What is the difference between muscle size and strength? Big muscles don’t automatically mean you can lift your body into some of the more challenging Yoga poses. At the same time, you can strengthen your body through Yoga, increasing your functional strength – something that’s not necessarily reflected in the muscle size.

How your muscle work

Your muscles are amazing. They don’t just move your body and give you strength, they also enable you to perform very complex movements, and protect you from hurting yourself. 

When we train for strength, there are big differences in how and why we do that. If the goal is to increase muscle size, it probably involves a lot of heavy weight-lifting and resistance training to stimulate the big muscles (biceps, pecs, quads, glutes, back muscles) to grow. If the goal is to achieve functional strength, the training is more about movements where you work with weight (your own or added) in a way that mimics real-life scenarios and engages a wide range of muscles. 

When you train for muscle growth only, your muscles may be bigger but they are not necessarily stronger compared to someone ‘smaller’. The widely accepted theory that the more you lift, the stronger you are, has been challenged by recent research. One study compared bodybuilders’ and power athletes’ muscle fiber power and found the power athletes’ muscles were significantly stronger. Power athletes in this study were football players, track and field athletes and strength-orientated weight-lifters.

READ MORE: How can Athletes use Yoga in 2021 to build strength, flexibility and mindfulness?

Another recent study is in agreement with the above. It found out that hypertrophy training doesn’t increase muscle protein and that growth in muscle volume happens mainly due to an increase in the volume of sarcoplasmic reticulum – a muscle fiber structure responsible for muscle contraction and relaxation. That is not to say you shouldn’t build muscle, it merely illustrates why big muscles are not automatically strong muscles!

And there’s another issue with training mainly for muscle size – it’s relatively easy to injure yourself if you’re repeatedly performing a certain movement with a heavy load, especially if your alignment is flawed. The underlying cause of poor alignment tends to be lack of mobility and flexibility. So you can look good and have amazing muscles but your movements may be severely limited or hurting other areas of your body.

And that’s where Yoga comes in so handy. It helps you to build strength but also increases your range of motion and trains all the little muscles that help stabilize your joints and bigger muscle groups. One of the key benefits of Yoga is that it strengthens your core and all the deep layer muscles – as a comprehensive study shows, this not only helps to prevent injuries, it also improves your athletic performance. There’s nothing wrong with bodybuilding but complementing it with yoga and other functional strength training ensures the best possible results.

Functional strength

Functional strength training is a type of exercise that develops strength in patterns that are used in everyday life. It involves complex movements and progressions that build muscles, engage full muscle groups, and make them effective at moving your body in all possible directions. Functional movements are based on our body’s biomechanics so performing them should feel good – even if it’s difficult.

Yoga, calisthenics, free-running or CrossFit are all types of functional strength training. Yoga goes a step further in increasing your range of motion by dynamic and static stretching. However, it’s excellent for building functional strength because it makes you learn or relearn movement patterns while supporting your body weight, exercises both sides of your body evenly, alternates flexion and extension (so muscles are always stretching or strengthening), and uses isometric and isotonic contractions, conditioning your muscles in many ways. The only thing it’s missing is a strong pull action and hanging but that can be easily remedied through your other training. You can also integrate more pull action into your Yoga practice – see below.

Functional strength means you’re not just strong but also flexible, and agile, which, in turn, can improve your other training – allowing you to dip lower, jump higher, swing further, step wider, and reach higher. At the same time, it decreases your risk of injury.

Yoga and functional strength

Every Yoga practice is a functional strength practice because you’re working with your bodyweight, supporting it through various transitions and static poses.

However, if you want to increase your strength so you can progress further in Yoga, you need perseverance and patience. As you know, some Yoga poses seem impossible at first but with time, as your range of motion and functional strength increases, you’re able to perform them. Sometimes, either the strength or flexibility is lacking so you need time to work on both. And that’s where Yoga offers something truly invaluable – countless modifications and preparatory poses that help to condition your body to eventually achieve the full pose. To find out more about building strength through yoga, check out our blog dedicated to this issue.

It may take weeks, months or even years for you to be able to perform some challenging poses and transitions and that’s perfectly normal. If you’ve been training your body a certain way for years, Yoga cannot perform instant miracles but with patience it can help you achieve what you thought impossible. See your Skills Foundations program to get started!

Here are some simple poses to improve your functional strength:

Plank to side-plank

From plank, transfer your weight on one hand, lift the other arm up, and stack your feet on top of each other so you’re holding your body in one perfect line, facing the long edge of the mat. If that’s easy, lift the top leg up (careful not to lower your hips). Stay there for a few breaths and then do the same on the other side. Always transition through classical plank, remaining there for several breaths. Repeat 3-6 times.

Sun salutations

In a Sun Salutation, especially the transition from plank to Chaturanga (lowering yourself down to the mat), upward facing dog and downward-facing dog helps to build strength in your upper body and core, whilst stretching your lower body, preparing it for further practice.

Warrior sequences

Try going from Warrior 1 to  Warrior 3 and hold, or Warrior 2 to Half-moon pose. These poses and transitions train and engage your whole body – some muscle groups are strengthening, some stabilizing, all of them are working!

All arm balances

Start with Crow pose and Side Crow, which are great for arm and core strength, and you can try some more challenging ones as you get comfortable being upside down!

Integrating pull action

As mentioned above, Yoga is an almost complete body workout but it lacks the element of pulling. You can bring more of this into your practice by dragging (without actually moving) your elbows or hands towards your toes in positions like forearm plank, side plank, cobra, or upward facing dog, by fully engaging your back muscles in chaturanga, or pulling on your feet in happy baby.

Hidden strength

Have you ever wondered how a tiny Yoga teacher effortlessly lifts herself up into a handstand and then lowers her legs down as if it was the easiest thing in the world? That’s what functional strength is all about – with a dash of mobility training. You can have big muscles and be able to do that as well but you have to train specifically to be able to achieve it. Muscle size doesn’t determine its ability to work with other muscles so you have to teach your body to do that. And you may be surprised by what you can achieve!