Strength Training for Yoga: Supporting Your Practice with Strength Training

Optimize your yoga skills by doing these strength training exercises that will help you nail those difficult yoga poses with great ease and precision.

A woman doing a strength training yoga pose on a blue mat in an indoor studio.

Pincha Mayurasana or the Forearm Stand has been my goal yoga pose since 2015. At some point, I gave up the idea of ever nailing it without the wall. I thought I wasn’t cut out for it. However, in 2020, I was finally able to do it without any props. What did I do differently? I started strength training for yoga using free weights.

A woman doing the Pincha Mayurasana yoga pose on a wooden floor from Wikimedia Commons.

What is Strength Training?

Strength training, also called resistance training or weight training, is a physical activity that involves working your muscles against weights. The weight could be your bodyweight or free weights such as dumbbells and barbells, kettlebells, weight machines, and resistance bands. Yoga is technically a form of strength training using your body weight. 

How Do You Build Strength?

The only thing that can build strength is stress in the muscles. When the muscles are stressed, the muscle fibers break apart. Then the body heals the muscles and fuses the fibers together. If you eat enough protein and take time for recovery, the muscles will grow in mass and in strength.

Is Yoga Enough to Build Muscles and Strength?

Yoga styles such as Bikram Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, and Vinyasa Yoga are great for building strength. As you consistently practice yoga, poses that seem to be difficult at first will become easy. You will be able to hold Chair Pose longer without huffing and puffing. This is a sign that your muscles are getting stronger and you’re developing endurance. However, yoga lacks some movements such as pulling strength and progressive overload. This is why yoga is not enough to build muscle and strength. 

If your goal is to grow your muscles, increase your strength, improve your endurance, and nail your arm balances such as Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Stand), you need to support your practice with other forms of a strength training exercise. 

What Are the Benefits of Strength Training?

A woman standing on the floor in a challenging yoga position.

Strength training poses so many benefits for supporting your yoga practice. Here are some of them:

Strength Training Increases Your Muscle Mass

Muscles are one of the things that you lose if you don’t use them. Without physical activity that stresses your muscles, they will shrink. Sarcopenia, a phenomenon that sadly happens to both men and women, is when muscles start to lose mass and function. This begins in your 30s. For physically inactive people, muscle mass loss is more severe, about 3-5% each decade after they hit 30. Physically active people are not safe from it, too. However, if you practice strength training, the risk of losing muscle is lower.

Strength training naturally increases your muscle mass by constantly giving muscles the stress it needs to grow. Men can gain up to two pounds of muscle mass per month, while women can gain up to a pound. If you strength train and gain muscle every month, your risk of getting affected by sarcopenia is low even when you reach your 30s. 

Strength Training Improves Bone Density

Your bone will reach its density peak by the time you reach your mid-20s. By the time you get to 30 years old, you will start losing bone density and become more prone to osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition in which you lose calcium and minerals in your bones. 

According to a study from the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 10.2 million adults have osteoporosis in the United States, while 43.2 million have low bone mass. Aside from supplementing with calcium and Vitamin D, exercising is one of the most effective ways to prevent losing bone minerals. But, not all exercises are equal.

A paper published by the University of Michigan in 2019 shows that exercises that provide impact loads with greater frequencies, rates, and strain magnitudes, as well as jumping, have a greater impact (find synonym) on BMD or bone mass density.

Strength Training Improves Joint Flexibility

It’s not just yoga that improves the flexibility of your joint. Contrary to popular belief, strength training does not turn you into the Tin Man. Correctly performing strength training exercises will increase your range of motion and improve your joint flexibility

Strength Training is Better for Weight Management

Strength training does not burn more calories than cardio as you do it. However, it increases your EPOC or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. This is the capacity of your body to burn calories after working out. Even after your lifting session at the gym, you continue to burn calories. Strength training is also better at managing your weight than yoga, cardio, and other forms of exercise because muscle mass burns calories quickly. The more calories you burn, the easier it is to manage your weight.

Strength Training Makes You Sensitive to Insulin

Insulin is a hormone that is responsible for allowing the body to use glucose or sugar from the food you eat as energy. It is made in the pancreas and helps in storing glucose in your muscles, fat, and liver. When the body is resistant to insulin, the latter will not use glucose as energy. Instead, it will have glucose in your body. This will result in an increase in your blood sugar, weight gain, and other metabolic conditions. 

Exercises such as strength training make your body more sensitive to insulin. It increases the body’s capacity to take glucose from your cells and use it for energy. 

Can You Do Yoga and Strength Training?

A woman doing a yoga pose at a park in the morning.

Of course. I highly suggest you support your yoga practice with strength training. As mentioned above, yoga is not enough as your only form of strength training. Combining the two is like a perfect marriage. You will achieve your full range of motion, build endurance and agility, and improve your muscle strength and growth.

