I’m a CrossFitter and a yogi and wanted a more objective view on the effects of yoga on muscle mass and strength. Here is what I learned.
Maybe our perceptions about yoga are biased and we see it as the thing to do when you want to get more flexible. But research suggests that yoga is as good for your health as other similar forms of exercise. It seems to be particularly good for reducing inflammation in the body and improving lower back pain. Yoga also seems to enhance body awareness and proprioception and has beneficial effects on flexibility and relaxation.
In addition, some yoga postures or yoga asanas may achieve the recommended levels of cardiorespiratory fitness CRF, muscular fitness and flexibility. This is especially the case for more physical types of yoga rather than gentle, meditative forms.
But is yoga also that helpful for building muscles? Does it help improve our capacity to maintain muscle mass? Let’s turn to available research and figure it out!
Originated in India, yoga has become increasingly popular in western countries (more than 20 million in the US) as a means of exercise. Yoga usually involves gentle static stretching postures (asanas) and conscious breathing (pranayama) to promote flexibility and relaxation.
Types of Yoga
Of the various branches of yoga (such as Hindu, Hatha, Raja, and Mantra), Hatha yoga is perhaps the most widely practiced, which consists of elements of physical postures, conscious breathing, and meditation. There are also Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga, both tend to be more vigorous and athletic. And Yin yoga, that consists of holding a pose for an extended period with minimal exertion that probably won’t make you sweat but challenge you with the very deep stretches.
From all the different practices, Ashtanga yoga and its variations (Vinyasa, Power Yoga) offer great aerobic benefits. They involve performing a series of positions called sun salutations, one after the other, in a fast paced motion and with a specific breathing pattern. The ten steps in a Sun salutation involve almost every part of the body and is considered as a complete exercise. It targets the muscles of the thighs and legs, abdomen, shoulders, arms and chest. For many yogis, regular practice of a few cycles, when performed properly leads to development and strengthening of almost every part of the body.
Yoga As A Form Of Body Weight Training
Yoga comes in many different styles, some build strength, others focus on mobility and flexibility, and others are primarily focused on breathwork and meditation.
If we take the most vigorous form, Ashtanga Yoga, we can say that this type is an activity that uses your body as resistance to build strength, endurance, flexibility and balance. Yoga builds muscular strength and endurance by holding a position or moving from one to another. The average duration of a typical yoga session is between 60 to 120 minutes with very little rest between poses. Yoga is also a compound exercise, it uses a large number of muscles at the same time to build power and muscle strength. Yoga is different from other approaches in the sense that it focuses first on building balance and then strength.
Yoga and Physical Fitness
There is a lot of information regarding yoga and the psychological benefits it offers, but explanations for yoga’s effects on physical fitness and muscle hypertrophy are not as accessible. One of the reasons could be that there are many different yoga styles, ranging from gentle practices to physically demanding ones; and these differences can affect the results of research. However, several studies point out that yoga increases muscular strength without any doubt. Here are a couple, to give you an idea.
This study proved that regular practice of sun salutations improves muscle strength (upper and lower body), endurance and body composition. Many of those poses build strength because they require sustained contractions of many muscle groups of the entire body, which is similar to resistance training.
The participants of this study attended 12 weekly 60-minute sessions showed significant improvements in muscular strength, efficient use of oxygen and flexibility. Also, the women in this study showed an improvement in cardiorespiratory endurance.
When looking at upper and lower body strength, studies indicate that practicing yoga for 8 weeks may increase lower body strength by 10%, and other muscle actions such as knee extension by 28%, elbow extension by 31%, and elbow flexion by 19%. Core muscles (rectus abdominis, longissimus thoracis, external obliques, and gluteus maximus) are highly engaged when doing common yoga poses (halfway lift, downward facing dog, upward facing dog, high plank, low plank, chair, mountain, and warrior). This activity is enough to increase muscular strength and endurance.
This other study showed that growth hormone significantly increases during a 60 minute yoga session. Growth hormone helps to maintain, build, and repair healthy tissue in the brain and other organs. This hormone can help to speed up healing after an injury and repair muscle tissue after exercise. This helps to build muscle mass, boost metabolism, and burn fat.
In 2017, the University of Connecticut conducted a study among two groups of healthy women aged 50 to 65 for six months. The first group had not done routine exercise in the past year. The other group were women who practiced Vinyasa yoga at least two times a week for a minimum of a year. The Vinyasa yoga practice included several sun salutations. Findings showed that even if body weight and body mass index were similar, muscle mass was higher and body fat lower for the yoga group. And the women practicing yoga tended to have better balance.
What was more revealing was that yogis burned more fat at rest and had lower rates of protein synthesis and breakdown. This reduced rate of protein may be related to maintenance of muscle mass.
The previous studies help explain the increased muscular strength and fat loss benefits that regular yoga practitioners could attain. But also, practicing yoga may improve protein utilization leading to the maintenance of muscle mass.
Yoga Poses For Building Muscles Similar As Lifting Weights
In Yoga, you are building muscle proportional to your natural muscular system and not using excess resistance, like plates or resistance bands. If your objective is to build muscle during your yoga practice there are some changes you have to do:
- Progress to more challenging flows or variations of a pose. On your journey to building strength through regular practice, use some more advanced variations to increase the difficulty.
