“Virtually every injury a person has is due to an instability—to forces leaking out of the body because we can’t hold the body in its correct place.” Peter Attia, MD
Strength is one of the 5 core Yoga 15 skills. In yoga, we build strength endurance by holding isometric contractions, typically for 3-5 breaths, and repeating dynamic sequences—the equivalent of putting in the reps. One of the most popular styles of yoga for strength (that I am certified in) is Power Yoga. Building muscular strength and endurance improves joint stability and enhances athletic performance.
BENEFITS OF PRACTICING YOGA FOR STRENGTH
- Strengthens muscles, tendons and ligaments.
- Stabilises joints.
- Improves the efficiency of the cardiovascular system.
- Increases bone density.
- Boosts metabolism.
- Improves body control and movement efficiency.
- Corrects muscular imbalances.
- Improves posture.
- Alleviates persistent and recurring pain.
- Increases resilience to injury.
- Builds confidence.
- Morning—to kickstart the cardiovascular system.
- Pre-workout—to activate specific muscles.
- Beneficial for all athletes.
DO YOU NEED TO TRAIN YOGA FOR STRENGTH?
Physical strength is vital both for health and for performance. You need to be strong enough to perform your everyday activities without hurting yourself but as long as you’re fairly active, it’s not necessary to lift weights to reach this baseline. Strength gains are, however, likely to improve your athletic performance. Stronger legs will make you run and cycle faster, good upper body strength will allow you to swim and surf longer distances and a strong, supple core is crucial for athletes in all disciplines.
Much of this training can be done within your sport or at the gym, so where does yoga fit in?
ADVANTAGES OF TRAINING YOGA FOR STRENGTH
Yoga excels at strengthening the core and at balancing out the relative strengths and weaknesses established by your sport. But there are a number of other reasons to include Strength sequences into your program. It:
- Balances strength with flexibility and mobility to optimise functional rather than maximal strength.
- Integrates muscle groups to work together rather than focussing on muscles in isolation.
- Strengthens the core stabiliser muscles that support the spine.
- Emphasises the importance of the breath in building strength.
- Trains balance, which is an important component of functional strength.
- Trains strength dynamically, in all planes of movement.
- Enhances body awareness.
- Is not demanding on the joints.
- Can be done anywhere with minimal equipment.
- Is endlessly variable, which can lead to greater compliance.
- Practicing barefoot strengthens the muscles in the feet, ankles and lower legs.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF YOGA STRENGTH POSES
- Core strength poses strengthen the abs, obliques and lower back. They improve body control and balance and can help to alleviate lower back pain.
- Posterior chain poses strengthen the back of the body—the calves, hamstrings, glutes, lower and upper back. They are great for activating the glutes and alleviating lower back pain.
- Standing and Balancing poses strengthen the feet, ankles, legs, knees and hips. Many of them can help to alleviate knee and hip pain.
- Arm balances and poses in which you bear weight on your hands build strength in the hands, wrists and shoulders.
BEST TIME OF DAY TO WORK ON YOUR STRENGTH
The Strength videos in the Yoga 15 series can be practiced as warm-ups or as standalone sequences. Unlike, the Flexibility sequences that involve holding static stretches, these videos are safe to practice in the morning and work very effectively as pre-workout sessions.
WHEN NOT TO TRAIN STRENGTH
These sequences are challenging and stimulating, so it’s best not to practice them too close to bed time and of course, if you’re injured. Just because it’s yoga, it doesn’t mean that you are immune from hurting yourself if you overdo it.
YOGA FOR CORE STRENGTH
Yoga builds strength in a few key areas, one of which is the core. The primary core muscles are the rectus abdominis (six-pack), transversus abdominis (deep abdominals), obliques, pelvic floor, erector spinae and quadratus lumborum (lower back). Many one-dimensional core-strengthening programs isolate the six-pack, which can actually exacerbate muscular imbalances and aggravate lower back pain. Yoga takes a multi-dimensional approach, targeting the core from multiple different angles.
There are specific core-strengthening poses but the transitions between postures play an equally important role. For most athletes, it is muscular endurance and joint stability rather than pure strength that is the greatest contributor to peak performance. A strong and supple core improves posture, agility, balance, coordination, body control, endurance, breathing, the ability to generate power and protects your lower back from injury.
SHOULDERS, FEET AND HIPS
Other key areas that yoga strengthens are the feet, hips and shoulders. Practicing barefoot strengthens the feet and ankles, improves balance and proprioception and can increase sprinting and jumping power. Strong hips improve body control, set the foundation for powerful acceleration and protect the knees and ankles from injury. Strong shoulders are particularly important for athletes whose sport require them to throw, hit or paddle hard.
Yoga does, however, lack the pulling action that you find in chin-ups and rows. It’s therefore advisable to supplement these movements to ensure that you do not develop muscular imbalances over time.
MUSCULAR IMBALANCES AND PAIN RELIEF
Muscular imbalances, caused by continuous repetitious movement, can lead to pain and sometimes even injury. One part of the solution is to stretch the muscles that are tight and overactive. And another is to strengthen the muscles that are weak or inhibited. For example, if you experience pain in between the shoulder blades, typically the chest and the fronts of the shoulders are tight and the muscles that support the shoulder blades—the rhomboids and lower trapezius—are over-stretched and weak. In yoga, we have a number of poses that target these issues simultaneously, including Locust pose and Upward Facing Plank.
STRENGTH, FLEXIBILITY AND MOBILITY
“Mobility is the ability to demonstrate strength at the end of your range of motion.” Coach Sommer
One of the issues with conventional strength training is that as muscles get strong, they also get short and tight. So while it can be incredibly effective for building strong muscles and joints, weakness and imbalance can develop over time when it is not combined with adequate flexibility and mobility training. In yoga, we strengthen and stretch muscles simultaneously to build a strong and supple body. In Wheel, for example, we strengthen the wrists and shoulders at their full range of motion. The beauty of this style of strength training is that by combining strength with suppleness, you reduce your risk of injury, giving you greater longevity in your sport.
USING MUSCLE CONTRACTION TO INCREASE FLEXIBILITY
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is a form of flexibility training that involves first, contracting the muscle that you are targeting and then allowing it to relax as you drop deeper into the stretch. This sends a message to the central nervous system to inhibit the activation of the stretch reflex, allowing for greater flexibility in the muscle. We practice a version of PNF each time we establish our alignment in a pose like Warrior 2, and then relax into it for 2-3 breaths.
REFINE YOUR APPROACH
Building strength in yoga requires paying close attention to alignment, engagement, integration and breath. Alignment is crucial for keeping you safe and injury-free, and if your muscles are not engaged and you’re just going through the motions, you aren’t going to get any stronger. At the same time, you don’t want to be tensing up unnecessarily. You need to strike a balance between tension and relaxation and your breath will help with that. As you come into each pose:
- Follow my alignment cues to ensure correct form.
- Engage your core and the other muscles involved in the pose.
- Find connection and integration all the way from your feet up to your head, and out to your fingertips.
- Release unnecessary tension in the jaw, neck and shoulders.
- Tune in to your nasal breathing to calm your central nervous system and ensure that you are getting maximum oxygen into your muscles.
Align, engage, integrate, relax and breathe.
WHO SHOULD DO THE YOGA FOR STRENGTH SEQUENCES?
These sequences build strength and stability, establish a strong foundation for power and speed and improve balance and body control, so they’re great for all athletes. They’re especially important for endurance athletes who don’t enjoy traditional weight training as excessive aerobic training can significantly catabolise muscle.