6 Strength Training Tips for Beginners

So, you’re ready to get into strength training for yoga? When it comes to strength training, there are six tips to remember before getting started:

Start with Your Body Weight

Even if you’re already doing yoga, movement patterns of strength training exercises might still be unfamiliar to you. So, start with your bodyweight before loading up. This will help you develop body awareness. 

Check Your Form First

Whether doing yoga or strength training, the form is always crucial. Having a good form allows us to use the correct muscles or muscle group and avoid injury.

Always Warm-Up

Before doing any form of physical exercise, whether it is cardio or resistance training, you should always warm-up. Warming up is necessary to ensure that your body is ready for the stress that lifting weight will provide. It optimizes the flow of oxygen in your blood and increases your muscles’ temperature, helping in flexibility and efficiency.

Take recovery seriously, don’t overtrain: Rest days are crucial for recovery. These are the days when healing and growth happen. When you put stress on the muscles by lifting weights and doing other strength training exercises, the muscle fibers break apart. During recovery, the body fuses muscle fibers and increases the size and mass. This process is called muscle hypertrophy. 

Recovery days are also better when they are active. Meaning, don’t stay in bed all day. It would be best if you still moved lightly. You can take a walk or do some gentle yoga flows. This will help in healing the muscles faster, as well as easing the soreness.

Practice Progressive Overload

To continue giving your muscles stress that triggers mass and strength growth, you need to increase the weight you lift gradually, whether it is your body weight or a broomstick. Once you can easily finish the suggested number of repetitions and sets, add 5-10% more weight on your next strength training day.

Cool Down After

In yoga, we do cool-down poses before we get into final relaxation. It’s also the same in resistance training. Do gentle stretches after your workout. This will help in improving your flexibility, reduce the risk of injury, and ease muscle tension.

Focus on Compound Movements

Compound movements are movements that work with different muscles or muscle groups simultaneously. If you’re a beginner, your muscles are most likely not strong enough for isolation movements yet. This type of movement is excellent when you are short on time or don’t want to spend hours in the gym.

Compound movements also make it easy to lift heavier weights since you use more muscles instead of just one muscle. An excellent example of a compound movement is the squat. It uses your core, quadriceps, gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, and calves.

A woman doing squats at an indoor gym.

What Are the Five Basic Strength Training Exercises?

There are many strength training exercises based on whether you are using only your body weight, a barbell, a dumbbell, a resistance band, or a kettlebell. You will see that the equipment doesn’t matter because the movements are all the same. Below are five basic strength training exercises you can do to support your yoga practice.

Squats

A woman lifting a barbell in a weightlifting studio from Pexels.

Everyone’s doing squats. Whether bodyweight, lightweight, with a resistance band, with a barbell, or with a dumbbell. There are also many variations of a squat: regular squat, one-legged squat, goblet squat, front squat, back squat, pistol squat, and so many more.

Doing squats is probably the most popular strength training exercise there is. It’s understandable because the squat uses the largest muscle in the human body—the gluteus maximus or your booty. Squats do not only strengthen the gluteus maximus.

They also improve the strength of the gluteus minimus (the side booty), the quadriceps (the front of your thighs), your core muscles (the abs), your hamstrings (the back of your thighs), the adductors (your groins), the hip flexors (the front of your hip), and your calves. 

The squat is also a functional movement. You don’t do it only in the gym. You do this movement in your daily life, such as picking up something below or rising up and down your chair. If you can do squats efficiently, you will be able to do these things without hurting your back or knees.

Practicing squats will support you in doing Chair Pose, Malasana (Yogic Squat), Eagle Pose, Goddess Pose, and most Standing Balancing Poses.

Here’s a video on how to do a squat:

  1. Stand with your feet a little wider than your hips; toes point forward or slightly to the side.
  2. Keep your core, glutes, and quadriceps tight. You can extend your arms straight in front of you, or you can clasp your fingers together in front of the chest.
  3. Take an inhale as you hinge from your hips and push your butt to the back as you begin to bend your knees. Squat down until the hips are lower than your knees.
  4. Take an exhale and start pushing through your heels to bring your hips up and back to your starting position.

Deadlift

A weightlifter doing phase 2 of a deadlift at an open field from Wikimedia Commons.

The second most popular strength training exercise, next to squats, is deadlifts. This is my favorite movement. Like squats, there are many variations of a deadlift such as the conventional deadlift, Sumo deadlift, Romanian deadlifts, stiff-leg deadlift, and so much more.

The deadlift is my favorite because it strengthens all the major muscle groups in the body. It works with all the muscles in the posterior chain of the body (the back part of the body), from the lower to the upper back. This includes all the muscles used in squats, the latissimus dorsi (the largest muscle in your upper back), and your trapezius muscles (top of the shoulders).

Deadlifts, like squats, are also a functional movement. It’s how you move when you pick up and carry your grocery bags and other objects from the floor. If you don’t know how to deadlift, you are most likely picking up things with a round back, which hurts your spine and is prone to injury.

