How Strength Athletes Can Add Yoga to Their Program

Barbells aren't the only way to get stronger. Here's how to bring yoga into your strength training.

You’re a strength athlete, but you secretly aspire to be able to maneuver your own body weight the way your yoga-loving friends do. You may be at home under a barbell but doubt that you, too, can one day look like a human pretzel. 

But the goal of yoga isn’t to force your body into new shapes. Strength athletes can incorporate yoga into their programs for a whole host of reasons — building an entirely new form of strength and focus chief among them.

A person wears a sports bra and performs an upward facing dog in the gym.
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Incorporating even a short yoga practice into your strength program can make a huge difference to your strength game. You’re likely to get a lot more mobile (which will help when you’re trying to learn overhead squats) and gain a tremendous amount of balance (which will come in handy when your next WOD calls for endless walking lunges).

Yoga helps build the kinds of static strength and mental focus that you need to pack a whole lot of pounds onto your lifting maxes. You can come to the mat with all your stiffness and lifters’ awkwardness, and still reap strength-building benefits from yoga class.

Benefits of Yoga for Strength Athletes

It might not look like a huge effort to lift yourself into crow pose, but that’s a credit to the yoga enthusiasts who make it look easy. But holding Warrior III for exactly as long as your yoga instructor tells you to is no mean feat of strength. Developing that type of strength is a game-changer for efficient performances from lifters.

Increase in Overall Body Strength and Stability

You don’t have to be an expert by any means to reap the benefits of a yoga practice. Even a novice doing yoga just once a week for 10 weeks can improve a person’s balance, flexibility, and core strength. (1)

The most basic of yoga poses can build strength in very real ways. Those downward-facing dogs you hear everyone talking about develop a lot of strength and stability in your upper back and shoulders. When you’re lowering yourself down — slow and steady — into Chaturanga, you’re doing a refined version of a tempo triceps pushup. Practices like this are how yoga helps you develop a whole lot of core and upper body muscular endurance. (2)

Improved Coordination

Kinesthetic awareness is a bigger factor in your big barbell lifts than you might think at first blush. Every time you step up to the barbell, your body runs through a series of cues for proper setup — everything from foot and hand placement to using your entire body to support your brace and breath. 

A person sinks into child's pose in a yoga studio with wall-to-wall windows.
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The more practiced you are at each step for each lift, the more automatic this set of cues will feel. And the better your overall coordination is, the more efficiently you’ll be able to go through your setup and hold proper form throughout each lift — even when the weight gets heavy.

Enhanced Range of Motion

Yoga isn’t stretching. But you can still gain a lot of ground with improving your range of motion and flexibility through cultivating a yoga practice. (1) Each time you’re cued to lengthen your spine and hold a pose with your arms extended, you’re greasing the groove of opening up your body to new forms (and planes) of movement

Maybe you’ve been to improve your overhead squat but haven’t been able to develop the combination of upper body and core strength and mobility that you need to pull it off. Extending your range of motion with yoga is a productive place to start.

Stronger Isometric Control

Sure, you throw pause squats and presses into your training every now and again. But putting the brakes on the bar for a couple seconds at a time is very different from the isometric control and muscular and mental endurance you need to hold yoga poses for many breaths on end. (2)

A person wears a black t-shirt while sinking into a warrior II pose.
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When your body knows exactly what you need to do to hold uncomfortable positions for minutes at a time, it translates into more activated stabilizers and a better-coordinated breaks system. You’ll need both of them to pull off the finer aspects of getting more powerful under heavy bars.

More Mental Toughness

You might think it takes a lot of mental toughness to bench press a bar that weighs a lot more than you do — and it does. Training for any strength sport takes an immense amount of discipline.

Yoga provides you with yet another set of tools in your mental resilience toolbox. Standing up out of the hole with your max squat on your back may feel like it takes forever, but in general, powerlifting max efforts happen within just a few seconds. Holding tough yoga poses, though, takes much longer. That time gives your brain more time to be uncomfortable with the intense discomfort and even sensations of deep emotion that may accompany many poses.

Learning to feel safe and even invigorated by breathing through that discomfort for seemingly endless breaths at a time takes mental toughness. That can translate into anything from maximizing your rest periods and your confidence in yourself to finish a max-effort set.

