Do you even lift bro?
I love this particular line, one because there are some hilarious memes affiliated with it, but also because it’s a really really important question to ask yogis. The answer is usually, for lack of a better word: abysmal.
Yoga is not perfect
Satya (Truth) Moment: I’m not sure if you’ve heard that before, but its true. Allow me to expand it, no single exercise is perfect. That’s why there are so many different kinds out there!
The purpose of my article today is to give you a little knowledge on the necessity of strength training or adding some external resistance (This especially applies to my yoga readers). I’ll also provide a few ways that I’ve been integrating it to my own yoga practice & teaching it to my students. Spoiler alert: the results have been outstanding.
Your brain is about it get so swole
The Benefits of Strength Training
There are 3 primary pillars to a healthy body:
A lot of people do one of the above, a fair amount do two, and very few have all 3. It’s important have at least a little of all 3 because they all carry different benefits to our body.
I’m assuming you’re a yogi, so you’re likely good on the mobility pillar. I’ll save cardio for another day, let’s focus on the benefits of strength training. Hopefully you’ll glean why a little resistance can benefit you when you hit your mat!
“Strength Training truly is the fountain of youth”
In general Strength training can:
- Promote fat loss
- Increase & maintain bone density
- Prevent age related muscle loss
Our Brains also get an amazing benefit:
- Improves cognitive function
- Increases Seratonin (mood, appetite, sleep)
- Endorphin release
It’s so good for us to add a little external resistance & so many yogis lack it. Every time I teach an anatomy lecture to yoga teachers, I’m so shocked and saddened when I ask “Who has a strength training practice?” This can be Pilates, weight lifting, etc (anything with some sort of external force like a weight or a band).
I rarely get above 1/3 of Yogis who, in addition to yoga, strength train.
Hence my earlier usage of abysmal.
Yoga is great at mobilizing our body, but it usually deals with body weight. Body weight is great, and there’s some really strong things you can do with that, but it’s body weight. There’s a limit to how much load you can impose with body weight. (Unless of course you binge eat a 3 course meal before your practice haha)
With body weight, there’s a limit to how strong you can get, or a plateau that you’ll eventually hit.
Progressive Overload is a term used in the rehab & exercise science world. It refers to how our body adapts & grows stronger when we progressively add more load (or stress/weight). Another way to put it simply: Progressive Overload is doing more over time.
With body weight & yoga we demonstrate this principle when we hold postures for a longer duration, or add more repetitions to strengthening exercises (like push-ups, or squats into Chair).
This is great, but it has a limit. You’ll only get so strong, hence why it’s necessary to add some resistance.
Resistance does more than just get us our muscles stronger by the way:
- It’s how our ligaments and tendons heal, adapt, & become more resilient
- It’s how our body learns to move & align our center of gravity
Yea! You read that right, you can heighten your awareness & learn how to move your body a little better when you add some weight.
Ligaments & tendons get tremendously stronger when we give them more resistance. When one is injured, the first step is usually rest & control the inflammation. Once the swelling and pain goes down we can then begin to restore pain free range of motion. Once our ROM is back we begin the process of Progressive Overload to then make it stronger. The result: you’re back to normal & stronger for it.
With external resistance we can also better sense our own center of gravity. A little bit of weight can provide some great feedback to your nervous system. You’ll be much more aware of your positioning the further you bring the weight away from your body. This feedback can be phenomenal when learning how to move, or cultivating awareness on how you move!
We can attach this same logic to yoga & our balance poses. Have you ever stopped to wonder why your standing foot shakes like an earthquake whenever you lift a leg?
Over time, especially if you’re consistent with your practice, this shakiness begins to dissolve. That’s your body adapting to it’s weight, your tendons & muscles are growing stronger.
You can speed that process up if you add a little weight. Once you learn the shape of the pose & general alignment, you can start to add small increments of weight, close to your center of gravity (CoG). This will enable your body to adapt quicker & get your tendons to acclimate to your own body weight, and then some!
General Progressive Overload Outline:
- Class 1: Body weight to learn the pose, get the awareness, etc
- You may need more than 1 class btw
- Class 2: 2-3 lbs of weight around your center of gravity (CoG)
- Class 3: 2-3 lbs a little further away from your center
- Class 4: 5 lb weight more CoG
- Class 5: 5 lb weight extended away from your CoG
It’s pretty cool how quickly our body adapts. It turns a shaky Tree Pose into a full Redwood Super Tree in a small handful of classes, rather than months of practice.
Bringing some Weight to Your Mat:
I hope you now understand why a little resistance can benefit your Yoga Asana practice. The strength & sturdiness it can create when you balance is amazing!
Here are two ways I’ve been implementing the above principles to me and my Yogis.
Weighted Tree Pose:
Note: I’m demonstrating the full version of the posture
- Grab a 3/5/8 lb weight and hold in the the hand opposite to the leg you’re going to lift (Ex: If lifting your Left leg, hold the weight in your Right hand)
- Start in a “Kickstand” position: Stand firm on one foot, plant your toes and rest your heel against your ankle on your other leg (the one you’re going to lift).
