We sent three yogis to the lab to test the theory that yoga is all you need for optimal fitness.

When it came to the fitness benefits, yoga can or can’t provide, yoga teacher John Schumacher had heard it all. A student of B. K. S. Iyengar for 20 years and founder of the Unity Woods studios in the Washington, D.C. area, Schumacher was convinced yoga provides a complete fitness regime. But many people, even some of his own students, disagreed. Yoga might be good for flexibility or relaxation, they’d say, but to be truly fit, you had to combine it with an activity like running or weight lifting. Schumacher just didn’t buy it.

He knew three decades of yoga practice—and only yoga practice—had kept him fit. He didn’t need to power walk. He didn’t need to lift weights. His fitness formula consisted of daily asanas (poses) and pranayama (breathwork). That’s all he needed.

Four years ago at age 52, Schumacher decided to prove his point. He signed up for physiological testing at a lab in Gaithersburg, Maryland. As he expected, Schumacher tested near the top of his age group for a variety of fitness tests, including maximum heart and exercise recovery rates. His doctor told him that he was in excellent physical condition and estimated that Schumacher had less than a one percent chance of suffering a cardiac event. “I’ve always maintained that yoga provides more than adequate cardiovascular benefits,” says Schumacher. “Now I have the evidence that regular yoga practice at a certain level of intensity will provide you with what you need.”

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Evidence of yoga’s ability to bolster fitness, however, goes well beyond Schumacher’s personal experience. Yoga Journal’s testing of three yogis also yielded impressive results. Even physiologists who don’t do yoga now agree that the practice provides benefits well beyond flexibility and relaxation. Recent research—though preliminary—shows that yoga may also improve strength, aerobic capacity, and lung function.

If you practice yoga, you already knew that. But if, like Schumacher, you’ve been told by friends, family, doctors, or even other yoga students that you need to add some power walking for your heart or strength training for your muscles, here’s evidence that yoga is all you need for a fit mind and body.

What Is Fitness?

Before you can prove yoga keeps you fit, you must first define what “fitness” actually means. This isn’t a simple task. Ask eight different physiologists, and you’ll hear eight different definitions, says Dave Costill, Ph.D., one of the first U. S. researchers to rigorously test the health and fitness benefits of exercise.

Now professor emeritus of exercise science at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, Costill defines fitness simply as the ability to live your life without feeling fatigued. “For normal daily living you don’t need the strength of a football player or the endurance of a marathon runner, but you’ve got to be able to perform your normal activities and still have a reserve,” says Costill.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the largest exercise science association in the world, defines fitness as both related to your ability to maintain physical activity and related to your health (for example, people who become more fit reduce their risk for heart disease). According to ACSM, four types of fitness help to bolster health:

1. Cardiorespiratory fitness

This refers to the fitness of your heart, lungs, and blood vessels. The better your cardiorespiratory fitness, the better your stamina, the lower your risk for a host of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Your ability to move without feeling winded or fatigued is measured by your VO2max (maximal oxygen uptake), a technical term that indicates how efficiently oxygen enters your lungs, moves into your bloodstream, and is used by your muscles. The more fit you become, the more efficiently your body transports and uses oxygen, improving your overall VO2max.

To test VO2max, physiologists ask you to cycle or walk or run on a treadmill with a tube-like mask over your mouth. The mask gathers the carbon dioxide and oxygen you exhale, and the ratio between the two gasses helps to indicate how efficiently your muscles use oxygen.

There are other tests that measure additional aspects of cardiorespiratory fitness, including a lung function test, in which you take a deep breath and then blow into a tube to measure your lung capacity, and heart rate tests, taken both at rest and during exercise. Since equally fit people can vary as much as 20 percent in heart rate, this measure best indicates your own progress: If you become more fit, your heart rate generally drops.

2. Muscular fitness

This refers both to muscle strength (how heavy an object you can lift) and muscle endurance (how long you can lift it). Without exercise, all of us lose muscle mass as we age, which can eventually result in weakness and loss of balance and coordination. Because muscle is such active tissue, it also plays an important role in regulating your metabolism, with every pound of muscle burning about 35 to 50 calories a day.

In a lab, researchers test your muscle strength and endurance on specialized equipment that looks like an exercise machine at a gym but contains sensors that read how much force your muscles generate as they contract.

3. Flexibility

As most people age, their muscles shorten and their tendons, the tissue that connects muscles to bones, become stiffer. This reduces the range of motion, preventing optimum movement of your knees, shoulders, elbows, spine, and other joints. Loss of flexibility may also be associated with an increased risk of pain and injury. Tight hamstrings, for example, pull down on your pelvis, putting pressure on your lower back. In general, tight muscles increase the likelihood you’ll suddenly move past your safe range of motion and damage ligaments, tendons, and the muscles themselves.