Yoga Poses for Strength Athletes

You’re halfway convinced that this yoga thing is worth a try, but you’re not sure where to get started. That’s okay. You can get familiar with some of these basic yoga poses that target the kinds of strength and mobility that strength athletes need.

Down Dog

This move will put a lot more emphasis on your upper body than you might think. You’ll be essentially sitting the weight of your upper body and hips into your hands. The shoulder mobility and strength you need to support this position is immense.

The downward facing down also requires you to be able to hike your hips up and back. This gives you great practice with moving your hips while your hamstrings and calves are solidly stretched.

Benefits of the Down Dog

  • You’ll build a lot of upper body strength and stability by holding so much of your weight in your hands.
  • Your wrists, forearms, and shoulders will be charged with keeping you stable.
  • Pressing your heels toward the ground during this pose can help stretch those pesky calf muscles.

How to Do the Down Dog

Start on all fours with your shoulders over your hands and your knees under your hips. Emphasizing pressing down through your thumb and index finger, exhale to press back and send your hips up, letting your knees come off the ground. Send your hips up and behind you, reaching your heels down toward the mat (they probably won’t touch, and that’s okay). Pedal your feet a few times to get comfortable, and keep your breathing steady. Feel free to keep a soft bend in your knees. Hold the position for five long breaths.

Up Dog

The dog has gone down, and now must come up. You’ll generally flow from one position into another, but it’s also okay if you learn these poses one at a time. For the up dog, you’ll be reversing your position from down dog such that your hips are down and your chest is up.

You’ll often get a nice stretch through the fronts of your shoulders through this pose. Your chest will also get a stretch in, which can help open your body up in spaces that it often closes off by hunching over computers and phones so often. This is extra helpful for strength athletes because it teaches your upper back to support your shoulders and chest.

Benefits of the Up Dog

  • This move is great for your hip mobility, as your hips will sink down to the ground while your chest goes up.
  • You’ll develop strength in your wrists, forearms, shoulders, and upper abs, which will all come in handy during big lifts.
  • Sinking into this pose helps stretch your chest and anterior delts.

How to Do the Up Dog

Start on your belly, with your hands under your shoulders and your toes untucked. Press into your hands, drawing your chest away from the mat. Squeeze your glutes to protect your low back and straighten your arms out as you keep your hips low and chest up. Draw your shoulders away from your ears. Breathe deeply for five breaths.

Half Pigeon

The half pigeon is one that might feel surprisingly emotional — a lot of hip-opening stretches can have that effect. Regardless, don’t pressure yourself to make this pose look like it looks when other people do it.

You might need yoga blocks to support you; you might be able to only reach forward with your fingertips walking out in front of you; you might be able to sink down onto one or both forearms; or you might be able to bring your forehead down to touch the mat. All are great versions of this pose. If the pose gets too intense, it’s okay to come out of it — you can always go back in later. Your squat in particular will love the release this pose gives your hips.

Benefits of the Half Pigeon

  • The half pigeon provides a lot of relief for tight hips, which is a hugely important component of deep squatting.
  • Since you focus on one side at a time, you’ll be able to make sure your hip mobility is developing evenly on both sides.
  • Since this position can be profoundly uncomfortable at first, you’ll get to know a lot more about your body and the ways that you can modify exercises to both listen to your body and challenge yourself.

How to Do the Half Pigeon

From a down dog position, inhale to lift your left leg up and back behind you, keeping your hips as square (not tilted) as you can. Inhale to draw your left knee forward underneath your body, with your left knee heading toward your left elbow and your left ankle unfolding near your right wrist. Let your shin drop gently to the mat, keeping it as close to parallel with the top of the mat as you can.

Square your chest toward the front of the mat and inhale to lengthen your torso. On an exhale, sink forward from your hips, collapsing gently over your left shin to deepen the stretch in your left hip. You can use a yoga block to rest your hands and/or hip on if need be.

Crescent Lunge

You might be used to walking lunges, but these are a different animal entirely. You’ll be building a completely different type of leg strength here.

Yes, walking lunges and other variations will help you improve your hip mobility and static strength — but not quite like this. You’ll be engaging your full body here. With each inhale, get a little longer, and with each exhale, sink a little deeper into the position.

