It´s a common question to ask and the image of the seemingly malnourished Yogi with the long white beard, or the very petite supermodel showing off her fancy leggings, is not helping here. The answer is definitely yes. Yoga builds up muscles and strength and beyond all the marketing and spirituality there is a reason why pro-athletes from all disciplines count on Yoga. Let’s talk about how you can enhance your muscle growth and strength with Yoga and which unexpected benefits you might discover.
The benefits of building muscle through Yoga
Whilst yoga might not be the quickest way to pack on pounds of muscle, it comes with its own advantages:
First, it is all about balance. Every athlete has his strong side. The dominant playing arm of tennis players like Victor Troicki, Rod Laver or even Serena Williams appears visually more built-up than the other. (1) In Yoga, you constantly train both sides, and if one side appears more difficult or if there are poses that are challenging you a lot, it is due to imbalances between the right and left or between your interplaying muscle groups.
You might ask yourself why, in case of the tennis players, some biceps curls with the weaker arm are not enough to re-establish balance. Because with complex and compound movements you are training the body in a way that it can apply the new learned muscular engagements to daily tasks and to sports. Isolated exercises like triceps kickbacks, might help the physical appearance of the weaker arm, but holding side planks, reversed planks and doing push-ups builds more effective connections to the middle body (2).
A Yoga flow consists of these so-called compound movements. The sequences are designed to balance every movement with one that’s equal and opposite. So remember that muscle balance – a crucial element when it comes to injury prevention – is not only referring to muscle mass but the interplay of different muscle groups (3). Yoga offers a smart and effective way that builds up strength in a manner that serves you to maintain and re-establish balance.
Once you can squat with 180 kilograms, your arms and shoulders will come along much more receptively…If you want big arms and shoulders, your first priority is to be sure that your leg/hip/back structure is growing and becoming powerful.Stuart McRobert, Weightlifting master coach and technical expert.
Yoga has you moving and exerting through natural movement patterns. Building strength in functional ways, rather than isolated movements that exist only in the gym. A study showed that a gram of an untrained person’s muscle is more effective than a gram of a bodybuilder’s muscle. The scientists assumed “that excessive muscle growth may have detrimental effects on the quality of the muscle” (4) Of course, the amount of muscle mass of a bodybuilder covers the possible quality loss, he is still really strong and you shouldn´t mess with somebody who doesn´t fit through the door. But, the same study showed that power-athletes such as sprinters have an improved level of muscle quality.
A Yoga workout asks a lot of your muscles, they need to be strong while you twist, balance, stretch or flex. These varieties of movements under which your muscles are holding up your body’s weight are the keys to achieving functionality and a higher quality.
Adding more and more weight to the bar at the gym will inevitably take its toll on your joints and tissues. Weightlifting is still great if you want to maximize your muscle’s diameter, whereas yoga builds muscle in a low impact environment and therefore is perfect for improving the muscles functioning and quality in a sustainable manner. Plus, Yoga builds up stability in your core and your weaker sides. The whole package does not only make you stronger and prevent injuries but it also leads to progress in performance. (5,6)
How does Yoga build muscles?
Improved balance in your body & altered functionality in terms of quality, interplay, and flexibility of muscles can all be achieved through Yoga. However, the biological process of how muscles are growing is the same as in weight training, running, or other sports:
When you exercise, nerve cells report high tension, which induces a molecular cascade that can result in muscle growth. You can notice that there is also tension while stretching. Former professional soccer player and fitness coach Beardsley explains that adaptions to strength training “are often greater after combining both active and passive loading… Practically speaking, this suggests that muscular contractions and stretching provide independent, and additive stimuli that lead to muscle growth.”(7)
In simple words, the main key to altered muscle growth is tension. The feeling of resisting gravity, the feeling of working out. When doing Yoga the integrated stretches are not only keeping your muscles elastic but can also stimulate muscle growth.
As muscle growth is primarily a matter of reported tension, check out the following 3 training principles that exactly work this aspect. Eccentric movements, Progressive overloading, and Fatigue have shown the greatest effect when it comes to muscle growth and increased strength. These principles are easily integrated into every Yoga workout.
1) Eccentric movements
In the concentric phase, the muscle shortens and in the eccentric, it lengthens. Imagine a regular sit up: on the way up, your abdominal muscles contract, the muscle fibers slide closer to each other and the whole muscle shortens. This concentric action appears harder than the movement back to the ground, except for if you go down in a slow and controlled manner, without rounding your upper body. If you are lengthening the way, by using, for instance, a sit-up bench, the distinct motor skills are even more obvious.
