So, What Are the Muscles Used in Downward Dog Pose?

Work various muscle groups through Downward-Facing Dog and discover its additional health benefits. Learn to use other poses to help with proper transition.

A female yoga instructor demonstrating Downward-Facing Dog to her online yoga class, utilizing her various muscle groups while holding the proper pose..

Downward-Facing Dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana is a widely practiced yoga pose. Yogis practicing Ashtanga and Vinyasa Yoga often use it to transition to another pose or to rest. 

This article will explain everything you need to know about this common yoga asana, the muscles used in Downward-Facing Dog, and everything in between.

What Muscles Does Downward Dog Work?

A female yogi in a light-colored yoga pants and navy blue sports top, doing Downward-Facing Dog on printed yoga mat.

Occasionally, I see bodybuilders and athletes come to my yoga studio struggling with some yoga asanas. One of them even asked me one time what muscles are used in a Downward Dog pose. He was perplexed why he’s struggling with it since his one-rep max on overhead press (OHP) is 165 lbs.

He thinks Downward-Facing Dog is similar to an OHP.

That’s true. Downward-Facing Dog works the same muscles used in overhead press. These muscles are the pectoral muscles, deltoids, triceps, trapezius, and erector spinae. But other than these muscles, Down Dog also uses the muscles at the back of your legs, namely the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, gastrocnemius (calves), and flexor muscles of the feet. 

Downward Dog stretches the muscles at the back of the legs and the superficial muscles of the back. To further explain this, here’s the anatomy of a Downward-Facing Dog.

Anatomy of a Downward-Facing Dog

The Shoulders

The shoulders play a significant role in Downward-Facing Dog. It is what pushes the whole torso up so that we can create that inverted V shape. The shoulders need to rotate externally in the Down Dog. 

So, when you lift the arms overhead, there’s more space between the shoulder blades and the neck and jaw. Doing this will also help in avoiding impingement in the rotator cuffs. By externally rotating the shoulders, you are using the superficial back muscles as well as your triceps.

The Spine

Just like in all yoga asanas, there is an emphasis on the spine in Downward Dog. In Downward-Facing Dog, the spine lengthens and opens the thoracic spine. Engaging the erector spinae will help lengthen the spine without overly flexing the thoracic spine and excessively extending the lumbar spine.

The Core Muscles

The core muscles need to engage in a Down Dog. That’s why you are instructed to tuck your belly button in and up. In addition, this instruction engages the lower abs, oblique muscles, and intercostal muscles.

The Glutes, Hamstrings, and Calves

Practicing Downward-Facing Dog requires stretching the hamstrings and the calves. Stretching these muscles requires contracting the quadriceps. In addition, the front of the calves, or the tibialis anterior, also needs to contract so you can bring the heels down.

Benefits of Downward-Facing Dog

Two female yogis practicing Downward Dog together on their yoga mats outdoors, feeling the benefits of the pose on their muscles.

Downward Dog is commonly practiced in yoga and even other disciplines because of its benefits, and these are all discussed below.

Strengthens All the Upper Body Muscles

Downward-Facing Dog is an outstanding yoga asana to strengthen all the upper body muscles. If you spend hours on your phone or in front of your computer, chances are, your upper body is tight. This tightness can cause weakness. 

When you do Downward-Facing Dog, you open the chest and stretch the upper body, which can strengthen the shoulder and the whole upper body.

Makes Your Hamstrings More Flexible

Practicing Down Dog stretches the hamstrings and calves, which makes them more flexible. Flexible hamstrings help in avoiding low back, hip, and knee pains. 

Improves Your Posture

Downward-Facing Dog works almost all the superficial muscles in the body, especially the back muscles. By doing this pose regularly, you are making your back muscles more robust and more flexible. A strong back helps in avoiding hunching and ultimately improving your posture.

Boosts Circulation of the Blood

An inversion is a pose where the heart is above the head. One example of an inversion is Down Dog. Inversions boost the circulation of the blood to the brain, bringing in more oxygen and nutrients. It helps in improving cognitive function such as memorizing and concentrating.

Improves Bone Density

Bearing weight on your bones gives the bones stress and makes them stronger. Adho Mukha Svanasana gives your wrists, elbows, shoulders, spine, hips, knees, and ankles stress that will make them stronger.

How to Do Downward-Facing Dog

A female yoga instructor guiding her students to properly achieve Downward-Facing Dog during their yoga class indoors.