- Keep the weight by your side, slide your foot up towards your knee into Active Tree Pose, then gently push your foot into your standing leg to turn on your Hip Adductors (inner thigh)
- With the weight:
- Option 1: Abduct your arm 1/2 out to your side. “Bring your arm 1/2 way out from your body” (Like a upside down V, not a T)
- Option 2: Curl & press your weight to the sky (as shown above).
- Hold & breathe 😉
You’ll feel pretty quickly how the weight affects your Tree Pose. Keep the weight closer towards your body as you learn it, then feel free to play and press your weight skyward to really get a sense of how strong your ankles are!
Orbiting Weight Single Leg Mountain
- Grab a weight, step one foot forward with your heel down and your toes flexed towards your shin.
- Find a focal point, something not moving on the ground or wall in front of you
- Lift and hover your foot, keep your toes active
- Pass the weight from end to end around your body
- Switch directions after a few passes or a set amount of time
- Optional: Make it harder by widening the circle from your body
This one is powerful! As the weight passes around your body you get a good amount of core strength (Anti-rotation reflexive core strength!). You also get to hone your focus, & train your eyes. Plus as the weight passes your body weight shifts to different regions in your foot, thus strengthening your ankle.
It’s dope, just please don’t drop a weight on your foot! You only need like 3 lbs to start & up to about 8 lbs for the balance masters out there.
This can be done with a block. It’s more of a focusing exercise and a little less strengthening, but that’s a useful regression to try before you go full blow and grab a weight.
Brief Personal Anecdote:
I’ve been doing the 2 above exercises with some older individuals at the Senior Center I teach yoga at. I’ve taught them Tree a million different times & ways over the past year, and through time and familiarity some have been able to do quite well.
Once I started adding a weight, I accomplished the same result in less than a month!
Yogis who could barely lift a foot were now able to lift and hold for a short while. Others were finally able to lift their hands, hold longer, etc. It’s been outstanding!
Note that these are my personal observations. I can’t attest to what you’ll experience. I hypothesize it will have similar affects in your own body, and if you teach it in your own students!
All I ask is that you be careful and check your ego. There’s a tendency for our egos to jump us straight to 8 lbs. HAH prepare to be humbled. Start with maybe a block, then progress with lower weights to higher. (Progressing from 5 to 8 lbs is a little over a 50% increase)
With this kind of ankle strength, there’s not telling what you’ll be able to accomplish!
Side note: Proprioceptive training, or standing on an unstable surface, like this amazing human is doing is another great way to train balance & progressively load an ankle.
Before I bid you adios, let me answer a few questions that may be floating around in your brain.
Question 1: Will this make me buff?
No it will not, remember we’re using the weight to strengthen our tendons & ligaments & better our balance. You usually don’t get ripped from resistance training unless you’re doing heavy lifting. 3 lbs and even 8 lbs will make you stronger, but you’re not going to bulk out.
If you’re concerned about getting too buff, watch out for those Chata’s hahaha
Question 2: I don’t have access to a weight!
First, that’s not a question. But I get it, weights aren’t in every yoga environment (nor should they be) & they can also be a bit expensive! I encourage you to get a little creative:
- A soup can can weigh around 2-3 lbs and is a bit more delicious than a weight
- Most metal water bottles (especially when full) can be up to like 5 lbs
- Yoga Blankets have some weight to them (just be careful, they’re a bit bigger and not as hand held)
There’s plenty of things available that carry a little weight and are also hand held. Remember we don’t need 20 lbs. 3 lbs is a great start, 5 lbs is ideal, & 8 is for the fancy pants folk.
Cats, dogs, & small children all have weight to them…
just sayin’ 😉
Question 3: You’re telling me to grab a 5 lb weight when I can barely stand on one foot!
Also not a question, but I understand. Remember step 1 from waaaay above: Learn the posture. The prerequisite is standing on one foot, even if you shake a little bit. You can always keep a heel down, or tiptoe on the lifting leg. With both feet on the ground, simply holding the weight and moving it around can help acclimate & train your body. Get creative, but please listen to your body. If you have difficulty with this, seek out someone who can supervise and instruct you.
Shaking like crazy with a weight in your hand is a broken toe weighting to happen 😉
Do you even lift bro?
Our article now comes full circle, and I hope now the answer is: I’m about to!
I see so many yogis get hurt form all the damned stretching and flexibility we do. You seriously need to balance it with strength training! If you overstretch a rubber band, eventually it will snap. Kinda works the same for your own connective tissue.
I encourage you to pick up a weight, or a band, and play around. As I’ve demonstrated, it really does not have to be much & can lead to some really cool novel stimulus to spark up your standard yoga poses.
Get strong, live well, & be happy! It’s your human right 😉