How Yoga Can Complement Weight Training

By April 23, 2013 Strength Training

Disclaimer – I’m probably wrong about some of this. Yoga peeps – please feel free to correct or add to what I’ve written in the comments section.

Last Thursday, my girlfriend dragged me to a yoga session against my will. Of course, this now makes me an expert on all things yoga, being that I’ve now attended a session. I kid, I kid. I did, however, pay very close attention to the instructor and the session. While I don’t know the names of most of the poses, I made quite a few observations. Here they are, in no order of importance:

  • I was lucky to have attended a class with an advanced instructor, which makes a big difference in my opinion. To my surprise, the instructor actually had a great knowledge of biomechanics, and her cues were fantastic.
  • One of the primary purposes of yoga is to relax, yet many beginners fail to relax. Perhaps they’re self-conscious of their flexibility levels, or they’re overly-competitive, and so they overdo it. This defeats the purpose. Twelve years ago, Pavel Tstsouline wrote an excellent book titled, Relax into Stretch. It focused on the need to relax while stretching in order to reap maximal benefits in flexibility. Good instructors are aware of this – they’ll quickly notice overexertion and modify poses to suit the individual.
  • All poses can easily be modified for novices. 
  • Yoga sessions spend a significant percentage of time in the top push-up position. This builds excellent scapular stability (serratus anterior, trapezuis, etc.), which provides an important foundation for strength training. We need this stability for upper body pressing and pulling movements.
  • Some of the transitions in yoga move the practitioner into a narrow-width push-up position, which is very challenging for the triceps, pecs, and anterior delts. See the biomechanical information on push-ups in the chart below (this is from an SCJ article published last year by Contreras et al):
  •  Yoga sessions involve a considerable amount of poses that stretch and activate the hip musculature at long muscle lengths. From hip flexors, to hammies, to adductors, to hip rotators, yoga will keep hip flexibility solid, which is another excellent foundational feature for weight training.
  • Yoga sessions also involve plenty of stretches for the shoulder musculature – shoulder flexion, extension, and internal rotation specifically, which are great for resistance training.
  • Yoga provides a decent core stability challenge to the abdominals, obliques, and glutes. Of course, the muscles won’t get activated like they do during ab wheel rollouts or heavy hip thrusts, but various poses will keep the core muscles activated, which will prevent age-related atrophy.
  • Yoga poses keep the spine flexible. From spinal flexion, to extension, to lateral flexion, to rotation, you’ll get all of it in yoga. It’s important to know that increases in spinal flexibility doesn’t prevent low back pain. However, it will prevent age-related losses in flexibility which I feel is important, as long as core strength accompanies it.
  • For many individuals, these spinal stretches are therapeutic. However, certain individuals may find some poses to be problematic. For example, the flexion intolerant person might not find the child’s pose to be very fun, and the extension intolerant person might not find the cobra pose to be very fun. Again, these poses can be modified and/or omitted depending on the individual.

Child's Pose

  • If done right, some of the poses are incredible thoracic-spine mobility drills. This is key for optimal shoulder health. But you have to understand how to open up the chest and not hinge solely at the lumbar spine.
  • Many meatheads like me will find many of the poses to be incredibly challenging. Our thick muscles produce a lot of passive stiffness, and we’re not used to going into various ROMs (or holding those ROMs isometrically for that matter). Meatheads need to be okay with sitting some poses out or modifying them to suit our fitness levels – the sessions need to be relaxing!
  • Poses that require considerable hamstring flexibility can be modified by bending the knees. This is important as it allows individuals to anteriorly tilt the pelvis and keep the proper lumbar arch, which prevents them from going into lumbar flexion. You see a lot of low back rounding during poses such as downward facing dog, so the bent knee position is a much better strategy for the person who hasn’t yet built up sufficient hamstring flexibility. You still get a great hamstring stretch, but you also build good core stability mechanics.
  • Yoga is very relaxing if done properly, which can lead to a variety of health benefits including decreased anxiety, stress, and depression.
  • My class contained a deep breathing component at the end which was fantastic. This can help restore balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
  • The instructor would walk around the room and place her hands on the practitioners from time to time – just a gentle touch or push in a certain place to increase the stretch or correct the form. She also had a very soothing voice. These attributes also have therapeutic effects and add to the restorative capacity of yoga in my opinion.