4. Body composition

Your body composition refers to the percentage of your body made up of fat instead of muscles, bones, organs, and other nonfat tissues. Though the use of body composition as a fitness and health indicator has come under fire in recent years by those who argue that it’s possible to be both fat and fit, the ACSM and many physiologists continue to assert that too much fat and too little muscle raises your risk for disease and makes movement less efficient.

Physiologists can measure body composition in several ways. The simplest method uses a pair of calipers to pinch the skin and underlying fat at various spots on the body. This method works best for athletes and others with little visible body fat. For those with more body fat, a more accurate method is hydrostatic weighing—being weighed while submerged in water and comparing the result to your out-of-water weight. Because fat floats, the greater the difference between your submerged and dry weights, the higher your body fat percentage.

Experts have long recommended that we do at least three different types of activity to achieve optimum cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, flexibility, and body composition. For example, the ACSM recommends building cardiorespiratory fitness by exercising at an intensity that raises your heart rate to at least 55 percent of your maximum heart rate (the highest rate you can maintain during all-out effort, generally estimated as 220 minus your age); muscular fitness by targeting each major muscle group with eight to 12 repetitions of weight-bearing exercise; and flexibility by stretching.

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No one argues against yoga’s ability to satisfy the flexibility requirement. But until recently, few scientists had considered whether yoga could improve other aspects of fitness. Now that’s starting to change.

Putting Yoga Fitness to the Test

In one of the first studies done in the United States that examines the relationship between yoga and fitness, researchers at the University of California at Davis recently tested the muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, cardiorespiratory fitness, body composition, and lung function of 10 college students before and after eight weeks of yoga training. Each week, the students attended four sessions that included 10 minutes of pranayama, 15 minutes of warm-up exercises, 50 minutes of asanas, and 10 minutes of meditation.

After eight weeks, the students’ muscular strength had increased by as much as 31 percent, muscular endurance by 57 percent, flexibility by as much as 188 percent, and VO2max by 7 percent—a very respectable increase, given the brevity of the experiment. Study coauthor Ezra A. Amsterdam, M.D., suspects that VO2max might have increased more had the study lasted longer than eight weeks. In fact, the ACSM recommends that exercise research last a minimum of 15 to 20 weeks, because it usually takes that long to see VO2max improvements.

“It was very surprising that we saw these changes in VO2max in such a short time,” says Amsterdam, professor of internal medicine (cardiology) and director of the coronary care unit at the U. C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. He is now considering a longer, larger study to authenticate these results.

A related study done at Ball State University offers further evidence for yoga’s fitness benefits. This research looked at how 15 weeks of twice-weekly yoga classes affected the lung capacity of 287 college students. All of the students involved, including athletes, asthmatics, and smokers, significantly improved lung capacity by the end of the semester.

“The athletes were the ones who were the most surprised, because they thought their athletic training in swimming or football or basketball had already boosted their lung capacity to the maximum,” says study author Dee Ann Birkel, an emeritus professor at Ball State’s School of Physical Education.

From the perspective of a Western scientist, the few additional studies that have looked at yoga and fitness all contain flaws in their research design—either too few subjects or inadequate control groups. One study, conducted in Secunderabad, India, compared a group of athletes taught pranayama to another group who were not. After two years, those who practiced pranayama showed a larger reduction of blood lactate (an indicator of fatigue) in response to exercise; in addition, they were more able than the control group to increase their exercise intensity as well as the efficiency of their oxygen consumption during exercise. Other smaller studies also done in India have found that yoga can increase exercise performance and raise anaerobic threshold. (Anaerobic threshold is the point at which your muscles cannot extract enough oxygen from your blood and therefore must switch from burning oxygen to burning sugar and creatine. Unlike oxygen, sugar and creatine are dirty fuel sources, creating lactic acid and other by-products that build up in the blood and make you hyperventilate, “feel the burn,” and lose muscle coordination.)

Although the research on yoga is only starting to build, a convincingly large amount of research has been done on tai chi, an Eastern martial art that involves a series of slow, graceful movements. Many studies have found that tai chi helps to improve balance, cardiorespiratory and cardiovascular fitness, ability to concentrate, immunity, flexibility, strength, and endurance of the knee extensor muscles.

Dina Amsterdam, a yoga instructor in San Francisco and graduate student at Stanford University, is one of many researchers conducting a three-year study that compares the psychological and physiological benefits of tai chi as to those of traditional forms of Western exercise such as aerobics. (The daughter of Ezra Amsterdam, Dina Amsterdam was the inspiration behind her father’s U. C. Davis study on yoga and fitness.)

“Though there haven’t been a lot of studies done on yoga that are considered valid, there are numerous studies done on tai chi, with the current Stanford study the largest to date,” she says. Because yoga shares many elements with tai chi but can also provide a more vigorous physical workout, Amsterdam expects future yoga studies to produce at least similarly encouraging results. But Amsterdam says she doesn’t need additional research to prove to her that yoga builds fitness. “I haven’t done anything but yoga and some hiking for 10 years,” she says. “When I came to yoga, I was 25 pounds overweight and suffering from a compulsive eating disorder. Yoga completely brought me back to physical and emotional health.”

