agonist antagonist supersets

Save Time, Get Bigger With Agonist/Antagonist Supersets

If you’re looking for a workout that saves time and packs on muscle mass, try agonist/antagonist supersets. What is an agonist/antagonist superset you ask?

Understanding Supersets

When you perform one set immediately followed by another with minimal rest this is called a superset. You can do an upper body exercise followed by a lower body exercise, such as a bench press followed by a squat, or you can do agonist/antagonist sets, such as a bench press (muscle on the front of the body) followed by bent-over rows (posterior muscles).

We’ll look closer at how agonist/antagonist supersets work below, but any discussion of supersets wouldn’t be complete without addressing extended supersets. Supersets can be extended into tri-sets (three exercises), giant sets (4 exercises), or even longer circuits, depending on your training goal and background. Tri-sets and giant sets are great for packing on muscle mass because they stimulate a lot of metabolic stress and target your highest threshold muscle fibers that are hard to activate with lower volume training. Extended supersets are also great conditioning, meaning that if you do them right, there is no need for separate cardio.

Classifying Muscle Groups

One way to classify muscle groups is with the terms agonist and antagonist. When muscles contract, they can only produce a pulling force against a limb. They cannot reverse the contraction to move the limb back to its original position. Instead, to return the limb to its starting position, that muscle group will relax and an opposing muscle group will contract to pull the limb in the other direction. If the first muscle didn’t relax, there would be no movement. This is called an isometric contraction.

The muscle that causes the primary movement is called the agonist, or prime mover. While this contraction occurs, the opposing muscle is relaxed. This muscle is called the antagonist. For example, when you do an arm curl exercise, the biceps are the agonists and the triceps are the antagonists. When you perform a triceps pressdown, the triceps are the agonist and the biceps are the antagonists.

Train Agonist/Antagonist Supersets

By designing workouts around agonist/antagonist supersets you save time because you don’t need to use a prolonged rest in between sets. Instead, the agonist muscles recover while you are doing the antagonist motion and vice versa: For example, if you pair a biceps curl with a triceps pressdown, the biceps recovers while you do your triceps exercise. Your triceps muscle recover during your curls.

Even better: research shows that agonist/antagonist supersets enhance the ability to achieve full motor unit activation in the muscle. You’ll also be able to use more weight. Alternating agonist/antagonist supersets has been shown to lower fatigue drop-off curves more than traditional sets. Supersetting can increase your work capacity by as much as 40 percent for a given workout compared to using the old standard-sets approach in which you pick an exercise and repeat it for a given number of sets before moving on to the next exercise. Agonist/antagonist supersets also have the added benefit of allowing you to double the workload per training unit.

Better Structural Balance

When you are working on improving a particular part of your body, it’s normal to end up spending more time training exercises for that area. Problems arise when you neglect the muscles on the other side of the body (the antagonist muscles). For example, it’s common for people to overemphasize chest training with bench press and chest flies at the expense of the upper back muscles. Agonist/antagonist supersets ensure that you alternate bench press with exercises that target the upper back, such as pull-downs or rows. This will ensure that you achieve structural balance in the muscles of your upper torso. Use agonist/antagonist supersets throughout the body:

  • Pair Romanian deadlifts with lunges to train the quads and hamstrings.
  • Do biceps and triceps together to train your elbow flexors.
  • Pair hanging leg raises with back extension to balance the muscles of the lower back with your abs.
Agonist/Antagonist Superset Workout

Here is an example of an agonist/antagonist superset workout aimed at someone with significant training background who wants to get bigger:

Exercise Order Exercise Name Sets x Reps Tempo Rest
A1 Deadlift 4 x 8-10 4010 10 sec
A2 Split Squat DB 4 x 8-10 3010 10 sec
B1 Bench Press 4 x 8-10 3010 10 sec
B2 Pull-Downs 4 x 8-10 3010 10 sec
C1 Overhead Press 4 x 8-10 3010 10 sec
C2 Seated Row 4 x 8-10 3010 10 sec
D1 Biceps Curl 4 x 8-10 4010 10 sec
D2 Lying Dumbbell Triceps Extensions 4 x 8-10 3010 10 sec
E1 Hanging Leg Raises 3 x 12-15 4010 10 sec
E2 Back Extension 3 x 12-15 4010 10 sec
Agonist/Antagonist Workout Program For Hypertrophy

Learn More: We teach how to program workouts for muscle and performance gains in our Poliquin Personal Training Certification.


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