Stronger than it looks
Though many people think of yoga as mostly a way to stretch out and relax, in actuality, it can provide a fantastic full-body workout that can even make you stronger.
Kimberly Washington, a yoga instructor based in Greater Boston, Massachusetts, says that she also once had the misconception that yoga was all about stretching and relaxing. “I was very much that person who wanted to be in the gym. I equated lifting weights with getting stronger.”
A veteran obstacle course racer who defined herself by being fit, strong and powerful, Washington didn’t really think much about yoga. But she changed her perspective when she was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis. “I had to figure out a different way to exercise and still feel strong, so I started doing yoga.”
She says once she learned to slow down and hold poses while focusing on engaging the muscles involved in the pose, she began seeing big changes. She realized, “I’m getting stronger in these postures.”
Why yoga is great for strength training
“Yoga is really great for improving strength and physical function because it increases muscle and bone mass,” Washington says.
It can help you achieve these goals like any exercise does by challenging the muscles and bones to stimulate strength improvements and growth over time. These gains can be made with virtually no special equipment. “Yoga is really effective as a bodyweight exercise. You’re using your own body to offer resistance as you’re in these yoga poses.”
To get the most strength-building out of the postures that follow, you need to engage with “time under active tension (or muscle contractions). That’s what’s creating a positive stress in your body. Your body responds to that stress by increasing the strength and mass of your muscles and bones while also — stretching the muscle and changing the shape of the fascia around it.”
Over time, these benefits build and you’ll increase strength and power while also changing the way your body looks and feels. The following seven yoga movements can help you build strength.
1. Start with squatting.
Sadie Chanlett-Avery, a wellness consultant and founder of Sassafras Revival, a yoga instruction and corporate wellness practice based in Asheville, North Carolina, says that the first order of business when launching a new, strength-building yoga routine is addressing underlying problems.
“If you’re in pain, you’ll have a really hard time strengthening,” Chanlett-Avery says. “So, we unravel aches and pains in the neck, shoulders, wrists and back and remove layers of conditioning that maybe have helped us sit effectively at a desk for long periods of time, but are not actually conducive to strength training.”
While she says that “yoga is great for making us more flexible, we can also use it to create a really strong platform to build strength upon.” This is why she likes to start with something as simple as squatting to rebuild a movement everyone should be able to do, but a lot of folks can’t.
While squatting isn’t necessarily thought of as a yoga pose, “getting the squat pattern down is a fundamental human movement pattern that most Westerners do not have in their everyday movement diet. So, setting that up and getting people’s hips, knees and backs happy to squat is a whole project in and of itself,” she says.
Once a sound squat movement pattern is established, you can add weight or increase frequency to build more strength without pain.
Chanlett-Avery says that a simple movement like crawling can be deceptively effective for improving upper body strength.
“One of my favorite moves is squatting down, spreading your hands on the mat and walking out into a plank and then walking back into a squat.”
This type of movement can be especially helpful for those who spend hours at a keyboard or hunched over a small screen by activating opposing muscles, which can counter-balance the movements you typically engage in and stretch the body in new ways. Plus, “bearing weight through your hands and shifting your weight around is incredible for arm stability, shoulders, core strength and mobility.”
3. High-to-low plank
In this pose, also called chaturanga dandasana or four-limbed staff pose, you’ll start with your hands on the mat like you’re going to do pushups — your body will be long and straight, and you’ll keep your toes anchored at the other end of the mat so that the balls of the feet touch the mat. Push up so your arms are straight and your hands are directly under your shoulders. Brace your tummy and hold your body in a sloping angle.
Then, exhale and lower your upper body toward the mat while keeping the elbows tucked into your sides. Come down as low as you can and hold the pose in the lower position until the next inhale. Then push back up to the starting position.
Washington likes this pose because “you’re up on the balls of your feet and you’re pushing into the ground with your hands and keeping your arms really close to your sides. You’re essentially extending energy out through the crown of your head and out through your heels, so your entire body is working to hold the posture.”
This pose works the entire posterior chain and recruits all the core muscles, to keep you from toppling over.
4. Dolphin pose
Ardha pincha mayurasana, also called dolphin pose, strengthens the arms and back and improves balance. Start on hands and knees and lower your forearms to the mat while keeping your palms flat on the ground and the forearms parallel to each other. Exhale, tuck your toes and push your hips up to the sky making your body into a V shape while your arms stay flat on the mat. Walk your feet as close to your elbows as possible and sink the crown of your head toward the mat.