To get the benefits of a Downward-Facing Dog, of course, you have to practice it. So, here’s how you should do it:

  1. Start with your hands and knees on the mat. Your shoulders should be directly above your hands and hips directly above your knees. Spread your fingers wide. Grip the mat or floor as if you are pushing it away. Doing this will help in contracting the back muscles and externally rotating your shoulders. 
  2. Start contracting the core and glutes. Lift your knees off the mat and bring the pelvis up. Doing this will push the chest toward your thighs. 
  3. Contract the quadriceps (thighs), and extend the knees. Engage your calves to bring the heels down. If the heels don’t come down, keep the heels up. 
  4. Stay in this pose for three to five cycles of breaths. 

Tips and Caution When Doing Downward-Facing Dog

Downward-Facing Dog is an effective full-body stretch and strengthening pose. But when done incorrectly, it can cause wrist pain, shoulder pain, and hip pain. Here are some things that you should be cautious about when practicing the pose.

Wrist Pain

If you have wrist pain when doing Down Dog, you are most likely pushing through your wrist instead of all corners of your hands. To stop or avoid this, spread your fingers wide and evenly distribute the weight on all corners of your hands. Then, grip the mat as if you are trying to bring the hands closer to each other. 

Shoulder Impingement and Pain

Shoulder impingement and pain in Downward-Facing Dog is commonly caused by not being aware of your shoulder and arm alignment. Before lifting the knees, plug your shoulders to the arms first by bringing your shoulders up, back, and down. Then, hug your triceps in toward each other.

Rounded or Arched Back 

A rounded or arched back in Downward-Facing Dog can be caused by a few things. It could be tight hip flexors, hamstrings, shoulders, or not activating the abdominal muscles, and spinal conditions like kyphosis or scoliosis.

For yogis who round their back in Downward-Facing Dog, bend your knees and lift your heels. Your hamstrings and hip flexors are most likely still not flexible or warm enough for the pose. 

For yogis who arch their back, activate your core and your back muscles so your chest and shoulders do not sink in. Then, continue strengthening your core and upper body. 

Heels Lifted

A guy doing Downward-Facing Dog with heels lifted on a bright blue yoga mat indoors.

When your heels lift in Down Dog, the common reasons are tight hamstrings and calves. There is nothing wrong with lifting your heels in this pose. But if you want to bring the heels down, bend one knee and then extend it. 

Then, do this on the other knee. Doing this will help in stretching the hamstrings and calves. 

Another thing you can do is to contract the quadriceps and feel as if you are squeezing a ball or a block in between your thighs. 

How Many Calories Does Downward Dog Burn?

Holding Downward-Facing Dog for a few rounds of breath will not likely burn many calories. Generally, high-intensity exercises can burn 100 calories in 10 minutes. However, when flowing through it with other asanas, you will most likely burn the same amount of calories as HIIT exercises. 

3 Preparatory Poses for Downward-Facing Dog

A female yogi wearing gray yoga pants and a blue tank top, doing Downward-Facing Dog on a bare wooden floor right by the window with sheer white curtains.

Downward-Facing Dog requires strength and flexibility. Therefore, many people may need to prepare the body before doing the pose. Here are some preparatory poses you can practice so you can nail a Downward-Facing Dog.

Wall-Assisted Down Dog

This pose is similar to a Downward-Facing Dog but with the help of a wall. It will help you open your upper body, hamstrings, and calves. Here’s how to do this:

  1. Stand in front of a wall. Place your hands at a shoulder-width distance on the wall with your wrists parallel to your hips. 
  2. Walk your feet back until you have a 90-degree angle in your wrists, shoulders, hips, and ankles.
  3. Push the wall away and keep your elbows fully extended. 
  4. Contract your quadriceps so you can fully extend your knees.
  5. Stay in this pose for five to ten cycles of breath.

Cat-Cow

Cat-Cow will prepare your whole spine for Downward-Facing Dog. It will also warm up your wrist. Here’s how to do this:

  1. Come to your hands and knees. Make sure your wrists are under your shoulders and your knees are under your hips.
  2. Inhale and arch your back and open the chest. Gaze up if accessible to you.
  3. Exhale and bring the chin to your chest, round your upper back, and tuck your tailbone.
  4. Do this for five or more rounds.

Plank

Plank is an excellent way to prep for Downward-Facing Dog. It warms up the core, the arms, and your glutes. Here’s how to do this:

  1. Start on your hands and knees. Make sure to spread the fingers wide.
  2. Walk your feet to the back until your hips and shoulders are in one straight line.
  3. Contract your abdominal muscles to keep the spine in a neutral position.
  4. Push the floor away with your hands. 
  5. Stay in this pose for three or five rounds of breath.

Downward-Facing Dog uses almost all muscles in the body for strengthening and stretching. That’s why it is an excellent pose to improve your strength and flexibility. However, be mindful of your alignment and modify it if you have limited flexibility and strength to avoid injuries.

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