I’ve spent the greater part of my life helping people with their workouts in the gym. I’ve been a personal trainer for over 10 years and I have been coaching others online for the last 6! One thing that I have to remind myself is that most of the people I help may not understand what I am saying. If I am speaking a different language then how can I expect my clients to follow my plan or advice! I have always spent time explaining what I mean when I use certain terms, so I figured that it would be best if I wrote an article for you so that you can better understand gym lingo and make more gainz!
When somebody is discussing the “primary mover” of an exercise then they are talking about the muscle that will be doing most of the work. All lifts in the gym, even isolation exercises, will require that you use more than one muscle to lift the weight. The primary mover is the muscle that is recruited the most during the lift. For example, if you were to perform a barbell curl, then you would be using muscles to grip the bar, stabilize the bar, stabilize the torso, keep yourself balanced, and ultimately curl the weight. If you think about it, you are using a lot of muscles to perform this lift! When you think of the barbell curl, which muscle comes to mind? That’s right! The biceps! The biceps are ultimately responsible for curling the bar. This means that the biceps are the primary mover of the barbell curl.
The “secondary mover” of an exercise is the muscle group that is sharing the load with the primary mover. This does not mean that the secondary mover is working less than the primary mover. It just means that it is not being recruited as much as the primary mover. It can also mean that the muscle is smaller and generates less strength due to being smaller than the primary mover.
For example, the primary mover on a bench press is the chest. The chest is responsible for pressing the bar off of your chest and moving the upper arm in front of and towards the midline of the torso. The upper arm is attached at the shoulder joint where the movement can occur. The anterior deltoid (also part of the shoulder) is going to assist the chest in moving the bar off of the torso. This makes the anterior deltoid the secondary mover of the bench press. The anterior deltoid is a pretty strong muscle for its size, but it is nowhere near as strong or as big as the pectoralis major in the chest. The anterior deltoid contributes to assist the chest in moving the weight. They both need each other, but the chest is still going to be the primary mover here.
Now, we know that the triceps are also involved in the bench press. They have a role to straighten out the arm, but that is at the joint of the elbow. So that would mean that the triceps are the primary mover for that joint during the bench press, or any other press.
You may be starting to see that the bench press is a compound movement, which requires movement from more than one joint. You cannot complete the bench press without the triceps, anterior deltoid, and pecs, so how do we go about determining the primary and secondary movers? You have to think about the lift. The pecs start the movement upward with the assistance of the anterior deltoid. Once the bar has moved far enough then the elbow is in a position to use the strength of the tricep to complete the rep. If you can’t get the weight off of your chest with your pecs and anterior deltoid then the triceps will never get their chance to shine!
So, if we are discussing the bench press from the shoulder joint then we would say that the pecs are the primary mover and the anterior deltoid and triceps are the secondary movers. If we were to discuss the bench at the elbow then the triceps are the primary mover because the anterior delt and pecs do nothing to move the forearm. That being said, you can’t bench with just the elbow joint so that point becomes invalid. The answer is that the pecs are the primary mover with the deltoid and triceps the secondary movers. They contribute a lot, but are still secondary to the pecs.
AGONIST VS ANTAGONIST
I think that these two terms are better explained in one section. The agonist for an exercise is a muscle that helps complete the lift. An agonist is the relationship between a secondary mover and primary mover. They both work together towards a common goal.
The antagonist is any muscle that performs a task opposite of the agonists. The triceps are the antagonist to the bicep and vice versa. You can also determine the agonist and antagonist by looking at the joint. Every joint will have at least two muscles that work against one another, for example: the quads to the hamstrings, the biceps to the triceps, etc. Determining which one is called the agonist and antagonist will center on the movement of the lift. The muscles being used to move the weight will be known as the agonists while the muscles opposite of them will be known as the antagonist.
It is a great idea to learn these two terms because it will help you better understand the mechanics of your body. If you know that the triceps are the antagonist to the biceps and understand what the biceps are used for then you know the triceps are used for all of the opposite movements of the biceps. The same can be said for any agonist/antagonist muscle group.
Now that you understand these terms let me give you a test. I want you to try and understand the following directions:
“I want you to focus on the chest when you perform the bench press without worrying about targeting the secondary movers. I want to do this to help you bring up the chest since it is a lagging muscle group. Make sure to incorporate some light to moderate sets for the muscles that are antagonists to the bench at the end of your workout. This will help keep the shoulders healthy!”
Alright…go ahead…use the article to try and decipher that paragraph…
Ok time’s up! Here is the translation for that last paragraph.
“I want you to focus on the chest when you perform the bench press without worrying about completing the rep and using too much deltoid and triceps. I want to do this to help you bring up the chest since it is a lagging muscle group. Make sure to incorporate some light to moderate sets for the lats, upper back, and rear deltoids at the end of your workout. This will help keep the shoulders healthy!”
If you were able to translate that then congratulations! You can now speak the gym language that much better! If you weren’t able to translate that then don’t worry! You’re still learning! Stay tuned for more explanations of the Gym Vocabulary!
Let’s get better together!