This pose is very similar to the common downward dog pose, but doesn’t put stress on the hands or wrists. “It’s a fun way to incorporate an arm workout,” Washington says, “because if you press into the ground, you can bring length to the arms. You’re working your biceps and your triceps at the same time.”
She also recommends adding knee drives (bring the knee forward toward the arm) to target the core muscles to an even greater degree while holding the pose.
5. Boat pose
Start by sitting on your mat with your back up straight and your knees bent so your feet are flat on the floor. Raise your arms so they’re parallel to the floor. Tip your upper body back a few degrees and balance on your tailbone. Lengthen your back and extend your legs upward so that your body makes a deep V shape. Hold that position.
“You’re really trying to fight for balance every second that you’re holding that pose,” Washington says. This movement is great for incorporating isometric engagement to build core strength and proprioceptive awareness — an understanding of how your body is moving through space — she explains. “Your body’s not moving a lot but all your muscles are firing because you’re trying to close the distance between the tops of the thighs and your chest.”
6. Warrior III
Also called airplane pose or virabhadrasana III, this pose builds leg, ankle and core strength. Start from warrior I pose, in which you’re standing up straight with arms extended skyward. One leg should be stepped forward with the knee slightly bent, and your back leg is long and straight with the heel pushed toward the floor.
Push the forward foot into the floor, draw your abs in and straighten the back leg, lifting it while shifting your weight to the front foot. Tilt your torso forward and reach your arms out ahead. Your back leg should come parallel to the floor and your arms, head, body and leg should all form a straight line.
“You want to keep your spine parallel to the mat,” Washington explains, and to be able to achieve that, “you’re really going to have to activate the muscles all along your posterior chain to keep that length in the posture.”
This yoga pose “builds massive quad strength because you’re balancing on one leg,” she says.
7. Side lunge
Side Lunge, also called skandasana or surfer lunge, opens the hips and stretches the hamstrings while also building core and leg strength.
Start by standing up straight with your feet wide apart on the mat and toes facing forward. Bend the left knee keeping the right leg straight while pushing your weight toward the back of your stance. Stay grounded in all four corners of both feet, and straighten your spine. You can complete reps going side to side to add more core work and strength-building for the lower body.
Chanlett-Avery says side lunges are “incredible for strengthening the knees. They’re really great for athletes who move in the sagittal plane all the time — runners, cyclists and people who walk a lot. Getting people to move side to side is really great for strengthening the outer hips, the ankles and the knees.”
Tips for making a stronger yoga practice
If you’re looking to incorporate more strength-building into your yoga practice while avoiding injury, Washington offers the following tips:
— Hold it rock steady. Aim to increase your time holding a posture — the longer you can hold, the more strength you’ll build. “A lot of times there’s a tendency to get in a posture and pop right out of the posture. But you really want to get in a posture and hold it because you want that time under tension to create that positive stress in the body.”
— Pulse it out. “You can add reps into almost any pose,” Washington says. “If you’re in a triangle pose, for example, you can contract your obliques and create a lift sensation there as some reps. Or if you’re in a crescent lunge, you can drop that back knee and bring it back up and add some reps. In downward dog, you can do some knee-to-chest reps.” Adding reps adds more strength-building opportunities to most poses.
— Take away a contact point. If you really want to build strength, eliminate a point of contact with the floor and force your body to work harder. “If you’re in plank, try taking away one leg and holding a single-leg plank. Or conversely, take away a hand and try a plank with a single arm.” These sorts of challenge-increasing modifications may seem impossible at first, but Washington says they become easier over time.
Yoga to supplement other strength-building activities
Lastly, Washington recommends adding some yoga to your other fitness routines to increase strength as well as other markers of fitness. “As you practice yoga, you’re also gaining flexibility and you’re getting balanced. Those things are very good for helping to prevent injury. It’s just an all-around great complementary practice or a stand-alone practice to build strength.”
And for just plain living better, Chanlett-Avery recommends using yoga as the “antidote for what we’re dealing with on a daily basis.” She says considering what movements, activities or other physical patterns are causing weakness or pain in the body and applying yoga movements to undo those patterns can help you achieve better overall wellness and strength.
7 yoga poses that build strength
3. High-to-low plank.
4. Dolphin pose.
5. Boat pose.
6. Warrior III.
7. Side lunge.
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Update 06/24/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.