Yoga For Strength: What Styles Build Muscle, Can Yoga Replace Weight Training And More

Photo by Eduardo Madrid on Unsplash

When people think of yoga, they often imagine slow flows that focus on relaxation and flexibility. Some assume it won’t be challenging enough. I’ve heard plenty of gym-goers and weight-lifters claim it’s “too boring”, despite never having attended a class.

While some styles are low-intensity, others torch your core and aid functional strength gains. Sweatier practices overflow with planks, push-ups and tricky inversions like headstand. By focusing on dynamic bodyweight exercises rather than one-dimensional movements (e.g. bicep curls), you simultaneously work large and small muscle groups.

If you’re still not convinced, this blog answers all your questions, including:

  • What styles of yoga build strength?

What styles of yoga build strength?

There are many types of yoga, so you shouldn’t judge the entire practice after one experience. It’s helpful to think of yoga as an umbrella term like athletics — there are hundreds of disciplines, each wildly different.

Gentler styles like Hatha, Yin and Restorative prioritise introspection, restoration and passive stretches for flexibility. In contrast, Ashtanga, Dynamic Yoga and Vinyasa Flow incorporate bodyweight exercises, repetitions and long-holds for muscle-building.

If you’re looking to improve strength, consider:

  • Ashtanga

Can yoga replace weight training?

Standing on your hands isn’t easy — neither is crossing both legs behind your head and pressing off the floor. Whenever people see me in these postures (provided I don’t faceplant first), they always ask about my training programme and whether I lift weights.

Surprisingly for many, yoga is all I do. I credit practices like Ashtanga and Dynamic Yoga for my strength gains over the years.

Styles that include bodyweight exercises, balances and core work develop power and stability. Complete with varied movements, including backbends, twists and forward folds, they provide full-body conditioning instead of isolating and flexing one muscle or muscle group at a time.

Consequently, yoga is perhaps a more functional approach to weight lifting. The range of exercises supports everyday tasks like tying your laces and lifting car seats while minimising the risk of injury.

Of course, yoga isn’t about aesthetics. Nevertheless, regular practice can lead to toned, elongated muscles because movements focus on eccentric contraction (muscles stretch as they contract).

Weight lifting uses concentric contraction (muscles get smaller as they contract), meaning muscle fibres heal closer together to provide a more bulging and compact shape.

Ultimately, your training programme should be enjoyable. While you can replace traditional weight training with yoga and reap plenty of benefits, many enjoy a combination.

Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

How often should I practise yoga?

Like anything, consistency is crucial if you want to reap the strength benefits of yoga. That doesn’t mean you have to practise two hours a day, six days a week — start by introducing one or two classes to your schedule, and stick with it.

Unlike running or other cardio workouts, yoga is low-impact, meaning there’s less chance of stressing joints with everyday practice (ideal for those with hypermobility). Some prefer to fuse sweatier styles with Yin or Restorative for a more holistic approach.

How does yoga improve physical and emotional strength?

Not only does yoga promote physical strength, but it also bolsters emotional resilience. We’ve touched on some of the hows above — now let’s break it down in a bit more detail.

Yoga improves physical and emotional strength through:

  1. Bodyweight exercises

1. Bodyweight exercises

Bodyweight exercises are a type of strength training where you use your body weight to provide resistance against gravity. They include bucket loads of compound movements that engage multiple muscles and build the foundational strength necessary for everyday activities.

In yoga, they include planks, push-ups, squats, lunges and more. Flow styles build sequences of repetition, so you’re constantly moving between postures and challenging different areas.

Best of all, bodyweight exercises build strength and flexibility simultaneously. For example, plank strengthens the abdominal and oblique muscles while lengthening the arches of your feet and hamstrings.

2. Dynamic and functional movement

Traditional weight lifting isn’t functional (sorry, I’ve said it). It may produce a distinct jacked-up look, but it rarely helps with ordinary tasks. Even though you’re gaining strength on a one-dimensional plane, you’re hardly tapping into your body’s full potential or preparing it to age well.

Yoga is dynamic and functional, restoring the body’s natural range of motion. It strengthens muscles in practical ways, using neglected movements like folds, backbends and side stretches.

If you want to keep your body healthy into your 60s, 70s and beyond, you need to introduce dynamic exercises as early as possible. They prevent injuries that shouldn’t really be injuries, like damaging your back while bending over or twisting.

What’s more, functional movement prevents cartilage and joint breakdown. Postures take joints through their full range of motion, squeezing, soaking and renewing areas of cartilage we don’t often use, including the cartilage of the discs in the neck and back.

3. Stabilising postures

In yoga, we often hold postures for anywhere between a few deep breaths to several minutes. We strengthen all those tiny stabilising muscles that support joints, ligaments, and tendons through these longer holds.

Rooting through the legs in standing postures, especially in balances, strengthens muscles around the knee and hip. The ubiquitous downward dog engages rotator cuff muscles to prevent common shoulder injuries that plague all athletes and exercise enthusiasts. By using the hands and feet, we stabilise ankles and wrists, minimising pain while typing, standing and walking.

Photo by Alexandra Tran on Unsplash

4. Improves sleep quality

Nowadays, we live increasingly hectic lives, juggling careers, partners, children, finances and more. As a result, we’re struggling to fall asleep and sleep through the night — waking up groggy and unready to face the day’s challenges.

Thankfully, research shows yoga to be an effective remedy for poor sleep. One study found over 55% of people slept better after practising yoga, and over 85% reported reduced stress levels.

Sleep quality improves because yoga is a meditative practice that combines focused breathing with physical exercise. Breath awareness and regulation (pranayama) is a handy mindfulness tool that induces an amplified state of relaxation.

5. Reduces anxiety for enhanced well-being

Most people experience anxiety throughout their lifetime. It’s a natural response to stressful situations, designed to help us act appropriately when we’re in danger. However, modern life has flooded our systems with new information, and we struggle to tell the difference between perceived and actual threats.

Yoga as a complete practice, including pranayama and meditation, elicits relaxation and releases tension from the body and mind. Studying philosophy encourages us to delve into our thoughts, feelings, and actions to better understand and move past our triggers. In its totality, it provides clarity, helping us to formulate balanced reactions to situations.

Additionally, yoga teaches us that the mind and body are intricately connected. We know anxiety leads to muscle stiffness, but muscle stiffness also contributes to anxiety. By physically moving through and releasing tension in the body, we calm the entire nervous system.

Originally published at https://ashleighmayesyoga.com on April 22, 2021.

My name’s Ashleigh — yoga teacher and mental health advocate.

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