Many yoga practitioners echo such thoughts. Jack England, an 81-year-old yoga and stretching instructor at the Club Med in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, says more than 30 years of yoga have kept him flexible, healthy, and strong. He’s the same weight and height as he was in high school, and his stellar health continues to amaze his doctor. He delights audiences at Club Med by practicing Shoulderstand and other poses while balancing on a float board in a water ski show. “I’m an inspiration to people of all ages,” he says. “I do things that 14-year-old girls can’t do.”

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Stephanie Griffin, a 33-year-old director of business development for a pharmaceutical research company in San Francisco, discovered yoga after years of running marathons, spinning, and weight lifting. Before discovering yoga, she thought her intense exercise habits had turned her into a poster child for health and fitness. During the last four years, however, Griffin began doing more and more yoga and less and less running, weight lifting, and aerobicizing. As she dropped back on her hardcore fitness pursuits, she worried she might gain weight or lose her muscle tone or exercise capacity.

She didn’t. “I have maintained my fitness and even enhanced it through yoga,” says Griffin, who no longer has a gym membership. “And I like the way my body looks and feels now better than the way it did before.”

Why Yoga Works

Exactly how does yoga build fitness? The answer you get depends on whom you ask. Robert Holly, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in the Department of Exercise Biology at U. C. Davis and one of the researchers on the U. C. Davis study, says that muscles respond to stretching by becoming larger and capable of extracting and using more oxygen more quickly. In other words, side benefits of flexibility include increased muscle strength and endurance.

“My own belief is that the small but significant increase in maximal oxygen capacity was due to an increase in muscle endurance, which allowed the subjects to exercise longer, extract more oxygen, and reach an increased maximal oxygen uptake,” says Holly.

Then there’s the pranayama theory. Birkel suspects that yoga poses help increase lung capacity by improving the flexibility of the rib area, shoulders, and back, allowing the lungs to expand more fully. Breathwork further boosts lung capacity—and possibly also VO2max—by conditioning the diaphragm and helping to more fully oxygenate the blood.

Birkel, Dina Amsterdam, and others are also quick to point out that Suryanamaskar (Sun Salutations) and other continuously linked poses increase the heart rate, making yoga aerobically challenging. And many yoga poses—particularly standing poses, balancing poses, and inversions—build quite a bit of strength because they require sustained isometric contractions of many large and small muscles. Of course, holding the poses longer increases this training effect.

Finally, yoga tunes you into your body and helps you to better coordinate your actions. “When you bring your breath, your awareness, and your physical body into harmony, you allow your body to work at its maximum fitness capacity,” says Dina Amsterdam. “Yoga class is merely a laboratory for how to be in harmony with the body in every activity outside of yoga. This improved physical wellness and fluidity enhance not just the physical well-being but also permeate all levels of our being.”

Are You Fit?

Given all this evidence, can you now confidently tell your nonyogi friends they’re wrong when they insist that you should add other forms of exercise to your practice?

Maybe, maybe not. The answer depends largely on how much you dedicate yourself to yoga. Studies done on yoga have included more than an hour of practice two to four days a week. The yoga sessions included breathwork and meditation in addition to typical yoga poses. Finally, the asanas used in these studies included not just aerobically challenging sequences, like Sun Salutations, but also many strengthening poses, like Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose), Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Navasana (Boat Pose), Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), and Plank.

So if you want to become and stay physically and mentally fit, make sure your yoga practice includes a balance of poses that build strength, stamina, and flexibility, along with breathwork and meditation to help develop body awareness. In particular, include a series of standing poses in your practice. As your practice expands, Schumacher suggests adding more challenging asanas such as balancing poses and inversions. “If you are just doing 15 minutes of gentle yoga stretches three to four times a week, you will also need to do some other form of exercise to stay fit,” Schumacher readily admits. “I often tell my beginning students that they will need to do something in addition to yoga for a while until they can practice more vigorously.”

Holly agrees. If you practice yoga for less than an hour twice a week, he suggests you either pair your practice with moderate intensity exercise like walking, or increase your yoga time or frequency. “But the best form of exercise is whatever you enjoy most and will continue to do on a regular, almost daily, basis,” he says. “Should you do more than yoga if you don’t enjoy other activities? No. Yoga has a lot of benefits, so do yoga regularly and enjoy it.”

Beyond fitness, yoga also offers many other gifts. It improves your health, reduces stress, improves sleep, and often acts like a powerful therapy to help heal relationships, improve your career, and boost your overall outlook on life.

