercise.

So for example you could do a set of bench presses, rest 1 – 2 minutes, and then do a set of rows. Again rest 1 – 2 minutes, and then do another set of bench presses – and so on.

You’ll notice that in the above workouts all the exercises can be paired up in this way, except squats and Romanian deadlifts which should be done as straight sets.

Which method of training do you prefer?

See results

Who Should Use The Opposing Muscle Groups Method?

The opposing muscle groups routine is an excellent training method for both intermediate and advanced trainees. But it’s not really a beginners program, and if you are just starting out you’ll likely do better with a full body workout performed three times per week.

Then, when you’ve been training a while and have made some good gains, you’ll probably find you’ll make better continued progress if you switch over to doing upper/lower splits.

But at any time past the beginner stage you may find that the opposing muscle groups split suits you better. Or you may wish to alternate an opposing muscle groups split with an upper/lower split in order to experience all the benefits that each of these training methods has to offer.

Either way the opposing muscle groups workout routine is an extremely effective method of training that is certain to give you exceptional results if you apply yourself to it diligently.

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

  • Could I do a 3 on, 1 off cycle, instead of taking a day off after legs?

    You could if you have exceptional recovery ability, or if you are on steroids. Otherwise, I wouldn't recommend it.

  • 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?

    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.

  • I can only train Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, what would work best for me?

    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.

  • 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?

    Yes; the Bulgarian split squat is an excellent exercise, and can certainly be used here instead of the leg press.


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