Today's tip is understanding the relationships between muscle groups to get the most out of your practice. For almost every major movement in the body, there is an agonist and antagonist muscle involved.
The agonist muscle is the primary mover involved. Usually this means a
contraction or shortening of the agonist muscle in order to create
The antagonist muscle has several functions. It can relax (lengthen)
in order to allow the agonist muscle to function to its fullest. It can
also slow down the movement of the agonist muscle to prevent tearing or
An example is the biceps and triceps muscle group. When you do a
biceps curl (see image above), the agonist muscle is the biceps, and the
antagonist muscle is the triceps.
Now this is where it can get tricky. When you create the opposite movement—when you bring your hand AWAY from your shoulder (see image below)—the agonist muscle is the triceps and the antagonist muscle is the biceps.
This is because in order to create the movement of bringing the hand
away, the triceps has to contract or shorten and the biceps has to
lengthen or relax.
Why is this important in yoga? Because if you understand the
relationships between muscle groups, you can work smarter to get the
most out of your practice!
When you contract (or shorten) your quads (agonist), you will help
your hamstrings (antagonist) lengthen more effectively and more safely.
When you suck your stomach in, thus contracting your abs during a
forward bend (agonist), you will help to more efficiently stretch the
muscles in your back (antagonist).
Think about all the muscle pairs that work together in the movement
of the body. Different movements will engage different muscle groups in the wrist, arm, shoulder, spine, hips, knees and ankles. Think about
what muscles you contract in order to get other muscles to relax.
*Some examples of agonist/antagonist muscle pairs that essentially counteract each other’s activity about a joint:
• Pectorals/latissimus dorsi—pecs and lats
• Anterior deltoids/posterior deltoids—front and back shoulder
• Trapezius/deltoids—traps and delts
• Abdominals/spinal erectors—abs and lower back
• Left and right external obliques
• Quadriceps/hamstrings—quads and hams
• Forearm flexors/extensors
Here’s another element to consider: as mentioned above, another job
of the antagonist muscle is to slow down the movement to ensure a safe
bend. In our muscles, there are these things called “stretch receptors.”
They are there to prevent you from overstretching and tearing muscle.
When you first start to stretch, you might find resistance in the
muscle. But if you hold the stretch, in a few moments, you might find
some relaxation and give in the muscle, thus allowing you to stretch
deeper. That’s the stretch receptor saying to the muscle, “Okay, I can
see this is a safe stretch, you’re not going to tear anything—go ahead.”
This is why, for example, in Standing Separate Leg Stretching, it’s
so important to both contract the quads (agonist) to release the
hamstrings (antagonist) and also hold the pose for probably longer than
you’d like to get the best stretch possible. Bouncing is not so good; a
long, slow, firm and constant pull will get best results.