All these positives are enough to keep former exercise junkie Stephanie Griffin hooked on yoga for life. Griffin had worried that, unlike her other fitness pursuits, yoga wouldn’t give her the emotional satisfaction of aiming for and meeting goals. Soon, however, she realized that yoga offered her a path to constant improvement. “One day it hit me: I realized that my goal was to be practicing yoga well into my 90s,” says Griffin. “For me, that is the new finish line. Practicing with that goal satisfies me more than any marathon.”

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Alisa Bauman stays fit through yoga, running, and fitness ball workouts. She lives and writes in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

Yoga for Strength: 9 of Yoga’s Best Strength-Building Poses

As we’ve previously noted, yoga is all about balance. One the most obvious physical manifestations of this is the balance between flexibility and strength in an asana practice. Though yoga is perhaps better known for its stretchy, bendy, loosey-goosey side, its fierce, powerful, vigorous side is just as important. Some people come to yoga already quite strong; they usually need to work on their flexibility. The inverse is also true; anyone who is naturally flexible needs to compliment their bendiness with strength and stability to minimise the chance of injury.

Brand-new beginners will build both flexibility and strength naturally when they practice a wide variety of poses regularly. Just by practising consistently, new yogis will begin to strengthen their major muscle groups (core, arms, legs, back) plus the many other smaller support muscles you probably didn’t even know were there until you were sore in the strangest places. Intermediate and advanced students of yoga may want to start to target specific areas for strengthening as you begin to tackle more complicated poses like inversions and arm balances.

Although it may not be as easy to measure as your newly bulging triceps (thank you, Chaturanga!), the yoga that strengthens our bodies also works on our minds. Though you (probably) won’t be teleporting household objects anytime soon, you will feel the mental effects of a consistent yoga asana practice. These include learning the power of perseverance, finding a willingness to try new things, dealing with failure followed by success (and then maybe failure again), and discovering that you have some measure of control of the mind’s frantic activity. The exploration of the physical side of yoga often leads to an interest in mindfulness, but you don’t have to have a formal meditation practice to begin to experience yoga’s mental benefits.

Is Yoga Enough for Strength Training?

This is the kind of question that drives die-hard yogis crazy but none the less comes up often enough that it deserves an answer. And our answer is, unequivocally, it depends. It depends on a lot of things, like what you mean by ‘enough’, what your strength goals are, and how you want to live your life. If you really want to bulk up, there are more effective ways, namely weight-lifting. Yoga falls under the categories of body-weight training, in which you are necessarily limited in how much you can lift by your own size. Weightlifting knows no such bounds since you can keep adding plates to your barbell until the cows come home. Both types of training build strength when muscles are worked until they are fatigued.

Incorporating all different kinds of movement into our lives makes us stronger and healthier. Cardio activities like running and swimming are great for yoga and yoga is great for them. Lifting weights and doing additional core work will help you do more strength-based yoga poses and also improve your balance and stamina in your daily life. It’s all related. So if it makes your body feel good, then you should do it. But try to let go of the idea that you are never doing enough.

Which Type of Yoga Is Best for Building Strength?

Active, dynamic styles of yoga are great for strength training. They can be seen as the equivalent to doing a lot of reps of body-weight exercises. Ashtanga, with its emphasis on daily practice, many vinyasas, and mastery of postures in sequence is one of the most effective. Many types of Power Yoga, which are based on Ashtanga principles, also live up to their name. Rocket Yoga is another particularly strong style of practice, as is Jivamukti. Both of these incorporate lots of balancing and inverted postures within fast-paced flows.

That said, styles in which poses are held for a longer duration build muscle endurance. In Iyengar Yoga, for instance, props are used to make it possible to hold difficult poses for much longer than in a flow context. Forrest Yoga is particularly well-known for its attention to detail and stamina-testing hold times. If you have only ever done fast-paced yoga, you may be surprised at how challenging this is. Slow-flow provides a nice combination of longer holds with connecting movement. So if strength is your goal, incorporate both long hold times and more reps.

Plank Pose

Planks are an undisputed strengthener for the abdominal muscles, the shoulders, and the lower back. Though planking seems simple enough, you want to make sure that your form is good so that your shoulders stay safe. It can be hard to judge the position of your hips at first so if you don’t have a mirror handy, get a friend to tell you if your hips are piking up too high or sagging too low. In yoga classes, planks are often used as a quick transitional pose. To improve strength, try holding your planks for at least a minute.

Instructions:
1. Come to your hands and knees with your shoulders directly over your wrists. If you were staying here, you would also line up your hips over your knees, but in this case, you want the knees a little further back in preparation for straightening the legs.
2. Tuck your toes under and straighten your legs.
3. Spread your fingers wide to distribute your weight throughout your palm.
4. Avoid locking your elbows since this is hard on your joints. Softening your elbows just a little bit allows the support muscles around the joint to kick in.
5. When the hips are in the correct potions (neither too high nor too low), you can trace a diagonal line from the crown of your head to your heels.
6. If you can’t maintain this form, drop your knees to the floor as you build strength.

Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)

Chaturanga flows from Plank like butter on hot toast. Take everything we said about the importance of alignment in Plank and double down on it for Chaturanga. It really doesn’t do you any good put so much work into your triceps if your shoulders are going to give out in a few years. Assuming your alignment in great, you can’t beat Chaturanga when it comes to arm strength, plus shoulders, back, and core as well. It is essentially a mindful push-up and you can treat it as such. Instead of one Chaturanga, try doing five in a row, pushing back to Plank each time. You can also hold the low position or add in an extra Chaturanga after your Upward Facing Dog in a classic vinyasa. As with plank, dropping the knees to the mat is a great option for beginners.

Instructions:
1. From Plank, shift your weight forward into your toes so that your shoulders come in front of your wrists (see a full tutorial of this method).
2. Slowly bend your elbows straight back to lower your chest toward the floor.
3. Stop lowering when your shoulders are in line with your elbows or above the elbows. Do not let the shoulders dip toward the floor or come anywhere near to touching the floor!

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)

The lowly Low Cobra is much more than just a stepping stone to Upward Facing Dog. It offers the rare opportunity to tap into the underused muscles in your back. To make the most of Cobra’s strengthening potential, you first have to take a solemn vow not to cheat this pose. When we say that you should lift your chest up as high as possible, all of a sudden people start pressing into their palms and straightening their arms and yes, their chests do come up higher, but they haven’t used their back muscles at all. So first reconcile yourself to the idea that your Cobra is going to be pretty low. You are going to keep your elbows bending straight back and not put any pressure into your hands to help you lift up.

Instructions:
1. Lie on your stomach with your forehead on the mat, your hands under your shoulders, and your elbows hugging your sides.
2. Anchor your pelvis to the mat and on an inhalation, lift your shoulders and upper chest off the mat without pressing into your hands at all. Slide your shoulders away from your ears and keep your gaze on the floor to avoid cranking your neck.
3. On your next exhalation, lower your forehead back to your mat. Flowing up and down on the breath three to five times helps you tap in to the lower back muscles.
4. If you like, you can try hovering the palms off the floor to make sure you are not using them to lift up at all.

Boat Pose (Navasana)

When approached correctly, Boat is one of yoga’s greatest abdominal strengtheners. What we’re interested in here is not whether you can straighten your legs fully. The most important thing is the relationship between your torso and your thighs. You want to maintain a nice sharp V shape there. So if you straighten your legs and your V gets low and loose, you should keep your knees bent for now. Introducing dynamic movement into your boat makes it function more like a crunch. To do this, lower on an exhalation as if you were going to lie down on the floor but keep your shoulders and heels hovering above the floor. This is called Low Boat. Then sit back up into Boat in an inhalation. Try moving up and down five to ten times, keeping your toes active the whole time.

Instructions:
1. Sit with your knees bent, the soles of your feet flat on your mat, and your hands resting lightly on either side of you. This position helps you feel your sit bones, which act as the balancing point for the pose.
2. Lean back a little bit to lift your feet off the floor. Keep your knees bent and bring your shins parallel to the floor. Flare your toes.
3. If it helps you keep your torso up, you can hold on to the backs of your thighs with your hands. If you can maintain a tight V without holding on, let go and bring your arms level with your shoulders. Your palms can be facing each other, turned up, or turned down, whichever feels better.
4. Straighten your legs only if you can maintain the position of your thighs and torso when doing so.
5. Move back and forth between Boat and Low Boat to build more core strength.

Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)

This standing pose strengthens the legs, core, arms, and back. To get the most strengthening power out of this position, set yourself up with the best possible alignment and then go for a longer hold time, perhaps up to ten breaths. Your foot alignment, with the front heel lined up with the back arch, makes this a bit of a balance, requiring core strength to steady the wobbles. You will really feel some muscle fatigue in your front thigh when you deepen your front knee enough to bring the thigh parallel to the floor. Holding your arms outstretched also works the biceps and deltoids.

Instructions:
1. Set up with your right foot at the front of your mat and left foot at the back. Your left foot is tuned out 90 degrees (or slightly less) and the hip points are facing the left side of your mat.
2. Align your front heel and back arch using the Central Line on your Liforme Mat. Bend the right knee so that it comes directly over the right ankle and your thigh is as close to parallel with the floor as possible.
3. Stack your shoulders over your hips and extend your right arm forward and left arm back, parallel to the floor.
4. Your head faces the front of your mat.
5. Take five to ten deep breaths while maintaining your alignment.
6. Then do the same pose with the left foot forward.

Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana)

Poses in which you stand on one leg are really good strengtheners because they require your body to recruit lots of muscle groups in order to remain balanced upright. Half Moon works the legs and the core even though one hand is still on the ground. Try to use this hand very lightly so that your core is doing most of the work. It may be very helpful to use a block under your hand for a little added lift. As you get stronger, you can work on slowly talking all the weight out of your bottom hand. Also, remember to keep your lifted foot engaged by flaring your toes to activate the whole leg.

Instructions:
1. From Warrior II, place your left hand on your left hip, then lower your right hand to the floor just in front and slightly to the right side of your right foot. At the same time, lift your left foot off the floor.
2. Straighten your right leg, but don’t lock your knee.
3. Flex your left foot and lift your left leg so that it’s roughly parallel to the floor.
4. Open your chest toward the left and lift your left arm straight up toward the ceiling.
5. Turn your head to bring your gaze to the left fingertips once you are stable.
6. After five to ten breaths, do the other side.

We’re of the mind that pretty much anyone can benefit from yoga. More than a workout, this lifestyle practice can teach you so much about yourself while helping you implement a sense of calm and serenity in your everyday life — all while creating a healthy body. And while you can get stronger through this style of exercise, should yoga be your go-to strength training workout?

“The term ‘strength training’ gets misused a lot,” said DIAKADI personal trainer Nicolette Amarillas. “I think many times we use this term — like with yoga — not to describe movements that create actual strength increases, but more so movements that are great for overall health of the body, muscle work, joint mobility, and physical and mental health.” The holistic coach and creator of Expansive Voice told POPSUGAR that activities that are considered strength training are scientifically calculated to create a “strength increase.”

“Yoga is a great complement to a strength program, and you could see increases in strength.” ADVERTISEMENT

“True strength training is a very scientific and specific form of training, that entails specific rest periods, time under tension, weight, exercise tempo, and exercise prescription. So, true strength training needs these variables in order to see strength increase.” This mostly comes down to resistance and weight training. That said, you might see an increase in strength from additional types of exercise like yoga, but Nicolette says it’s not traditional strength training. “Workouts like yoga, bodyweight exercises, and HIIT are great complements to a strength program, and are often times things that people could see increases in strength, but I would not call these ‘strength training’ programs.”

Equinox trainer and health coach Caroline Jordan agrees — you can get stronger with yoga, but only to a certain extent (read: those Chaturanga push-ups will help you, but there’s a limit). “You will build some muscle with yoga poses that have you supporting your bodyweight against gravity,” she told POPSUGAR, “But eventually you’ll reach a plateau and will need to add weights or some other form of resistance.”

If you’re newer to exercise, yoga can actually be a great low-impact way to gain strength through bodyweight movements. Before you hit the weight racks, learn a solid triceps push-up (Chaturanga) and create a strong mind-body connection. “Chaturunga specifically is essentially an eccentric push-up,” said personal trainer and coach Liz Letchford, MS, ATC. “Eccentric movements, from a physiological standpoint, can help to increase strength in the muscles being used. How this differs from traditional strength training, however, is that strength training requires an intentional combination of repetition, rest, and tempo in order to effectively increase the strength of your muscles, tendons and nervous system.”

“You will get stronger as your nervous system becomes more familiar with the movements.”

Why is this different from yoga? “In yoga, you aren’t doing multiple sets of six to eight reps with precisely timed rest , so no, it isn’t technically strength training,” Liz said — BUT (and yes, there’s a but) — “You will get stronger as your nervous system becomes more familiar with the movements and you begin to learn how to engage the proper muscles to stabilize you in each pose.” Wow.

You’ll also strengthen your brain in the process. “Yoga is strengthening for the body and mind,” said author, speaker, and wellness influencer Candice Kumai. “For me, I use yoga as an ancient way to train, calm, and strengthen my mind, and the deepest parts of my spirit,” she told POPSUGAR. “The breath and openness gives me life; If it can additionally help to test, challenge, and strengthen my physical body simultaneously, why not? I practice about five times a week, mainly to stay sane in NYC!”

Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Rima Brindamour

Paul Miller

Yoga is amazing, but it’s not enough if you want to give your bones the best fighting chance against loss and damage—for that, you’ll need to add some weight-bearing cardiovascular fitness to your routine (think jumping, running, walking, dancing, hiking, and aerobics). “It has to do with the impact of your feet on the ground and how that impact radiates up through your body,” says Simpson. “Bones are dynamic and alive. When you jog or jump, it puts pressure on the bone, which sends a message to the osteoblasts: ‘We need to get these bones stronger.’” That’s one reason astronauts lose an average of 1 to 2 percent of their bone mass per month while in outer space: No gravity equals no bone-building impact. Rubenstein Fazzio recommends adding three 30-minute sessions of high-impact cardio to your weekly workout routine, including brief bursts of vigorous effort. Running and aerobics are especially good, plus they’re heart-pumping moves, so you’ll enjoy the cardioprotective effects, too.