Benefits of the Crescent Lunge

How to Do the Crescent Lunge

Step into a long lunge, with a soft bend in your back knee and a more generous, nearly 90-degree bend in your front leg. Exhale to sweep your arms up along your sides and over your head. Find your balance and let yourself breathe, sinking into your front heel and pressing down through your back heel (even though it won’t touch the ground). Keep your hips square and let your torso stay tall. Stay for about five to ten breaths before switching sides.

Chair Pose

You mat not actually need a sitting implement for this one. Although, you can use a chair for assistance if needed or preferred. Just find one that suits the height you need and make sure it’s stable to support you since you may not be sitting quite as usual.

Once again, you will reach up and over your head while holding a lot of strength and stability in your lower body. This keeps your core heavily engaged and helps train a lot of the mobility and confidence you need under a loaded barbell.

Benefits of the Chair Pose

How to Do the Chair Pose

Stand with your feet close together. Exhale and sink back into your hips, bending your knees and sending your butt back until your thighs are as parallel to the ground as feels comfortable. Inhale your arms up overhead, keeping your shoulders away from your ears even as you reach up high. Take five deep breaths.

Warrior I

This is the first in a small series of poses that often — but not always — occur in sequence during many yoga practices. Warrior I will resemble something like a lunge, but the emphasis will be on keeping your body long and steady instead of moving somewhere or lifting heavy weight.

This pose will help you keep balance with your lower body and help you develop confidence in your unilateral leg strength. You’ll build a whole lot of leg strength — especially in your quads — with just the isometric holds with your bodyweight.

Benefits of Warrior I

  • This pose develops a tremendous amount of leg strength.
  • You’ll also increase your hip mobility and overall lower body balance.
  • The unilateral nature of this pose helps you combat lower body strength and muscle imbalances.

How to Do Warrior I

Stand with your palms facing forward, tall through your chest. Step one leg back behind you with an exhale, like you’re about to dip into a lunge. Instead, turn your back foot at about a 45-degree angle, while your front foot remains facing squarely the front of your mat.

Press into the far side of your back foot for balance as you make sure your feet are in line with one another. Once you’re feeling able, deepen the position by exhaling your arms above your head and sinking your front thigh as close to parallel as feels comfortable. Cycle through five or six breaths.

Warrior II

As the name suggests, this pose typically flows from warrior I. You’ll lengthen your upper body and start to incorporate upper body muscular endurance with that lower body strength.

Focus on lengthening your body even further each time you exhale. The deeper you’re able to sink into the pose, the more you’ll be able to get strong in those end ranges of motion. This strength will serve you well on the platform when you’re squatting to depth or hinging for a loaded barbell.

Benefits of Warrior II

  • The stability you’ll build in your upper body has the potential to work wonders for your upper body stamina.
  • By focusing on your breath during Warrior II, you’re training yourself to engage in deep belly breaths without moving your limbs — an important skill when bracing for heavy lifts.
  • Building patience in this pose can help you develop a focus on smaller movements that add up to majorly efficient force production when you apply those skills to barbell work.

How to Do Warrior II

From Warrior I, keep your feet in the same position. Sweep your hands down and out to your sides, gazing over the middle finger of your front hand. Both arms should be parallel to the ground. Focus on keeping the parallel length, like someone was tugging you from both sides. Keep steady through your legs. Cycle through five or six breaths.

Warrior III

If you’ve ever dreaded single-leg Romanian deadlifts because of the balance challenge they present, warrior III can be a tremendous help. You’ll be working with just your bodyweight, which means you won’t be adding pressure to the pose from an external load.

But, you’ll be maintaining this position isometrically throughout several breaths. As such, you’ll have ample opportunity to build strength and confidence in the position.

Benefits of Warrior III

  • This move helps you build a tremendous amount of lower body balance.
  • You’ll keep your hamstrings extremely active, meaning that they’ll get the opportunity to grow stronger without external load.
  • Since this is a unilateral move, you’ll get to even out strength and muscle imbalances on each side.

How to Do Warrior III

From Warrior II, draw your back arm up to meet your front arm, both of them pointing in front of you now. With an exhale, let your back foot drift off the ground and let your torso and arms form as straight a line as you can with your back leg — all of this, balanced on your front leg.

Keep your neck neutral and try to maintain a consistent hip hinge (almost like a single-leg Romanian deadlift, but with your arms reaching out in front of you) throughout the pose, breathing while keeping your gaze on a single point to help build balance. Breathe five or six times deeply.