More challenging poses means more tension in the targeted muscle group and more tension will lead to more mass. Think about the progressive overload benefits of weight lifting.
Also, as you might know, to build muscle besides more weight you need to increase the volume. So practice yoga adding more repetitions to the sun salutation sequence for instance, or increasing the length of each flow.
- For building muscle we need to enable microscopic tears resulting from stress on muscle fibers (the same as strength training). For getting this “mechanical damage” during yoga, you need to hold poses for longer almost to complete fatigue. This will help your muscle fibers to stretch and tear enhancing muscle growth.
By holding a posture, we are more likely to experience concentric muscle contraction. We are not really moving, instead, muscles are contracting to help stabilize our body and maintain the posture itself.
The following is a strong yoga practice that offers you a challenging variation to basic poses that will help build muscles in your arms, legs, and core. Roll out your yoga mat and start building muscle with this body weight variations:
Start in a plank position. Arms fully extended and hands shoulder-width apart. Lower your elbows to the floor, placing them where your hands initially were. If you want, you can interlace your fingers to practice your balance. Bring your torso parallel to the floor and gaze down at your fingers or the floor. Squeeze your abs and lift your navel toward your spine, this will help you build upper body strength.
Hold for 1 minute or longer.
From Low Plank, start to walk your feet forward toward your hands until you get to a point where you feel a healthy burning sensation in the muscles of your thighs. If your hamstrings are tight, bend your knees generously, you don’t need your heels to touch the floor. Keep your feet and legs hip-distance apart and keep your sight at your feet. Push your chest back toward your thighs supporting yourself with your elbows. Dolphin is just like Downward Facing Dog with the difference that you are on your elbows instead of your hands.
Stay here for 5 breaths, then lower down to your knees to rest.
From plank pose with arms fully extended, pull left knee to back of left triceps, rounding your back while keeping arms straight. Hold pose for five breaths.
Then lower that knee halfway to your elbow as you exhale.
Inhale and pull your knee down toward the top of your left arm.
Finish by bringing your left knee to full extension like in plank.
Repeat this sequence five times, then repeat the sequence with your right leg.
Yoga Pushup Series
From plank pose. Bend your elbows and lower halfway. Keep elbows close to your body. From there lift your right foot, and hold here for five breaths.
Lower your right foot to the floor briefly, then bring your right foot as far as you can out to the right, keeping your leg straight and foot in the air; hold here for five breaths.
Return foot to center, keeping it lifted, and press to downward dog. Lower your right leg to the floor. Shift to plank, and repeat one leg at the time and ending in downward dog.
Chair Pose with Variation
Standing at the top of your yoga mat, take your feet hip-width distance apart and parallel to each other. Raise your arms out in front of you at shoulder height and keep your hands shoulder-width apart. Take a deep inhale and lift your chest up; on an exhalation, bend your knees and shift your weight to your hips, as if you were going to sit in a chair.
Squeeze your core and keep your tailbone engaged.
Hold this position as best you can, to upgrade you can lift your heels up off the floor so you are balancing on your toes. Holding standing poses will also help build your leg muscles and other major muscles in your back and abdominals.
Hold here for 1 minute or longer.
Face the long side of your yoga mat and take a wide stance, feet about 3 to 4 feet apart or depending on your height even wider. Place both feet pointing out to about 45 degrees, then start to bend your knees, making sure your knees are in line with your toes (don’t let them fall in or out). Stack your knees over your heels and lift up through your low belly, making sure your torso is upright. Bring both hands together like in a prayer and stay here for 1 minute or longer.
This pose belongs to the arm balances practices and is normally included in a challenging yoga workout in the same way as the warrior poses.
Start in a squat position, walk your hands forward toward the front of your mat and round your back. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart and your fingers wide spreaded. Shift your gaze forward and bend your elbows slightly. Place your knees on the backs of your upper arms, lifting one leg at the time. Start to lean your weight forward so your toes start to feel light on the floor until they come up completely. Draw your toes together to touch. Hold for a few breaths, then release.
Could yoga replace strength training in the muscle building process?
Up until now, traditional weight training coupled with functional fitness is the most efficient way of building muscular strength and mass. If your goal is to build muscle through a regular yoga practice it is important for you to modify yoga poses for muscle growth using your own body weight. Yoga uses the different ways that the musculoskeletal system can contract to create movement, resist movement, or stabilize the body. Examples of this are tree pose, triangle pose and warrior pose. So, gains in muscle endurance and mass will strongly depend on what poses you are doing and for how long you are holding them when you do yoga.
So instead of replacing one by the other, I would say do both! Yoga and strength training compliment each other. Strength training gives you the benefit of increased muscle mass (among others) and yoga will reinforce this by building muscle endurance and muscle flexibility. Plus the mind/body aspect of yoga contributes to your mental health and sharpens your mind. For a holistic workout routine, find your yoga style and balance it with your strength training.
Giuliana is a yoga instructor and Crossfitter from Peru who is currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand with her Crossfit Coach (and husband) Tim.