The myth of the muscle-bound bodybuilder needs to vamoose. If you’re an Open competitor at the Mr. Olympia, you may not be able to hit the splits (although, some of the best posers in bodybuilding certainly can). But you need to stretch your thinking to gain the most mass possible. Mobility matters for the muscle-minded just as much as the devoted yogi or career gymnast.
If you hit the weights in pursuit of your ideal physique, doing yoga may seem like a foolish use of your time — but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, mixing some yoga into your bodybuilding routine might be what you need to take your physique to the next level.
To get the most out of your time on the mat, you need to know how yoga and bodybuilding interact, what stretches to do, and when to do them. Here’s how you can use yoga to build muscle.
Can You Combine Yoga and Bodybuilding?
In short; yes. They may look distinct from the outside, but yoga and bodybuilding share more qualities than you might think at first glance. The long answer is a bit more complicated. Stretching may not be regarded as poison to the muscle-gaining process, but how you should integrate yoga into your training isn’t perfectly cut and dry.
Stretching vs. Yoga
First, you need to have a working understanding of the differences (and similarities) between stretching and yoga. A layman might regard them as the same thing — and that’s partly accurate, in some contexts — but you’d be better off with a more nuanced perspective.
Stretching is a modality of recovery. The primary purpose of stretching in athletic contexts is to improve soft tissue flexibility as a method of preparing for (and recovering from) physical training.
On the other hand, yoga is a practice that comes in a variety of different forms; some are more physically demanding than others. Yoga practitioners incorporate plenty of stretching as part of their practice, but flexibility isn’t a goal unto itself. It is, for the most part, a consequence of practicing yoga for its own sake.
You can stretch your body without practicing yoga. While most forms of yoga contain plenty of stretching, it isn’t necessarily the goal in all cases. Bodybuilders can use yoga for all of the same reasons anyone else does; to improve their mobility, relax their minds and muscles, or add in a bit of off-day movement. All of which, by various means, contribute to physique development.
What the Science Says
Here’s where things get interesting. There isn’t much in the way of research studying bodybuilders who do yoga specifically. However, there’s a large body of literature studying how stretching interacts with hypertrophy and weight room performance, and you can apply much of that rationale to yoga and bodybuilding.
For many years, conventional wisdom (what you might think of as “bro-science”) in weight rooms said that you shouldn’t mix stretching with heavy lifting or sport-related activities. Certain studies have displayed that static stretching — as in, holding a joint in a stretched position without moving for a period of time — can reduce subsequent exercise performance. Some papers have gone as far as to state that stretching before you lift can negatively impact hypertrophy. (1)
However, the scientific community has since taken a more delicate stance as new research has come to light. While static stretching directly before weight training may dampen your strength or power potential, the effect appears to dissipate if you simply wait a few minutes before hitting the weights. On the other hand, if you perform dynamic stretches, you might even perform better. (2)
So, in real-world terms, your gains probably won’t suffer much if you stretch before (or after) your workout, unless you’re going from a stretch directly into a high-effort set. You have a green light to practice a bit of yoga as part of your warm-up or cool-down. But what about stretching between sets?
Inter-Set Stretching for Hypertrophy
The concept of inter-set stretching is gaining a lot of momentum in the evidence-based fitness community. Some bodybuilding coaches and competitors tout it as an effective (albeit niche and as-of-yet unconfirmed) method of boosting muscle growth during a workout.
Some recent evidence has shown that a 20-second stint of stretching during downtime between sets of resistance training may modestly improve muscle thickness. (3) However, the writers noted that their findings weren’t conclusive. Other studies have shown no definitive benefit or harm. (4)
There’s a general consensus that between-set behaviors are highly contextual to your goals. (5) If you’re chasing mass, some brief stretches between sets may help. However, if you train for both strength and size, you may be better served by actually resting during your rests.
Focused downtime, during which you mentally prepare for your next set (instead of turning to your smartphone out of boredom), is your best bet if you want to produce the most force on every exercise.
- Yoga and bodybuilding aren’t entirely dissimilar. Both activities involve taking your muscles through their full range of motion, often against resistance.
- Yoga and stretching are not the same; yoga is meant to improve more than the flexibility of your joints.
- Stretching (whether as a standalone activity or as part of a yoga flow) may negatively affect your strength or power in the immediate term, but if you wait a few minutes before hitting the weights the effects largely dissipate.
- Doing stretches or a yoga flow as part of your warm-up or cool-down isn’t likely to diminish the results of your workout in any way.
- Stretching between sets of resistance training may boost hypertrophy a bit, but don’t put all your eggs into that basket.
Benefits of Yoga for Bodybuilding
Yoga is one of the best things you can do to improve your performance in the weight room. The best part, though, is that you don’t have to contort yourself into a pretzel to reap the benefits the practice provides. Some low-level static or dynamic stretching before (or after) your workout can do wonders.
Helps You Access More Range of Motion
Broadly speaking, when training for hypertrophy you should always strive to through its full range of motion. If, for example, you have extremely tight hamstrings, you may not be able to access the most valuable parts of the Romanian deadlift during your leg workouts.
Yoga can help you “access” the boundaries of your range of motion by stretching the tissue without the threat of a heavy load. If you have tight hammies, you may be hesitant to sink into a deep hip hinge with a heavy barbell in your hands, limiting your muscle-building potential.
Stretching a tight muscle is a necessary precursor to loading it with weight. You don’t want to stretch a tissue past its usual tolerance for the first time with extra resistance as well.
Provides Mental Clarity
Your mentality affects your workouts more deeply than you probably realize. If you’ve been in the bodybuilding game for a while, you’re certainly aware of the peaks and valleys that tend to come with dedicated physique development.