Dancer Pose

You might not consider yourself to be graceful in any way, but this pose will teach you that you can move gracefully and lift absurdly heavy barbells. The dancer pose will challenge your balance, work on your core strength, lower body flexibility, and hip and thoracic mobility.

It’ll do all of that while pulling you out of your comfort zone. Expect to stumble around to find your literal footing throughout this pose. That’s okay — once you’re able to hold it for a few breaths, the confidence it’ll help you build can remind you exactly what your body is capable of next time you’re attempting a max lift.

Benefits of the Dancer Pose 

  • This pose builds a tremendous amount of full body tension and balance — you’ll learn to maintain balance and poise while under a lot of pressure.
  • The isometric hold here is very challenging on your hip and thoracic mobility, which helps increase and strengthen your end ranges of motion.
  • You need a solid foundation of lower body and core strength to maintain this position.

How to Do the Dancer Pose

Start with your palms facing forward as you stand with square hips. On an exhale, peel your left leg off the ground, back behind you. Keeping your hips square (imagine pulling your tailbone toward the ground beneath you), reach back with your left hand to gently grasp the outside of your left foot or ankle. Counterbalance by extending your right arm forward in front of you.

Maintaining level hips, hinge into a single-leg deadlift-type position, leading with your right arm — as parallel to the ground as you can keep it — and your left hand still grasping your left foot or ankle, making a rough circle with your limbs behind you. Hold the pose for three or four breaths.

How to Integrate Yoga into Strength Training

Yoga and strength training are far from antithetical. Many people with consistent yoga practices can pull off tremendous feats of strength and stamina with just their bodyweight. Even if it’s not your intention to don yoga pants every Saturday morning, you can still integrate yoga principles and practices into your program.

Breathing Principles

Performing physical poses is only one part of yoga. Your breathwork and developing connection with your body is even more important than the shapes you can sink into. Take the breathing principles you learn through yoga and apply them to your big barbell lifts.

Yoga teaches you to use your breath to inform your movement, which will serve you well on the platform — especially when your confidence might be wavering. That might mean centering yourself with a few mindful breaths before your training session or in between sets

You may also find that yoga teaches you to trust your body to get you through uncomfortable positions. Keeping yourself in the dancer pose for your full cycle of breaths can help you gain confidence in the bottom of a squat because you know your body can handle it if you’ve prepared for it.

Active Recovery

Practicing yoga on your active recovery days is a very popular strategy for strength athletes to bring yoga into their programs. It won’t take time or energy away from your program, and it might even be able to help keep you limber and ready for more heavy lifts.

A person with tattoos stretches alongside a fellow yoga classmate.
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Try attending a yoga class online or in person so you can take advantage of having a skilled instructor help you through the movements. If you’re not ready to take that step, you can use guided YouTube videos. That way, you can start with extremely short practices — even five minute flows — and build your stamina and know-how up from there.

Try holding each pose for five to six breaths. Flow through each pose three or four times, making sure to keep things even on both sides when relevant.

Warm-Up

You don’t need to go all out with entire hour-length classes to reap the benefits of yoga. Learn a couple of poses and integrate them into your dynamic warm-up. In doing so, you’ll help activate your core, wake up your joints, and signal to your muscles that it’s time to get to work.

Cater the poses you chose to the workout you’re about to perform. For example, flowing between down dog and up dog can help prepare you for overhead pressing because they’ll wake up your core, shoulders, and upper back. Half pigeon, chair pose, and crescent lunges are excellent options when you’re preparing to squat, given that they target your legs and hips for both strength and mobility. Hold each pose for five to six breaths and cycle through each pose two to three times.

Yes, Yoga For Strength Athletes

It might not be nearly as loud as clanging barbells around, but developing a solid yoga practice can be just as important for your lifting program as any other accessory work. Whether yoga sessions become your go-to for active recovery days, or you keep learning more and more poses to integrate into your warm-ups, the benefits of yoga for strength athletes all add up into one thing — you, lifting heavier and healthier.

References

  1. Csala B, Szemerszky R, Körmendi J, Köteles F, Boros S. Is Weekly Frequency of Yoga Practice Sufficient? Physiological Effects of Hatha Yoga Among Healthy Novice Women. Front Public Health. 2021 Oct 18;9:702793.
  2. Shiraishi JC, Bezerra LM. Effects of yoga practice on muscular endurance in young women. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2016 Feb;22:69-73.

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