Cobra Pose

Summary of How Yoga Benefits Weight Training

Yoga promotes flexibility and mobility, which provide an important base in weight training. In S&C, usually we have to prescribe mobility drills for the hips and t-spine with clients – yoga takes care of this over time, which leaves more time to focus on skill-work in the weight room. Yoga also promotes decent levels of stability in the shoulders and hips (not nearly as much as you seen with weight training, but decent nevertheless). Yoga is incredible for mental health, relaxation, and stress-relief.

In these regards, yoga complements weight training. Theoretically, yoga could increase recuperative ability, but only if the intensity of the session is kept under control. Too many challenging poses could do the opposite.

Yoga2

Transitioning from Yoga to Weight Training

I’ve trained a handful of experienced yoga practitioners who were new to strength training. The first thing they need to learn is how to speed up their tempo. Yoga is very controlled and slow. In weight training, you want to train a bit more explosively as this increases muscle activation.

The typical yoga practitioner will be competent at various bridging, push-up, and core stability exercises. They will not be limited by flexibility/mobility in pretty much any exercise, which is a huge plus. However, their motor control will be a bit off. For example, they’ll likely be inclined to hyperextend the spine during bridging and deadlifting movements. It is imperative that they learn how to stabilize the spine and move through the hips.

They’ll have strong shoulders and triceps compared to sedentary individuals, they’ll be in much better physical condition than a sedentary beginner, and they’ll have the raw materials to learn every single functional movement pattern properly. However, as previously mentioned, they’ll need to reprogram their movement patterns by learning them how to stabilize various joints while moving through other joints.

Yoga will not shape the glutes like weight training (or any other muscles for that matter), yoga won’t provide the metabolic kick that weight training does, and yoga won’t maximize strength, power, speed, hypertrophy, or endurance. Yoga can be advanced through more challenging progressions, but not like in weight training where heavy weights and progressive overload can be employed. However, yoga is still a highly valuable form of physical fitness with a myriad of benefits, and it’s loved and enjoyed by millions worldwide.

Personal trainers, strength coaches, and physical therapists need not fear their athletes and clients performing yoga as long as it’s conducted properly.

Yoga 3

32 Comments

  • Connie Ross says:

    I think yoga is amazing, but you certainly do need a really good practitioner. Too many times I have felt that I haven’t gotten enough from a session or I started day dreaming and not paying attention (me bad!). What are your thoughts on Bikram Yoga? The idea of a warm room appeals to me.

    • Bret says:

      Hi Connie, I think Bikram yoga is good for the same reasons mentioned above. And if you’re the type to enjoy the effects of heat, then more power to you.

      • Karen says:

        Bret just curious where was your class? As far as Brikram it’s the same poses every time (twice actually) so maybe try different styles to get more variety/benefits. Many classes are in a warmer room but bikam is extra hot and humid. Had to put my 2 cents in as an experienced yogi/instructor 🙂 thanks for the article!

  • Kenneth says:

    I have been doing Yoga for a while now and it really changed my life. It really relaxes your mind and I agree, you will get more energy and become stronger if you do Yoga regularly.

  • Naomi says:

    Timely article! I just got a 1 month hot yoga groupon deal. I’ve been warned that I will be sore. I love the lifting but foam rolling is not helping sore neck and sleep issues due to discomfort. It’s tricky to fix once the pattern starts.

    Most gym yoga classes just stink. I have only done “real” yoga a few times and it sounds like you got the real deal, Bret. (I don’t understand why it is prohibitively expensive because I’ve found it to be so healing in the past and all they supply is a room.) And with proper instruction and cueing, I was able to get into postures I’d never managed in crappy gym pseudo yoga classes even with decent strength and flexibility.

    • Cory says:

      Naomi-

      Real instructors provide much more than a room (that they’re likely renting, mind you). You are getting an hour or more of the instructor’s expertise and a qualified instructor will have spend thousands of dollars and countless hours honing their craft.
      My wife and business partner is a Yoga Coach (that’s what we’re calling it these days, maybe it will catch on) and we’ve both spend thousands on our educations (I’m a s&c coach and personal trainer).

      Its very difficult to make a living teaching yoga and it is very energetically demanding, even more so than personal training in many cases. So its certainly not the case where you’re getting a room, some sweet music and a few poses for $X/session. With a real instructor you are getting years of knowledge and a true passion for helping people each time you get on the mat. I think that should more than justify the price.