In a systematic review in 2009, 20 studies compared and contrasted the differences between concentric and eccentric training. It was shown that these lengthening actions are more connected to muscle growth than the contracting actions. Biomechanical factors, as well as neuronal and molecular pathways, explain why eccentric training appears to be more effective. (8) Eccentric movements might be harder to perform correctly and are more complex, but maybe, in particular, these factors lead to greater physiological changes. (9)
Train with Yoga:
Take your time, especially during those moves where you stretch your muscles simultaneously. Lowering down from plank to the ground can be easy if you just drop yourself and land like a seal. Make it hard and slow down the movement. Engage your core, your legs and enjoy this time lowering your body toward the floor. Because during the pushup to the floor, your chest, shoulders, and triceps are eccentrically contracting to prevent your body from slamming down. Good for you, that in Yoga the most frequent transition-flow (called Vinyasa) includes a push-up and you get plenty of opportunities to work out your chest muscles eccentrically.
2) Progressive overload
When starting a training your body learns quickly. Suddenly a beginner to fitness can lift 30% more than before, without any noticeable change regarding his muscle mass… But at one point he won’t progress as fast as in the beginning. Why is that? The difference between the force that is voluntarily produced and the muscle force that someone could theoretically use is called strength deficit. The strength deficit can explain, that in the beginning, the fitness beginner became stronger because he was able to activate his muscles more effectively. If he wants further muscular adaption he has to challenge himself and increase the difficulty. Increasing the number of reps, the weight, lengthening the time under the tension and shortening the breaks is how you can defeat stagnation. (10)
Train with Yoga:
With the Skill Yoga Training Program, you increase the difficulty and intensity over time. Due to the consecutive structure of the classes, both are altered. For instance, if you learn boat pose ( a challenging posture where only your sitting bones are in contact with the ground and you hold up your legs and upper body), in a beginner class you might hold it for only 30 seconds.
Additionally, you get the option to choose among easier variations, like bending your legs. In the following training, the holds are elongated, and if it already feels easier than in the beginning, you might be up for choosing the harder variation, like the one with extended arms and legs. As the weight departs then from your acting muscles, it requires even more force to hold the tension. This progression of poses, as well as the extension of holding time, can ensure that your Yoga Training is always a good strength challenge.
Another key to working on strength is training when you feel the first signs of muscular fatigue. You might be slower, by then, but here’s the point: Holding up the tension especially then, leads to more time for the nerve cells to detect tension and more stimuli that lead to muscle growth. Furthermore, as the muscle fibers that are mainly acting become tired, you recruit those fibers that possess higher thresholds. How metabolic stress interferes is still unclear. The reduction of velocity that occurs during the process of fatigue is linked to the number of metabolites (substances that are formed during the metabolic processes) that accumulate in your tissue. So here are the facts: even if it is still uncertain whether metabolites themselves stimulate muscle growth, it is proven that training in the phase where you begin to suffer, is highly effective (12).
Train with Yoga:
In the strength training, we increase the accumulated fatigue in the muscles by increased volume. Volume = sets x reps x load (in Yoga you increase the load through Pose Progression). That’s why we will always have you perform 2 rounds of the whole strength flow and have movements targeting the same muscle groups. Choose to keep up the motivation and give your best. Go ahead. Sweating and groan. But please no swearing on your mat. That would mess with your Karma. – just joking.
If you are doing one hour of relaxing Yoga, well, there might not be too much strength increase and muscle growth happening afterward. But if you go all-in for just half an hour of a full-body workout that requires some maximum strength actions and makes you move fast and explosive, that’s when more muscle fibers are working at the same time and when the muscle getting tired sooner (13).
Summing it up:
Strength relies on muscle mass and neuronal control. Yoga works both at the same time. It´s a complex strength training that includes compound movements. These compound movements demand greater muscle recruitment than isolated movements do and are more closely approximate to the demands in each sport.
Build up your weaknesses until they become your strong points.Football coach Knute Rockne
There is no such thing as ” I am the best Yogi” because everybody fights their own weaknesses and imbalances on the mat. A runner might have strong legs, but tight calves and hamstrings and a proportionately weaker upper body. While he feels an intense stretch in Down Dog, a tennis player might notice that he is using one arm more than the other.
If you want to optimize your Yoga training for maximizing muscle growth, apply the principles of eccentric training, progressive resistance training and fatigue. Go slowly into elongating moves, increase the training difficulty step by step. Choose trainings like the Skill Yoga Strength Program that forces the fast recruitment of many muscle fibers and which tires your muscles quickly.
Athletes swear on Yoga because of its beneficial effect on injury prevention, well-being, flexibility, and strength. Studies point out these effects on paper, but more convincing than that is personal experience. Form part of the Skill Yoga movement and experience the positive effects of Yoga on physical strength yourself.
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