by Paul Carter T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- Arnold often worked chest and back together, going back and forth between exercises for each. He did the same for other opposing body parts, like biceps and triceps.
- Pressing strength increases dramatically by working the antagonist muscles between sets of benching.
- Agonist/antagonist training ensures that you’re doing enough work for both sides of the body for better muscular balance.
- Alternating sets, where you rest 2-3 minutes before proceeding to a movement for an opposing body part, increases strength more than supersetting.
- Train the limbs in a similar plane in order to work the agonist and antagonist movements, e.g., doing a horizontal press followed by a horizontal row.
Do What Arnold Tells You
If you’ve been in this game long enough, it’s very likely you’ve read Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. In it, Arnold wrote about the various splits he used in the heyday of his training.
One of his most common splits was training chest and back together. He’d just go back and forth between exercises for the chest and back. He did the same for other opposing body parts, too, like biceps and triceps.
For example, if Arnold was bench pressing, he’d do a set of chins between his sets of bench presses. When he was working arms, he’d do a set of barbell curls, followed by a set of pushdowns.
He didn’t need 78 peer-reviewed studies to tell him that it worked. Through common sense, he settled on a method where he worked an antagonist muscle group and its agonist muscle group on alternating sets.
Benefits of Agonist/Antagonist Training
Arnold’s lessons have endured the test of time and experience. Studies have confirmed that pressing strength increases dramatically by working or even statically stretching the antagonist muscles between sets of benching. Additionally, strength experts have used this method very effectively for increasing strength in their athletes for quite some time.
It’s also far more time efficient than doing a traditional model of training, where you do all of your pressing movements in succession, followed by your support/assistance movements afterwards.
Agonist/antagonist training also ensures that you’re doing enough work for both sides of the body so that you build and/or maintain muscular balance. Similarly, you don’t want to get too “press heavy” (overdeveloped front delts that contributes to poor posture) and you want to make sure the hamstrings get as much work as the quadriceps.
Alternating Sets As Opposed to Supersetting
Another factor in putting this all together is how to go about moving in between exercises. Arnold would often superset between his pushing and pulling movements. However, a rest between movements can prove far more beneficial.
Try doing a set of bench presses, followed by a 2-3 minute rest before proceeding to the pulling movement. Then rest again for 2-3 minutes before going back to benching. This is called alternating sets, and I’ve found it to be far more beneficial in regards to increasing strength than supersetting the agonist/antagonist movements.
However, if you’re short on time, you can still superset the movements. Just be ready to work your ass off, though. Supersetting big movements for high volume isn’t for the faint of heart.
One thing you can do to make these principles work more efficiently is to take the limbs through a similar plane in order to work the agonist and antagonist movements. You also want the body to be in exact opposing positions.
For example, you could do a set of flyes on the pec deck machine and then simply turn around and do a set of rear laterals on the same machine. Since the bench press is a horizontal press (you’re facing the ceiling), you’d do alternating sets with the barbell row (you’re facing the floor).
This makes sure that the muscles in direct opposition to the prime movers are hit more directly. This not only takes better advantage of all the principles laid out above, but also offers more muscular balance because you’ll distribute the same amount of volume between agonist/antagonist ranges of motion.
So a horizontal press would be alternated with a horizontal row. A vertical press would be alternated with a vertical pull. There won’t always be perfect matches – for example, the incline press is somewhere in between horizontal and vertical – but ideally you want to get as close as possible.
Combining These Principles Into a Program
Now that the principles for agonist/antagonist training have been laid out, let’s combine them into a hugely effective but easy-to-digest split and program.
In fact, if you adhere to your time between sets and don’t screw around, you’ll be able to get all your work in under an hour, or thereabouts, and you’ll have gotten in far more work than doing traditional straight sets with one movement.
Take advantage of these principles and you’ll find yourself bigger and stronger in a few months.
You’ll train four days a week:
- A horizontal push/pull day
- A leg day
- A vertical push/pull day
- An arm day (who doesn’t love going into the gym to work pipes?)
Remember, you’ll ideally be doing these in an alternating fashion, going between the first exercise and then the second after resting a few minutes. If pressed for time, superset them with little to no rest.
Day 1: Horizontal Push/Pull
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Bench Press * 70% of your max 5 8
A2 Barbell Row * 5 8
B1 Incline Press 20% less than bench press 3 8
B2 Chest Supported T-Bar Row 3 8
C1 Pec-Deck Flye or High Incline Dumbbell Flye 3 10-12
C2 Rear Lateral on Pec-Deck or High Incline Bent Lateral 3 10-12
* Warm up then do sets.
Day 2: Legs
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Leg Extension 5 12-15
A2 Seated Leg Curl 5 12-15
B Squat * working up to a ballbuster final set 4 8
C Stiff Legged Deadlift working up to a final heavy set 4 6
* Squat — done alone, without alternating a movement in between.
Day 3: Vertical Push/Pull
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Standing Press working up to a max-weight set 5 6
A2 Chin-Up add weight if you can 5 6
B1 Seated Dumbbell Press 3 8-10
B2 Lat Pulldown 3 8-10
C1 Plate Front Raise 4 10-12
C2 Straight-Arm Lat Pulldown 4 10-12
Day 4: Arms
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Standing Barbell Curl 4 10-12
A2 Triceps Pushdown 4 10-12
B1 Bent-Over Barbell Concentration Curl 3 10-12
B2 Leaning Triceps Extension with Rope 3 10-12
C1 Incline Dumbbell Curl 3 10-12
C2 Seated Dumbbell French Press 3 10-12