      I’m happy you were able to enjoy quality teaching and since you no doubt recognize the value, hopefully you’ll be able to continue in some way.

  • Doug Willick says:

    I have been tinkering with yoga an/or pilates for a while. This article may have helped me make my decision (although I do know the 2 forms of exercise are different, Im gearing towards yoga) Thanks man…

  • Carol says:

    Great article. Glad your Girlfriend dragged you in.

  • Lauren says:

    There are so many different styles of yoga, and as with strength training you have to pick one which is best suited to your own individual goals/schedule. A yoga practice can be flexible (no pun intended! :P) – ie you can work on certain areas that feel tight eg do a hip opener sequence, or if you are tired then do some restorative yoga etc. That is unless of course you choose to do Ashtanga Yoga or Bikram yoga in which you follow the same sequence of asanas (poses) each day.

    As has already been said above, the importance of working with a good yoga teacher is crucial to get the most out of your practice and avoid injury. People often think that yoga is easy…..but when performed correctly it is not, and will offer a great challenge your body and mind!

    If anyone is a beginner to yoga I highly recommend starting with Iyengar Yoga. Not because it is easiest (believe me it is far from this!), but because this style gives excellent focus to proper alignment, and will teach you to perform asanas correctly. It is a PERFECT style to compliment any strength training or athletic program. Furthermore, Iyengar teachers have to go through rigorous teacher training which lasts for a number of years……so you know that if someone is claiming to be an Iyengar teacher then you won’t have someone who thought they fancied making a bit of extra cash and so enrolled on a 1 week course and voila! became qualified to teach yoga!

    That being said, there are some amazing teachers out there teaching all different styles of yoga, and you just have to go out there and find them (obviously you found a good teacher Bret!). I started with Iyenger and have since moved on to incorporate Ashtanga and Vinyasa…..which are faster paced and tend to flow in a sequence, but my grounding in Iyengar allowed me to perfect and understand the asanas before linking them together in an awkward mess!

    Here is a good guide to the different styles of yoga:
    http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/165

    Hope this helps some folks!

    • Rob says:

      I would like to reinforce the comment to start with Iyengar Yoga. They are hugely better trained that most other instructors. However, as a former Iyengar Instructor who has moved away from the cultish obsessiveness, I would recommend finding a pleasant Iyengar instructor. Some like to imitate the tough no-nonsense attitude of BKS Iyengar without the his genius that helps to forgive his rough edges.
      I would certainly be cautious about fast moving repetitive styles of yoga for the dangers of repetitive stress, unwanted competitiveness, lack of mindfulness which leads to injury.

  • Ross says:

    Hi Bret,

    The last couple of weeks actually; I’ve been attending a Yoga class on a Friday morning at the gym. I’ve felt great after it and I’ve noticed some benefits already. However, I am unsure how to incorporate it into my normally weekly training schedule. For instance I normally do Mon-Tue / Thru-Fri on an upper-lower basis and Friday is normally my lower heavy hip thrusting day so I don’t really want to be substituting that but also I feel that Yoga following by Weights would be very counter-productive. I mean why relax the nervous system & stretch the muscles and then follow that up with actively hammering the nervous system and tightening those muscles.

    Any Advice?

    • Bret says:

      Ross, I’d do yoga on W, S, or Su (or two of these days). Agree, I’d do yoga after weights, not the other way around. If you did them on weights days, I’d do them a few hours afterward.

    • Mario says:

      For the past while I have warmed down with an abreviated yoga session directly folowing my weight training sessions-lower body, upper body pull,UB push and one “vanity”exercise for a 16-18 set total every other day.
      Having done Yoga for a couple years I am comfortable doing the poses without supervision.
      As a bonus for us guys-“The Science of Yoga”( whose author I cant remember)describes studies showing certain Yoga practices to measurably increase Testosterone levels. I havent put my T to the (lab )test, but subjectively have to say that there may be something there-I cant get away with shaving every other day now!

  • I did yoga for years before I got serious about weight training. I think it benefited me most in learning awareness and control of my body. What I see in clients is they just don’t understand how to move their arms or shoulders independently, or adjust their spine, things that yoga is good at teaching with the slower, more internalized approach.

  • Great blog post!
    I’ve made some of the same observations. If you want to be good at the big lifts or functional training like crossfit, then yoga is very beneficial.
    I only seldom get to go to a yoga class, but I always use some form of yoga in my warm up rutine.