Practicing a style of yoga that encourages mental relaxation and clarity of thought, such as Hatha or Yin, can help you unwind after an exhausting leg or back workout while also stretching out the tissues you just trained.
You may also consider doing some yoga on your off days as a gentle form of active recovery. This can help stimulate nutrient delivery to damaged tissues and allow you to mentally focus on your goals.
Improves Blood Flow
Good circulation is crucial for ensuring that your nutritional efforts don’t go to waste. This matters more for recovery than overall muscle gain, but all things kept equal, more blood flow is better than less.
Yoga can be particularly useful in-between workouts as a means of accomplishing this without taxing your body too much. If you’re traveling and are stuck in a small airplane or car seat for hours, or you work a desk job, doing a brief yoga flow can really open you up and prime your body for training.
Burns (Some) Calories
If you’re cutting (whether under the supervision of a physique coach or not), every calorie burned makes your life a bit easier. However, you probably shouldn’t pile on the cardio to the detriment of your performance and sanity.
The deeper you get into a fat loss phase, the more economical you need to be about your physical activity choices. A moderate to vigorous yoga session will burn a decent number of calories without putting much strain on your joints or asking too much of your muscles.
Best Yoga Poses for Bodybuilding
If you’ve committed to making yoga a part of your outside-the-gym bodybuilding routine, your next step is to select the right poses and stretches. Physique athletes tend to hold tightness and tension in many of the same places; opening and loosening your chest, hips, hamstrings, and thoracic spine is crucial.
If you train for strength and size, you probably bench with many of the hallmarks of a powerlifter, including a proper spinal arch. To perform better and more comfortably on the bench, you can loosen up your pecs and hips simultaneously with the bow pose.
Even if the barbell bench isn’t part of your chest day, you should still stretch out your pecs and front delts either before or after your workout. Restricted, hunched shoulders “compress” your physique and make your torso appear more narrow.
Your lower back may be more of a support structure than a mirror muscle, but you should still train it all the same if you want to develop a killer posterior chain and ultimately bring out that coveted Christmas tree. The upward-facing dog pose is a great way to introduce some end-range stimulation to your lower back and hip flexors.
Not only will the upward-facing dog alleviate stress in your lower back and hips, it’s a practical plug-and-play option. You can hold this pose for a few beats between sets of just about any movement during your workout to keep your spine feeling good.
Not every good yoga pose requires you to hold yourself still on the floor with your joints twisted up in a knot. You can combine some dynamic pre-activation movement with a posterior chain stretch with the yoga push-up.
This drill will activate your pecs, delts, and triceps while stretching out your upper back, glutes, and hamstrings. It’s more vigorous than a standard yoga pose, so consider incorporating this one as part of your warm-up protocol.
If you want to build the biggest, beefiest legs possible, the last thing you want is stiff hips that prevent you from sinking into a deep squat or hinge. The pigeon pose is one of the best options out there for mobilizing your hips and lower back.
The most valuable aspect of the pigeon pose is that it allows you to stretch and open one hip at a time. Certain bilateral (that’s two-legged) poses can mask imbalances in flexibility or tension, but you should notice right away if you have any side-to-side discrepancies between your hips.
Open Book Pose
You need an unrestricted and mobile spine from skull to sacrum if you want to properly train the many muscles in your back. Further, if you work a desk job or spend a lot of time sitting in the same position during the day, you can easily arrive at the gym feeling knotted up and far from ready to smash a back workout. Remedy this with the open book pose to loosen up your thoracic spine.
Note that this pose does contain some twisting at the spine, which is in no way inherently harmful but may expose your vertebrae to a new stressor. Regardless, this pose is wonderful for getting your spine ready to bear load.
Swole and Flexy
Bodybuilding is as much performative art as it is a competitive sport. Building your best physique is only half the battle — you have to know how to show it off as well. To do so, you need the flexibility to hit all the right poses.
That’s where the value of yoga shines for the bodybuilder. Whether you use it to limber up before a workout, recover a bit quicker on your off days, or clear your head before a new phase of training, your time on the mats will be well-spent when it comes time to hit the weights.
- Junior, R. M., Berton, R., de Souza, T. M., Chacon-Mikahil, M. P., & Cavaglieri, C. R. (2017). Effect of the flexibility training performed immediately before resistance training on muscle hypertrophy, maximum strength and flexibility. European journal of applied physiology, 117(4), 767–774.
- Yamaguchi, T., & Ishii, K. (2005). Effects of static stretching for 30 seconds and dynamic stretching on leg extension power. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 19(3), 677–683.
- Van Every, D. W., Coleman, M., Rosa, A., Zambrano, H., Plotkin, D., Torres, X., Mercado, M., De Souza, E. O., Alto, A., Oberlin, D. J., Vigotsky, A. D., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2022). Loaded inter-set stretch may selectively enhance muscular adaptations of the plantar flexors. PloS one, 17(9), e0273451.
- Wadhi, T., Barakat, C., Evangelista, A. L., Pearson, J. R., Anand, A. S., Morrison, T. E. A., O’Sullivan, J., Walters, J., & Souza, E. O. (2022). Loaded Inter-set Stretching for Muscular Adaptations in Trained Males: Is the Hype Real?. International journal of sports medicine, 43(2), 168–176.
- Latella, C., Grgic, J., & Van der Westhuizen, D. (2019). Effect of Interset Strategies on Acute Resistance Training Performance and Physiological Responses: A Systematic Review. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 33 Suppl 1, S180–S193.
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