Maybe you think about yoga as a complement to your strength training but did you know you can build serious muscle strength with yoga? Yoga isn’t just stretching and mindfulness, it’s very much also about strength and developing your skills. Here’s how to approach yoga to make your muscles stronger.
Yoga and muscle strength
Imagine practicing yoga for a second – what do you see? Perhaps some sitting and breathing, some stretching, some poses being held and transitions between poses. It’s exactly the last two items on the list that are the strength builders.
Just like in many other sports, there are some challenging holds and some strength-requiring movements in yoga. Over time, as you build strength, you’ll be able to hold some poses for longer and perform movements that seemed impossible at first. Of course, yoga will not make your muscles grow like lifting weights in the gym does but it will increase their strength and definition.
The yoga advantage is that all its movements engage multiple muscles or muscle groups and are so-called compound movements. That means they never train isolated muscle groups but build strength in entire body areas. Yoga builds strength in natural movement patterns.
Another advantage is that yoga always alternates movements – backward and forward, sideways or twists – so you train muscles on opposite sides of the body and don’t overtrain one area over another. At the same time, it increases your core strength as you need it for balance and stability during your practice. All that leads to a very balanced muscle development, which helps to prevent injuries.
Difference between bulking and functional strength
Imagine an athlete lifting themselves into a headstand, slowly and with control, no hopping or kicking off. A lot of strength is needed for that but they don’t necessarily look overly muscly. That’s functional strength – the ability to carry and move your bodyweight in all possible movement patterns.
Of course, developing functional strength will increase your muscle definition but it won’t necessarily make you bulky. On the other hand, lifting weights will make your muscles visibly bigger. However, when you train for muscle growth only, your muscles will be bigger yet they are not necessarily stronger compared to someone ‘smaller’.
Many athletes actually use both types of training to make the most of their body’s potential. Some weight or resistance training and some functional strength training. Yoga provides the latter and once you start developing your practice, you may be surprised just how much strength you can build with yoga.
Yoga develops both strength and mobility
To be able to perform difficult movements in any type of training, you need both strength and mobility. If you don’t have a good range of motion in any joint, it limits how you move and can have a knock-on effect on your movement patterns, posture and lead to injuries. Being flexible also allows you to find the most efficient path of motion.
Yoga develops both strength and mobility because it alternates muscle groups engaging and stretching during the whole practice. As such, it is a unique type of training, making you able to actively move your body parts through a wide range of motion. Essentially, it removes limitations, making you strong and bendy at the same time!
Three ways to increase your strength with yoga
There are three key ways you can work on your strength with yoga. It’s best to combine all three in every yoga practice.
As your common sense probably tells you, the longer you hold a pose, the more challenging it becomes. Your muscles have to work hard to maintain your balance and correct alignment. In long holds, it’s important to breathe deeply and you can time the hold by counting your breaths.
Some poses build more strength than others, so think planks, leg balances, warrior poses, arm balances and poses where you engage your back muscles to lift your body. Start by holding each pose as long as you can breathe comfortably, count your breaths, then release. Next time, add just one more breath to your count, and gradually increase this count.
In one-sided poses, it’s important to do an equal number of breaths on both sides, even if one feels easier than the other. Set yourself a goal of where you want to get and work towards it. For example if you start with 15 breaths in plank, aim for 30 in a month but not 100 – it has to be realistic!
Yoga practice includes many transitions and sequences that are challenging and you can build amazing functional strength by repeating them. Even the simple Sun Salutation sequence is a great strength-builder.
Maybe you’ll have to start with an easier version of some sequences because you’re not strong enough yet, and only then graduate to the full version. That’s ok, it’s about developing your strength, mobility and skills at the same time.
We, at SkillYoga are very much aware of tough beginnings, so we offer a series of strength-building yoga programmes. The first one is Strength Foundations.
These are super useful but you have to tame your ego first. You want to do a cool yoga pose but it’s hard and you just can’t get there – so what do you do? First option is to just keep trying to somehow get there, no matter what technique you use, as long as the result looks awesome. Second option involves prep poses.
As you would have guessed, the second option is much better. For example, when you want to be able to do an arm balance with both legs lifted off the ground, the prep poses would include lifting just one leg at a time, or poses that help you increase the strength and mobility you need for the full lift.
If you want to be able to lift into the headstand with control, you need to work on your back and core strength, as well as on the shoulder and hamstring flexibility. As you get stronger, you’ll get closer and closer to your goal until you won’t need the prep poses anymore!
Six do’s and don’ts of yoga strength training
- Do increase the holds safely – when you catch yourself struggling to breathe properly, you’re pushing too hard – stop. If you start shaking and can’t maintain your balance anymore – stop. Increase the holds in small steps for the most sustainable progress. There aren’t any prizes for the fastest to reach the goal!
- Do repetitions with correct alignment – when you do a challenging sequence several times, it’s easy to let your technique get sloppy because you just want to finish the reps, right? If you let your alignment slip, you won’t get the training benefits and it’ll take much longer to develop your strength.
- Do commit to a schedule – just like with other types of training, to see results and keep the motivation to progress, you should practice three times a week. Set a schedule you can stick to and commit!
- Do not hold your breath – when we focus, we often tend to hold the breath but it’s the last thing you should do in yoga. You need to keep your muscles and brain oxygenated for peak performance!
- Do not try to go too far – sometimes, we just can’t do the thing we really want to do that day. For example, you cannot hold the crow pose balance. It’s best to settle back, breathe, focus and try again. If your balance is off that day, accept it and move on – or use a prop to help you balance. If you insist on doing the full pose no matter what the circumstances, you may land flat on your face.
- Do not give up! – on some days, you may feel like you’re not progressing. We’ve all been there. And yet, next time you practice, you may suddenly be able to do the thing you were aiming for for the past few months! Self-doubt is not an objective measure of progress – have patience and you’ll see results you can be proud of.
Start your yoga strength training
If you’d like to start with yoga strength training but are not sure where to begin, we’re here to help! Try the Strength Foundations program, consisting of five workouts, each just over 30 minutes long. Once you’ve finished the cycle, it’s best to do it again to continue your strength development, before you move on to other, even more challenging strength programmes.