  • Amanda says:

    Hi Bret, nice blog! For a first-time yogi, you hit the nail on the head and picked up on many aspects of yoga and asana that even some seasoned practitioners miss. Fortunately, it sounds like you had the opportunity to study with a teacher who knows her stuff.

    In addition to beginners who struggle to relax, the advanced student can also struggle to relax. Oftentimes this happens when they are really gung-ho about “getting” a pose vs. relaxing into it and allowing the pose to unfold on its own over time.

    One thing to watch for, biomechanically, in the top push-up or plank position in yoga is protracting the scapula too much. In the low push-up, or chaturanga, it’s important to watch for the shoulders antero-medially rotating as doing hundreds of these this way can lead to shoulder pain and/or injury. When stretching the hip flexors, it’s also beneficial for the instructor to check alignment as many students tend to put themselves in positions where they are forcing the head of the femur anteriorly, putting undue tension on the proximal fibers of the hip flexors, and compressing the ipsilateral SI joint and lumbar spine. I’m stoked you mentioned bending the knees to maintain proper lumbar alignment during poses requiring hamstring flexibility. Having recently finished a guest blog on yoga and movement, this has always been one of my biggest driving home points – don’t squish the disc!

    I completely agree with your statement that a lot of yogis who transition into S&C, or add it as a compliment to their practice, need stability work.

    Thanks for picking up on so many things, in your first class nonetheless, and sharing them with the community!

  • Raquel says:

    yogaglo.com is a great site to experiment with the different types of yoga and to take classes online. The teachers are knowledgeable and explain how to do all the positions and modifications. I love it because I can add in my yoga at home whenever is convenient for me. You can pick your duration too, classes range from 10 minutes to 90….

    • Bret says:

      Good point. I like the idea of doing it for less than one hour. For example, 20 minutes of yoga poses followed by 5-10 min of deep breathing.

  • Joe Weaver says:

    Great perspective on yoga, Bret.
    And I liked your comment on the deep breathing exercise at the end.
    I have found that when I integrate ujjayi type breathing into my weight training routines I get dramatically better performance and faster recovery the next day. Because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, I also get a great ‘in the zone’ type experience during my workout.
    Dr. John Douillard did some pioneering research on this in the early ’90’s.
    Contact me if you want to know more.

  • Mike says:

    Fantastic article Bret! Your introduction to yoga sounds almost exactly like mine – being dragged to a session by my girlfriend.

    My first session was a heated, vinyasa flow performed in candlelight. One word – Amazing. Everyone knows how good and accomplished you feel when leaving the gym after an a$$ kicking workout. But leaving the studio after candlelight yoga was a whole nother feeling that I can only describe as ‘feeling healthy’.

    Needless to say, I am convinced that the right type of yoga can very well compliment the right type of strength training – like Yin and Yang. Plus, the synchronicity gained by emphasizing breathing and body movement patterns only makes for higher quality strength training. Proper breath control can definitely make the difference between hitting or missing reps.

    All I can say is that any ‘meat head’ who discredits/disregards yoga needs to holster their ego for 60 minutes and give it a shot!

  • Adam says:

    I used yoga to correct My biomechanics and it has transformed my weight training. Also increased my stride length, power and speed no end. increased my top running speed from 34km/h to 38.7 km/h without lifting a single weight, in competitive soccer, which I play that is a massive difference. Still doing the yoga but now combined it with your glute training and I’m still getting faster.
    What I found was when I got to the point where you can feel the blood flushing through each muscle individually after a pose recovery became so much faster from every type of training.

  • Jesse says:

    Hi Bret,

    You should check out the old school yogis (sandowplus.co.uk may still have some texts), you would be hard pressed to find a touchy feely mamby pamby guru… Real yoga includes lifting weights like heavy clubs, maces, squats with large stone rings on the shoulders, gymnastic type movements, and since yoga is derived from Indian catch wrestling exercises grappling is also involved. And of course asanas, deep breathing, and meditation.

    This is the sad part about westernized “yoga” is that it dismisses the aforementioned weight bearing exercises in favor of holding poses. Not that there is anything inherently “wrong” wifh asana practice, but it is not a complete system without the balance of explosive lifting, swinging, and dynamic calisthenics.

