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When you ask a bodybuilder what he’s training today, you expect the answer to come from a handful of choices. Legs. Back. Chest. Delts. Or from the truly over-the-top among us, you could hear, “Dude, it’s forearm day!
That’s just the way we train—busting up our bodies by bodypart, then focusing on each of those particular parts with pinpoint precision, one at a time. It’s the way our bodybuilding forebears did it, it’s the way our kids will do it, and it’s simply the best way to get bigger and stronger. Or is it?
Science, surprisingly, reveals that you may be cheating yourself out of some strength and size by following this longstanding principle. Specifically, research shows that when you perform one set of a pulling exercise (such as barbell rows) before a set of a pushing exercise (such as bench presses), you can expect to be stronger and more powerful for the pushing exercise, and vice versa. The studies don’t show this but it’s also true that by training this way, you can hit two bodyparts more quickly and efficiently than by doing them in separate sessions.
Intrigued? We were, too, so we investigated further. The result is the accompanying Push/Pull Training Program, which you can use to put this groundbreaking science to work for you.
Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Very similarly in the body, every motion has an opposite. For example, flexing the arm (primarily performed by the biceps) is the opposite motion of extending the arm (primarily performed by the triceps).
In the case of flexing the arm at the elbow joint, as in a biceps curl, the biceps is considered the agonist muscle as it’s the one doing the work. The triceps is considered the antagonist muscle to the biceps because the triceps actually resists the flexing of the arm and works to perform the exact opposite motion (extension of the arm at the elbow joint, as in a cable pushdown).
Almost every muscle in the body has an antagonist muscle or muscles associated with it, and almost every movement the human body can do has an opposite movement associated with it.
Many bodybuilders, including Arnold Schwarzenegger back in his bodybuilding heyday, believe that training agonist and antagonist muscles together is a smart way to increase strength and size. The major benefits of training agonist and antagonist muscle groups back-to- back are added strength and power for the second exercise. As we’ve mentioned, research shows that when an agonist exercise follows an antagonist exercise, muscle strength and power are greater than if that second exercise is performed after just resting.
A muscle’s ability to produce full motor-unit activation is enhanced when that action is preceded immediately by a contraction of the muscle’s antagonist. The antagonist exercise seems to prime the nerves that force the agonist muscle to contract, priming them causes a stronger, more powerful contraction. This can help a trainer put on mass, as it enables the use of heavier weights, which will help to overload muscle fibers and force them to adapt by growing.
One more benefit to using the FLEX Push/Pull Training Program is shorter gym time. You can train two paired muscle groups much more quickly than the traditional one-bodypart- at-a-time method, as you’ll see when you try it for yourself. Less time in the gym means more time to spend recovering and growing, not to mention showing off all the new mass you’ll have gained. That’s a win-win situation we all can appreciate. In addition, there is greater inhibition of the antagonist muscle, since it’s fatigued. As we said, the antagonist resists the movement of the agonist muscle; by performing the antagonist exercise first, there will be less resistance from the antagonist muscle during the agonist exercise.
The split we provide divides training for all bodyparts into two days and each workout is performed twice per week. Mondays and Thursdays are devoted to training chest, back, shoulders and abs; Tuesdays and Fridays are for quads, hamstrings, abs, calves, biceps, triceps and forearms. The second time you train a particular muscle group, you will flip the order of the exercises. For example, on Tuesdays, you do biceps exercises before triceps exercises, but on Fridays, you do triceps exercises before biceps exercises.
For example, when leg extensions are the agonist exercise, lying leg curls are a good antagonist exercise (since the hamstrings are antagonists to the quadriceps). It’s not the best pairing, though, because leg extensions are performed while seated, and lying leg curls are performed while curls are a good substitute. Although you can’t always find the exact opposite movement for every exercise, the goal is to find the exercise you can do in your gym that best replicates the agonist exercise, but in the opposite direction. The exercise pairing is the most critical aspect of the FLEX Push/Pull Training Program and it’s not as simple as doing just any biceps exercise and following it with just any triceps exercise. You want to perform exercises that not only use opposite muscle groups, but best mimic the angles of the body during each exercise.
Another dilemma is that not every muscle has just one antagonist; it depends on the exercise. Consider pecs, for example. Lats are the antagonists to pecs in bench presses (bent barbell rows are the opposite movement of bench presses, and vice versa). However, rear delts and middle traps are the antagonist muscles in dumbbell flyes because bent lateral raises are the opposite movement of dumbbell flyes, and vice versa.
Take lats as another example.
The pecs are the antagonist muscles in bent barbell rows because bench presses are the opposite movement of bent barbell rows. Yet, in lat pulldowns, the deltoids are the antagonists to the lats because shoulder presses are the opposite movement of lat pulldowns, and vice versa.
The message we’re imparting is: try to stick with the exercise pairs we have put together in the program for best results. Yes, we are trying to be antagonistic, but in this case, that’s a good thing.