Maximize your Gains by Working the Antagonists

Maximize your Gains by Working the Antagonists

We are all familiar with the saying “you’re only as strong as your weakest link”. Typically this phrase will be used with team sports, leadership, or work metaphors. However from a therapeutic standpoint were basically always trying to find “weak links” (or rather “restrictions” or “kinks in the hose”) that negatively affect movement efficiency as well as movement competency.  Often times, what we find as movement specialist are several weak links due to imbalances of position, tone, and muscle firing. Which often begs the questions from patients what led to all of this?  Which a novice to an experienced therapists answers “ repetitive movement in one direction and altered posture (or however we word it)”; or simply bad habits.

Let's hit on one really bad habit that is consistently occurring in patients pursuing athletic endeavors, the fact that they are not training/strengthening their antagonists and not taking their antagonistic muscles serious enough. Today I want to talk on the importance of training the antagonistic muscles in regards to muscle balances, function, motor control, and maximizing performance gains. Then we’ll focus on one important strategy to incorporate  antagonistic training. But wait, there’s more. We’ll finish up with a few training session examples for you to try and see the importance of training the antagonists!

First, let's define antagonist in regards to muscles; not a shakespearean play or movie script(...hope I didn’t lose any readers).
The antagonist is defined as the muscle “that opposes a specific muscle group of movement”. That may be not the best definition because it doesn’t get the magnitude and importance of the antagonists role.  Rather than just opposing, they also control (eccentrically) the movement.

Controlling the movement ensures:
  1. Adequate joint alignment and position
  2. Limits higher unnecessary forces and torque.
  3. Which means it's preventing stress and strain on soft tissue
  4. Which means it's preventing injuries
  5. Which means you can continue to workout.
  6. As well as controlling rhythm and smooth interactions with other joints up and down the chain
  7. which means you are more durable and can last longer (in bed)
  8. As well as have Higher strength production
  9. Which means you perform better.
  10. Which means you're awesome
So here's the actual point we need to make on the antagonist: “you’re only as strong as your weakest link”. And we don't want the antagonists which are so crucial for correct mechanics and stability to be our weak link. Unfortunately, the antagonists are indeed the weak link and that weakness is leading to some serious breakdown and injury. Let me break it down:

Having agonist and antagonist strength is fundamental to fitness and performance.  It's the base of the pyramid. You can't build performance of fitness without it.

But we often try to build that strength without the other half of the base.  This leads to total collapse!The pyramid will collapse without a foundation of some strength and control form the antagonists.  Even a small amount of antagonists strength can lead to imbalances and a faulty foundation that will still lead to the pyramid to tilting over and collapsing on itself.

Further, performance and skill can only reach to a certain size with a small base. Want more strength and corresponding performance, make for a larger base to ensure ability to build up higher work capacity and then skill:

There you have it. An easy white board drawing to convey the importance of muscle balance specifically with the antagonist muscles.

PART 2: Therapeutic Strategies to Improve Muscle Antagonist Strength

If we are lucky (and that's a big if) this is what I get from most for my athletes: “ Oh yeah I make sure to do 5-10 minutes of foam rolling and/or stretching before I start the WOD”. They take their antagonist strength training about as serious as I take anything happening with the Kardashians, which is zero to NONE. While an active warm up is very important the fact is mobility drills and the likes are not doing anything to build antagonistic strength and a solid foundation, actually they are just trying to stop the pyramid from crumbling!  Trying to do a small amount preventive work before and after the WOD typically isn't enough...
Therefore, antagonist strength programming should be programmed within ( ! gasp !) the WOD, not before or after.

Ill let you catch your breath for a sec, because I know what you’re thinking “But bro are you saying I should do Fran with Y+Ls and hamstring hells???, that's gonna kill my time?!?”

First off, bro, great antagonist exercise choices. Second off NO; Fran and other Benchmarks are to assess our skill and performance development, ie are we sure that the top of the pyramid is getting bigger. But a majority of WOD should not be benchmarks but rather strength and work capacity aquatistion. I would suggest that 75 to 90% of WODs should have antagonists exercises built within them! This strategy ensures adequate time is spent on acquiring strength in the antagonists. It will also ensure the athlete is consistent with the exercises. And lastly it makes it more fun to complete when under fatigue, and ensures proper recruitment and stability for the other movements within the WOD. Plenty of good reasons to put it in and no reasons not to!

Here's a few examples that incorporate antagonist training:
  1. objective: Strength
6 Rounds 5x Deadlift, then immediately... 2x Broad Jumps, then 5-10x Y+L @ 2.5#

  1. objective: Work Capacity:
10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 reps for time: Renegade Manmakers @25#/15#, Box Jumps @ 20’’, wall slides or wall squats (ps: awesome post to expand on this topic)

  1. objective: Stamina
KB Complex: start from ground arm with the arm locked and packed, ie the start of the TGU position. Go to half kneel of the TGU position and perform 10x 1/2 kneel windmills, then stand and perform 10x rotation and push press, followed by 10x single arm KB swings and finally 10x single leg deadlift, ensuring you feel it in the glutes and posterior chain. complete on other side. perform for 15-20 minutes.

Try these out and see how you’ll have more muscle soreness from the antagonists than the actual big muscle groups.