    You should check out Scott Sonnon’s animal flows, you might find them much more rewarding than slow asana practice. He’s about the closest to an authentic yogi guru (though he doesn’t ever say that) that you will find in the west.

  • Josh says:

    I do have a few issues with yoga. One it seems, in my limited experience, to have an inordinate amount of time in, and amounts of, lumbar extension and flexion. I often include a few cat/camels in a mobility routine as this is a extremely unloaded position, reasonable mobility here is a good thing and it helps people’s awareness of where there lumbar spine actually is in space. Yoga seems to use greater amounts of flexion/extension in much higher load positions.
    I think this also tends to train people to use these positions in everyday activities, which I strongly discourage. I often remind people I train that one of our goals is to learn to maintain a neutral spine while putting the weights away, picking up their grandchildren/grocery bags or working in their yard. I believe most people already rely way to much on movement at the lumbar spine and should spend a lot more time practicing bracing and proper squat/hinge patterns and less time practicing extension/flexion.

  • Josh says:

    -awareness of where “their” lumbar spine actually is in space.

  • Jim Nonnemacher says:

    I have 2 yoga teacher certifications as well as a CSCS. Most of what I read here concerning “a yoga” practice is off the mark. The body centric “style” of what we’ve come to know as yoga is an artifact of the early 20th century; yoga was never intended to be another form of physical exercise. See Mark Singleton’s excellent book, “Yoga Body,” to understand how a spiritual practice became another form of exercise.

    Developed 2000-4000 years ago yoga was a spiritual practice, asana was only a small part of the 8 limbs of a practice and was only intended to train the mind so that the yogi could sit for hours in meditation.

    Most of the medical benefits we see from yoga is a result of the meditative aspects of a practice….and are seen within the Buddhist practice as well where there is no asana practice.

    Too many people perform the “stretches” and “postures” and think they’re actually practicing yoga, when all they’re doing is static stretching. To practice yoga means involving the mind, and moving past the importance we place on the body and ego.

  • Candide says:

    I’m a powerlifter who’s been doing Ashtanga yoga for about a year. At first it was about trying something that might help with my injuries, now it’s about injury prevention. “I bend so I don’t break” as some other yogi/lifter said to me.

    Some of the things it’s helped me so far in my lifting:

    – Learned how to keep a neutral neck (made a huge difference in my squats)
    – Improved thoracic mobility
    – Identified poor hip internal rotation and improved it
    – General awareness of body alignments

    Doing just yoga is rather useless though. It works best as a complementary rehab-prehab system to your existing lifting or sports regime.

    You can of course achieve all of those through mobility drills and stretching at home instead of doing yoga, but I’d rather be in my yoga class for the eye candy motivation 😉 Also, my teacher is good at pointing out my imbalances, lack of mobility and poor alignments – things I wouldn’t pick up training by myself.

  • Yogi Ram says:

    Offcourse yoga helps to strengthen the body but what most of the people dont know is that it directly works on the Endocrine system. Endocrine system consists of hormone producing glands like pineal, thyroid, pancreas etc,. Yoga stimulates these glands and bring them into balance which creates harmony at physical level and better flow of energy in the body, which leads to faster healing and growth of the body, if someone wants to know more you are welcome to email me, I am teaching for last 14 years, thank you.

  • christina says:

    How to combine the two? i recently tried hot yoga and i do enjoy it, but that doesn’t mean i’d be willing to give up my weight training 5-6days a week! how can I combine the two. Is it okay to weight train in evening and to hot yoga in the evening? What if its an “upper body day” vs “leg day”, or the day after one of the two?

    currently I’m doing:
    heavy legs – twice/week A.M.
    hot yoga – once or twice/week A.M.
    upper body – twice/week A.M.
    plyos – once/week A.M.
    thanks!

  • Lisa says:

    I am currently a kinesiology student and signing up for a weight training class. I have some back ground with lifting but I was wondering if it is okay to take a yoga class right before the weight training class. The hours of the class fit better that way with my schedule so is it okay?

  • Hyacinth says:

    I have spent years doing yoga and am recently getting into weight lifting.

    Exactly like you mentioned above the upper body stuff is great and I immediately ‘get it’ but for some reason I have been struggling with my squats. I think it may be related to hip stability during squats, deadlifts and barbell rows. I have read a lot on people transitioning from weight lifting to yoga but have not found much about people with a yoga background picking up weights, can you point me in any direction?

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