Deadlifts help in most yoga poses because it strengthens the whole body. It helps in Chair Poses, and many hip hinges pose. It can also help poses that require back strength, such as Wheel Pose, Cobra Pose, Sphinx Pose, Locust Pose, and Reverse Plank Pose.

Here’s a video on how to do a conventional deadlift:

There are many variations of a deadlift. Let’s focus on the conventional deadlift using a barbell.

  1. Stand with the middle of your foot under a barbell. The feet should be hip-width apart.
  2. Contract your core and glutes. Now, bend over and keep your back straight. Bend your knees until the bar touches your shins. Grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and your palms down. Keep your shoulders down. 
  3. Take an inhale and stand up, lifting the bar. Hold the bar at the top for a second with your knees and hips locked. 
  4. Take an exhale as you move your hips back and bring the bar down.

Tip: the bar should be in contact with your body all the time.

Row

A woman doing a barbell row exercise at an indoor gym from Wikimedia Commons.

Another basic strength training exercise is the row. Row or rowing is a compound movement that works the whole back—your latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius muscles, as well as your biceps. It’s like squats but for the back muscles. Rowing is what helped me nail the Pincha Mayurasana without the wall.

There are many variations of a row exercise. There’s the bent-over row, seated cable row, single-arm row, inverted row, among others. It’s the favorite strength training movement of the legendary bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Since the row strengthens the back body, it helps in most yoga poses that require contracting or stabilizing the back, such as Locust Pose, Reverse Plank, and Camel Pose.

Here’s a video on how to do the row (using a barbell):

  1. Stand with your feet as wide as your hips. The middle of your feet should be under the barbell.
  2. Bend over with the back straight. Then grab the bar with your palms down. 
  3. Unlock your knees, so your legs are slightly bent. Keep your hips high.
  4. Take an inhale and then pull the bar towards your lower chest. Exhale as you bring the bar down.

Overhead Press

A woman doing an overhead press with dumbbells inside a gym.

 

The overhead press is another compound strengthening exercise. It mainly uses the upper back muscles and is supported by the core muscles, lower back, and hamstrings. It is also called the shoulder press or military press. 

You can do overhead press seated or standing. As a yogi, it helps you in many poses that require you to push the weight up, such as Downward Facing Dog and Handstand. It strengthens the muscles that support the shoulders, which is excellent since the shoulders are prone to injury.

Here’s a video on how to do the overhead press (standing version):

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width distance apart. Bring the barbell or dumbbells in front of your shoulders with your hands next to the shoulders as well.
  2. Inhale as you press the bar up overhead. Once you reach the top, lock your elbows, shrug your shoulders and hold the bar or dumbbell for a second. Exhale as you bring the bar or dumbbell in front of your shoulders.

Bicep Curl

A man doing bicep curls with dumbells from Pexels.

The bicep curl is another essential strengthening exercise. It’s an isolation movement because it only works and strengthens the biceps. You may have read or heard bicep curls getting taunted by powerlifters because it’s not a functional movement per se.

But maintaining the biceps is essential as this muscle supports other exercises such as a pull-up, chin up, and even rows. Bicep curls also work the triceps to help you with arm balances such as Peacock Pose, Four-Limbed Staff Pose, Side Crow, Eight Angle Pose, and many others.

Here’s a video on how to do bicep curls:

Since the bicep curl is an isolation exercise, you may not be able to lift heavy right away. Start with five to ten-pound bars or dumbbells. You can do this sitting down or standing up.

  1. With your palms up, hold the bar or dumbbell in each hand. 
  2. Fully extend your elbows and bring your hands to your sides.
  3. Bend the elbows and bring the barbell or dumbbells up to the front of your shoulders.
  4. Come back to your starting position and repeat. 

How Often Should a Yogi Strength Train?

Regardless if you are a yogi or not, how often you should strength train depends on your training level. If you are a beginner, do this twice to three days a week. Each session, you should do full-body exercises.

For intermediate-level lifters, three to four times a day is recommended. You can split sessions based on the part of the body you want to focus on: back and biceps day, upper body day, lower body day. For advanced level, it is recommended to train four to five times a week. At this level, you can customize your workouts based on your current goal as you already know what does and doesn’t work for your body.

How Do You Mix Yoga with Weight Lifting?

Many yoga poses and breathing exercises are great for warming up and cooling down the body. Practice yoga before and after you lift or during your recovery days. Poses like Child’s Pose, Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge), Half Split, Full Forward Fold, Half Forward Fold, and Extended Puppy help warm up the hips, hamstrings, and chest muscles before lifting.

Doing a few rounds of Sun Salutations is also an effective way to warm up. For Cooling down, Supine Twists, Pigeon Pose, Happy Baby, and Savasana held for a few minutes will help reduce your heart rate and cool down the body.

Yoga has so many benefits to the mind and body. But when it comes to strengthening the muscles of the body, it’s not enough. Supplementing your practice with strength training, which has many benefits on its own, will improve your health and wellbeing. The same goes for combining your strength training practice with yoga.

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