When the team at Rhone asked me to share some tips for bringing yoga into a fitness routine, I immediately asked my brother for his two cents. The traditional All-American athlete, he’s a big guy with a history of heavy lifting and high-impact sport, he’s in chiropractic school, and also happens to have recently taken up yoga. He replied with some really compelling reasons that most people who do yoga already know to be inherently true.
Specifically, there is a wealth of evidence on resistance training regimens showing that lack of stretching leads to decreased range of motion and poor muscle tone, which compromises both form and posture. Additionally, the movements common in yoga are great for restoring the flow of synovial fluid in joints throughout your body. He concluded, simply, yoga is a great way to improve flexibility while still building strength. I couldn’t agree more.
The first thing to know about yoga is that there are many different types. There are some that focus on flexibility, some that focus on aligning breathing to flow, some that focus mostly on strength and balance, and everything in between. Over the past few years I have tried a wide variety of yoga classes, paid close attention to the experts, and learned to create synergy between my yoga practice and my resistance training. Now, every workout I do is a cross between the two. In doing this, there are a few key things I focus on that are easy to replicate and only improve with practice.
There are a couple different types of breathing practiced in yoga, but the key take-away is to do it with purpose and to align it with movement. This concept isn’t new to runners or experienced weightlifters, but it can be easy to forget. For runners, we often breathe in the nose and out through the mouth to control the breath in a way the helps get our muscles the oxygen it needs during anaerobic exercise. For lifters, we learn to split reps into two – breathe in as we relax a muscle and breathe out as we contract it, generating maximum strength during each rep. If you’re not doing this, give it a try.
In yoga, we breathe in and out through the nose, almost exclusively, with exhales creating a forced-sigh sort of sound. The effect is not only mentally calming, but it creates more and more body heat, aiding in flexibility and increasing the flow of fluids.
The other effect of purposefully breathing in yoga is to intensify stretches. Both bending and twisting are normal parts of yoga. In either case, as air flows into our abdomen, the intensity of the position lessens. We cannot physically twist or bend quite as far with our lungs full of air. However, as we exhale, we deepen that pose – twisting or bending farther. Going through several breath cycles in a single pose can incrementally improve the benefit you derive.
Yoga can push our bodies to limits we are not accustomed to feeling – inversions, twists, and even simply staying still. An important part of a balanced yoga practice is the use of counter-poses in order to keep the body balanced. For example, a headstand, which is strenuous for the neck, should be followed by a pose that relieves that pressure and restores flexibility. This technique has helped me immensely on the weight room floor.
After a set of squats, which introduces intense pressure on the lower back and hips, I turn to counter-stretches as a way to inhibit the formation of muscle adhesions (knots) and general tightness. See the example below where I use a forward fold to take the pressure off my back and alternate weight-bearing legs to deepen the stretch for both hamstring and calf. Doing this consistently will greatly improve your recovery. For me, it has helped to the point that I rarely deal with muscle soreness in the days following heavy lifts.
I think there’s a general acceptance amongst the physically-active today that core work is important. Most people know that they need to do more than just a few crunches in hopes of getting a six-pack. There are muscles all throughout your abdomen that contribute to healthy posture and good form in all exercise. If you’re not sure how to do be more proactive in building a strong core, yoga is a great place to start. Nearly every pose involves the active engagement of different abdominal muscles, whether it’s simply for balance or intense abdominal work.
Some quick examples that are very common in most flow- and strength-based yoga practices are the plank, the push-up, and some variations on mountain climbers.
The last piece of advice I pull from yoga for all forms of training is in no way unique to yoga. However, a lot of adults in pursuit of physical fitness actually fail to set goals. It’s just an endless routine of exercise for the sake of exercise. Those who do set goals typically set them for things like weight loss or gain. The problem is that most of these goals are too ambiguous; they don’t involve incremental steps and are hard to conceptualize. In short, they’re not actionable.
Because yoga naturally involves a progression of specific poses, there is always a goal at hand, which then leads to another. My advice here is to not only think of what you want to achieve, but how you plan to achieve it.
As a runner, knee pain has plagued me for years. It turns out that the trick to avoiding runner’s knee is to improve hip strength to help keep your gait aligned and reduce strain on your IT band. Rather than vaguely hoping for stronger hips, I specifically practice certain yoga flows I designed to focus on hip strength. One example, going from seated to completing various balance poses and back down to seated – all on one leg, is a way that I specifically pursue this goal. When I master this flow, I’ll make a new one.
Nate Warden grew up as a competitive runner and became obsessed with strength training in college before developing chronic back pain due to lack of stretching and poor recovery habits. He took up yoga about 4 years ago to bring balance to his fitness routine. He is not a yoga instructor, but continues to advance his own skills through frequent practice and thoughtful integration of flexibility and flow with traditional strength training. Learn more or contact him here.