Is Doing Yoga Enough to Maintain Your Strength?
Experts break down exactly how the mind–body practice can help you make progress in your training—and where it may fall short.
- Yoga can boost muscle strength and endurance. But if you rely solely on yoga for strength training, it's key to do it consistently.
- Hoping to pump more strengthening out of your practice? Doing more purposeful poses and holding them longer can build momentum.
- You can sneak more strengthening into any yoga session with simple tweaks, like pulsing your arms during warrior 2.
Read on to learn more …
Don't think about calling yoga a trend. Unlike that new workout studio that popped up in your local area a few months ago, yoga has been around for thousands of years. Clearly, there's a reason—or several. It's science-backed to manage anxiety and stress, it's often touted for its recovery benefits, and, let's be honest, it tends to make people feel really good.
But can you skip traditional forms of strength training if you do yoga? The short answer: yes. The longer answer: it depends how strong you're looking to get and whether you're game to rev up your momentum.
The Might of the Mat
Yoga can benefit both muscular strength (your ability to, say, do one really heavy back squat) and endurance (your ability to do a lot of squats in a row), according to John Porcari, PhD, the director of the clinical exercise physiology programme at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. In a small study led by Porcari and published in the American Council on Exercise's journal, women who did Hatha yoga three times a week were able to perform an average of six more push-ups and 14 more sit-ups after eight weeks compared to those who did no yoga. It may not sound like much, but considering they didn't do other resistance training, the improvement is legit.
A separate study found that yoga can be just as effective as using light free weights and resistance bands to improve strength. "Yoga poses and transitions mimic strength-building bodyweight exercises, and holding poses is a form of isometric training, where you strengthen the muscles in use by increasing their time under tension", explains study author Neha Gothe, PhD, the director of the Exercise Psychology Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Take plank position, for example, which is a strength-training go-to for developing your shoulder, chest and core muscles. "The common yoga transition from high plank to low plank [chaturanga] works your shoulders, chest and triceps", says Porcari. Then there are abs exercises like boat pose, and garland pose and goddess and warrior poses to engage your quads and glutes, he notes.
But yoga will take you only so far when it comes to serious strength gains. Primarily because even if you continually add difficultly (more on how to do that below), eventually you'll tap out in even the most advanced poses.
That said, studies show that yoga can improve balance, flexibility and mobility, all of which can further your fitness goals. So even if you're a weight room regular, you could benefit from a few downward-facing dogs.
How to Mix Yoga Into Your Routine
If you're using yoga as a supplement to your strength-training routine, the science points towards benefits from just two hours on your mat every week. But if yoga is your main strength source, you'll want more. "Doing yoga five days a week and pushing yourself in the poses is the way to maximise the benefits", says Porcari. Increasing the frequency of your practice means you'll probably get enough volume to actually challenge your muscles week to week and score progress.
You also want to apply the progressive-overload principle—or increasing the challenge on your muscles periodically as they adapt—just as you would when lifting weights. For that reason, the yoga programme in Gothe's study started with easy moves that got progressively tougher as the weeks went on. "We used similar principles that are used in traditional strength training: increasing sets and reps or time of the hold", says Gothe.
Regardless of whether you want to do only yoga or squeeze more muscle strengthening out of your practice to boost your performance in the gym, these tips can help.
1. Think about your working muscles.
"When you focus on a muscle group, you can actually make it fire more", says Porcari, and increasing muscle activation means building more strength. "If you're purposeful in your poses, it's almost like you're using internal biofeedback, or constantly monitoring how your body is feeling and how hard it's working. Then you can adjust your practice based on that". To power up a half moon, for example, think about your glutes igniting and feel them firing as you balance.
2. Sink into it.
You can be in chair pose, or you can really be in chair pose. "You'll see some people are only crouched down a little bit, which only engages the glutes and quads to a certain degree, while others have their legs bent at 90 degrees, which maxes out the benefits of the pose", says Porcari. The same goes for every other pose to make sure you don't lose momentum on the mat.
3. Hold it right there.
The longer you hold poses, the more they test your strength and endurance, per Porcari. Time under tension translates to greater muscle damage that then helps the muscles come back stronger. Just like in strength training, if it feels easy, it's probably not doing much for adapting your body.
4. Go with your own flow.
For more of a challenge and to keep racking up results, get creative. You can do two or three quick push-ups when the instructor calls for chaturanga. Or when your arms are extended in warrior 2, pulse them. Feel things out and create your own mini strength challenges within the flow. "Even just changing the angle of your shoulders or your hands can turn on different muscles", says Porcari.
Speaking of strength challenges, want one for your most important muscle, your brain? "Holding and repeating postures or flows that are hard for you teaches you how to push yourself", says Porcari. "That carries over to every other fitness pursuit". Namaste to that.
Words: Caitlin Carlson
Illustration: Xoana Herrera