Something that, as endurance athletes, we might not be too familiar with is the bodies muscular structure, specifically, agonist and antagonist muscles. The aim of this blog is to give you a better understanding of how your body works when exercising, and to show you ways you can make your training much more effective.
Covered in this blog:
- What are agonist and antagonist muscles
- Popular exercises as examples
- Why are agonist and antagonist muscles important
- How should you train your antagonist muscles
- Lower body example
- Upper body example
What are agonist and antagonist muscles
Agonist and antagonist are the names given to each muscle having two working areas. Using the legs as an example, the front of the leg has the quadriceps, and the back of the leg has the hamstring. Agonist and antagonist refers to one of these being the prime mover while the other is a secondary muscle during a specific movement.
For example, when performing an exercise like cycling, we spend most of the time pushing, this is why our quads burn when we climb/sprint/get tired. That makes the quadriceps the agonist as it is the main muscle, the hamstrings become the antagonist here as they are not the prime mover.
If a cyclist rides clipped in there will be more force produced by the hamstrings as you are pulling as well as pushing the pedals, but nowhere near as much force is produced by these as the quads.
Popular exercises as examples
(agonist is green, antagonist is red)
Cycling: Quadriceps, hamstrings, calves
Squats: Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, lower back
Deadlifts: Back, glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps
Bench press: Pectorals (chest), Triceps, Lats (back), Biceps
Pull ups: Lats (back), Biceps, Triceps, Shoulders
Essentially, for a lot of movements, this breaks down to the muscles on the opposite side of the ones working, but why is this important?
Why are agonist and antagonist muscles important
Understanding this is important for two reasons:
- It can make your training much more effective when you understand how your body works, and the muscles involved in improving your cycling performance
- It can reduce the risk of injury during competition or training
It may seem obvious but understanding how your body truly works makes a huge difference to your training. Not just in terms of effectiveness, but also in terms of reducing the risk of injury. As an example, think of runners, I am sure at some point you will have seen a runner/footballer/sprinter pull or tear their hamstring when they clutch it and fall to the floor.
You will notice one common occurrence when this happens; it is always on the downward phase of the sprint, when the athlete powers their leg back down to the floor. Why is this?
This is usually because the hamstring is not strong enough to tolerate the rapid extension, usually due to being neglected in training. This can also happen to cyclists powering on the pedals, remember the lengthening phase happens when a cyclist pushes down on the crank.
Then, from a performance perspective, remember my comment about being clipped in, when a cyclist is clipped in they pull subconsciously with their hamstrings on the pedals. So, training your antagonist muscles can have a dramatic effect on performance and injury prevention.
How should you train your antagonist muscles
The answer to this question might rely on how much time you spend in a gym. If you can only make one session a week, your plan will look quite different to someone who can train three times a week.
Essentially you want to train your antagonist muscles twice as much as your agonist muscle.
Lower body example
Going back to the squat. The agonists are the quadriceps and the glutes, and the antagonists are the hamstrings, lower back.
If you have squats in your plan, I would then include a hamstring exercise like the stiff leg deadlift, Nordic curl, or hamstring curl machine. With the hamstrings there is scientific research that suggests they respond better to eccentric exercises (lengthening), so the first two exercises I have mentioned would be more effective.
Having a 2:1 ratio will allow you to work muscles that usually get left out during your training.
Remember, with the quadriceps, you are using them a lot. When cycling, running, walking, even getting on and off your chair and out of your car. They do not require as much stimulation to become stronger as the muscles in your body that don’t get used as much.
This is also the method I would use for the upper body. Especially in a sport like cycling when we spend so much time hunched over. Following this 2:1 ratio will allow us to develop the muscles we rely on to carry a healthy posture. Muscles that, just like the hamstrings, do not get used much during modern day life of office jobs, sport and the rest.
Upper body example
The primary muscle used in the bench press is the chest, with the triceps also doing some work to push the barbell off of your chest. The antagonist here are the biceps, and the muscles in the back that work to stabilise you. If you have bench press in your plan then I would add in some exercises that focus on the muscles in the top of your back, as well as your biceps.
For example, exercises like face pulls, seated row, barbell row, lat pull down and dumbbell reverse fly are all excellent ways to develop the antagonist muscles. This will reduce the risk of poor posture and will also improve your breathing under stress as your body is more capable of holding a strong position.
When it comes to understanding how to train, you must understand how your body functions. I hope this blog has helped you develop this understanding in some way and that you can use it to improve your exercise, health and speed on the bike.