If 30 minutes is too much of a commitment, short spurts of jumping or jogging count, too. (Note: If you have osteoporosis, avoid jumping.) Research from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, showed that when women ages 25 to 50 jumped as high as possible 10 times, twice a day, for 16 weeks, their hip bone density increased by 0.5 percent on average. This may sound negligible, but the women who didn’t jump lost about 1.3 percent of their bone density on average during the same period. Study author Larry Tucker, PhD, recommends jumping as high as possible 10 to 20 times—resting for 30 seconds between jumps—twice a day, and spacing out the two sets by about eight hours to prevent your bones from becoming desensitized to the impact.

The final fitness key to bone fortification: strength training. Hoisting dumbbells or doing lunges or squats places a higher load on your skeleton, and bones respond by growing stronger. When choosing weights, don’t go too easy on yourself. “Pick a challenging weight that you can safely manage without strain, and do fewer repetitions,” advises Rubenstein Fazzio; that added stress is what sets bone-forming cells into action. Aim for two to three sets of 8 to 12 reps per body area, twice a week. To make it super simple, slip some of Rubenstein Fazzio’s favorite strength-training moves into your regular yoga practice (see “Pump up your practice”).

See also Why You Should Add Weights to Your Practice

6 Ways to Add Weights to Your Yoga Practice

For efficient bone building (and fun!), add these exercises from Lori Rubenstein Fazzio, DPT, C-IAYT, into your yoga practice.

Pump Up Your Practice

For efficient bone building (and fun!), add these exercises from Lori Rubenstein Fazzio, DPT, C-IAYT, into your yoga practice.

Dumbbell Squats

Stand with your feet hip-distance apart and hold a 2- to 10-pound dumbbell in each hand, arms by your sides and inner wrists facing your hips. Gently squeeze your shoulder blades together to activate the muscles of your upper back. Maintain this as you exhale and bend your knees into a squat position, keeping your upper back mostly vertical and your knees tracking directly over the middle of your feet. Hold for 1–5 breaths. Straighten your knees and return to standing. (As your endurance builds, you can raise your arms out to your sides or in front of you as you lower into the squat). Repeat 2–3 times.
See also Power Up Your Practice: 8 Weight-Training Moves for Yogis

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Part 1: The 12-Minute Yoga Sequence Backed By Research to Strengthen Your Bones
Part 3: The Nutrients You Need for Strong Bones & a Sesame-Cabbage Salad with Salmon That Has Them All

Sarah asks: Do yoga and pilates count as strength training even though you can’t “bulk up” with either of them?

Sarah, any exercise that challenges or overloads your muscles will help your muscles become stronger (notice I didn’t say “bigger”). I think that strength training is important for everyone. I like to think of myself as a fit person who runs, rather than a runner who is fit.

There is an endless approach to strengthening your muscles. Free weights, machines, body weight as resistance, medicine balls, etc. are all methods that people use to challenge, stress, overload their muscles.

I think the real key to improving your muscular strength is to overload your muscles. For example, if I do 10 push-ups every other day for 4 weeks, how many push-ups will I be able to do at the end of 4 weeks? The answer is 10.

The human body is amazingly adaptable. If you present the same challenge to you body, you body will eventually adapt. In order to continue to improve, it is important that you continue to increase or modify the challenge.

I think yoga, pilates, and core training are all valuable and important approaches toward being a well-balanced and fit person. Both yoga and pilates challenge your flexibility, balance, core fitness and strength; all of which are valuable to a runner.

So why is strength training important to a runner? When you become fatigued, your form deteriorates (poor running economy). It is not just because of tired legs, but it is also due to tired arms and a tired back and abdominals. Having a strong torso helps hold your form together in the latter stages of a workout or a race.

Strength training has many benefits for runners including the following:

  • Prevents the gradual loss of strength and bone mineral content that occurs naturally with aging.
  • Eliminates muscle imbalances between opposing muscles.
  • Improves running economy (one of the key determinants of running performance).
    • By improving running economy, a runner should be able to run faster over the same distance due to a decrease in oxygen consumption.
    • Improved running economy would also increase a runner’s time to exhaustion.
  • Improves running performance as a result of neuromuscular adaptations that ensures that muscle activation remains high during the duration of a workout or race. In one study, after ten weeks of resistance training, 10K times decreased by an average of a little over one minute.
  • Improves rapid force production when the foot is on the ground, reducing ground contact time and thereby ensuring a higher running speed.

The goal of strength training for runners is not necessarily adding muscle mass but…
1. Improving muscular strength,
2. Improving local muscular endurance,
3. Maintaining current muscle mass,
4. “Pre-hab” for injury prevention, and
5. Post-injury rehabilitation.

I think the real question is: Can yoga and/or pilates help accomplish these goals? I think the answer is “possibly.” The answer to this question is whether or not the yoga and pilates you are doing is progressive. Do the workouts gradually and progressively increase the challenge to your muscular fitness? If so, then you may be fine to continue with your current approach. However, if a progressive aspect is missing in your yoga/pilates workouts, then you may want to consider modifying your approach.

Here’s an idea for your consideration: complete your yoga/pilates workouts as normal and add one day of a more traditional strength training program. The combination and variety may be just what your muscles need.

Scott Murr, co-author of Runner’s World: RUN LESS, RUN FASTER, is the Training Performance Director of the Furman (University) Institute of Running and Scientific Training and is a member of the Health and Exercise Science Department at Furman. Scott is an 11-time Ironman Triathlon finisher.

Have a question for our beginners experts? E-mail it to [email protected] NOTE: Due to the volume of mail, we regret that we cannot answer every e-mail.

Scott Murr Scott Murr, co-author of Runner’s World: RUN LESS, RUN FASTER, is the Training Performance Director of the Furman (University) Institute of Running and Scientific Training and is a member of the Health and Exercise Science Department at Furman.

5 Yoga Pose Twists for Muscle Toning

Corbis Images

Yoga in its raw and natural form is awesome for so. Many. Reasons. And we’d never say that doing yoga poses the traditional way won’t reap you huge mental and physical rewards. (It will. Just check out these 6 Hidden Health Benefits of Yoga.) That said, there are a few things you can do to turn up the heat a notch (or a few notches) to build more strength and lean muscle, rev your heart rate, or simply get a deeper stretch. “Challenging the body and mind by playing with different variations and transitions in common poses makes for a stronger and more fun practice,” says Mary Dana Abbott, a yoga teacher at Equinox and Creative Director of Laughing Lotus. It’s not something to do every time you get your om on, but these five strength training moves from Abbott make for a cool, surprising way to switch things up. (Like her outfit? Check out Nesh Clothing!)

Just a note of caution from Abbott: if you get the red light from your instructor, play with these at home. Always make sure your modifications are okay with your teacher. Respecting what they say and the practice they are teaching is important-and so is being a team player in class (AKA not distracting other students or the teacher).

Handstand Pushups Against Wall

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“This move builds strength in shoulders, arms and core, plus helps with balance,” says Abbott.

Tips:

1. Keep hands shoulder-width apart

2. Place heels on wall and keep a small bend in knees to keep back flat

Warrior Two with Arm Variations

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“Work both the upper and lower body at the same time and get in some isolated tricep and bicep work,” says Abbott.

Tips:

1. Work with resistance in the arms: pretend you have small weights in your hands or even use two-pound dumbbells

2. Make sure front knee is directly over the ankle

Tree Pose with Heel Lift

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“Lifting your heel makes this pose more of a proprioceptive challenge and further works calves and core,” says Abbott.

Tips:

1. Focus your gaze softly right below eye level and keep it there as you raise the heel

Bunny Hops from Downward Dog

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“This one gets your heart rate going (read: can help you burn more calories) and helps with coordination,” says Abbott.

Tips:

1. Keep thighs engaged and land softly on the floor.

2. Aim hips to go over shoulders

Plank with Toe Shift

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“Strengthen your core, arms and thighs while getting a great calf stretch,” says Abbott.

Tips:

1. Keep gaze focused on floor in front of you

2. Don’t let neck or head sink

  • By Caitlin Carlson

If you are seeking a functional way to increase muscle tone and strength with the desire of a lean, agile body, then yoga is an apt replacement for strength training. We discuss how both practices work differently to achieve similar goals, but produce varied results.

Yoga vs Strength Training
Much like bodyweight exercises at the gym, yoga requires you to lift your own weight with the support of muscles when assuming different postures.

On the flip-side, if you want to build bulk and isolate particular areas of the body, then yoga alone cannot be the answer. While putting the two practices together would bring out the most optimal results, strength training is the one that will particularly help you beef up significantly.

Advantage Strength Training
Remember, strength training requires one to imbibe the opposite principles of yoga when building muscle strength. The technique is known as isolation, and it is often also referred to as concentric muscle contraction.

This type of contraction, causes muscles to get smaller when they are worked upon, and since stretching is not involved, the muscle fibers repair in closer proximity to one another. This is what leads to bulging muscles that are flaunted by some actors and body builders.

Advantage Yoga
The best part of using yoga as your sole routine is that you are less prone to injury. Your body utilizes all your muscles, allowing them to simultaneously stretch as they contract. This lengthens your muscles, re-aligns your body, and enhances your overall flexibility.

Common Ground
Both practices are a great way to sculpt the body and add definition, although the end result of a person who has been consistently practicing yoga and a person who has been weight training is visually very different. While the former is more linear and leaner, the latter is more compact, broad-built and pumped up.

Either way, they both require you to step up your skill and move beyond the basic practice of techniques.

PS: Here’s your one-stop guide to Yoga Asanas For Weight Loss.
Celebrate International Yoga Day 2015 With ZLiving!

Yoga as strength training

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