Why Yoga Is Necessary For Strength Athletes

Stability, not just flexibility

So you’re a strength athlete, but you secretly think it’s super badass when your yogi friends just flip themselves into headstands that look as natural as a barbell-only warmup set. If you’re a lifter wanting to try yoga, you might just not know where to start. But you don’t have to be all pretzel-like to practice yoga: you can come to the mat with all your stiffness and lifters’ awkwardness, and still reap strength-building benefits from yoga class.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

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 yogis who make it look easy — if only powerlifters could make it seem that sleek when attempting 1RMs. But holding Warrior III for exactly as long as your yoga instructor tells you to is no mean feat of strength, and developing that brand of yogic power is essential for healthy, efficient performances for lifters.

Increase In Overall Body Strength And Stability

Even 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 tricep pushup. And if you think it doesn’t develop a hell of a lot of lower body stability and strength to hold yourself in a perpetual crescent lunge, think again.

[Related: The 5 Best Yoga Poses for a Better Big 3]

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Improved Coordination

Kinesthetic awareness is a bigger factor in your big three 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. The more practiced you are at each step for each lift, the more automatic this set of cues will feel. But, 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 through cultivating a yoga practice. 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. If you’ve been wanting 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.

side plank
ESB Professional/Shutterstock

Stronger Isometric Control

Sure, you throw pause squats and presses into your training every now and again (as well you should). But the type of isometric control you need to pull the brakes on a bar for a few seconds is very different than the mental and physical control you need to wrangle to hold an isometric that involves tension across your entire body — which yoga poses so often require.

Building your balance and steadiness without a bar is only going to enhance your control with a bar. Because when your body knows exactly what you need to do to hold uncomfortable and compromising positions for minutes at a time, that 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 hell of a lot more than you do — and it does. Training for any strength sport takes an immense amount of discipline, in pretty much all areas of your life.

Yoga provides you with yet another set of tools in your mental toughness 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 — it gives your brain more time to freak out about the intense discomfort and even sensations of panic that can accompany many poses.

Learning to feel safe and even invigorated by breathing through that panic for several long, slow, seemingly endless breaths at a time takes a type of mental toughness that will definitely translate into maximizing your rest periods and your confidence in yourself to finish a max-effort rep or set.

Basic Yoga Poses For Lifters

You’re halfway convinced that this yoga thing is worth a try, but you’re not sure where to get started. That’s okay. If you’re not quite ready to dive into a Yoga with an Adriene workout or a yoga session with Brandon Collinsworth on the Nike Training Club app, know that you’ll never be ready until you take the dive… But if you’re still working up to diving, you can get familiar with some of these basic yoga poses that are extra good for lifters.

Breathe through each of these poses 5-10 times to get the hang of them, perhaps as part of your cooldown routine for now.

downward dog
fizkes/Shutterstock

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 the knees.

This might not seem like much, but holding here (like you’d hold a plank) will build serious upper back and shoulder stability.

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 (none of this movement should be pulling at your lower back) and straighten your arms out as you keep your hips low and chest up.
  • Draw your shoulders away from your ears.
  • If you can, let your low belly and thighs lift slightly off the ground, but don’t worry if they can’t. Just make sure you’re breathing.

You’ll strengthen your shoulders and stretch out your upper abs, which will definitely come in handy when bracing for heavy deadlifts.

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. (You foot will likely be tucked back in toward you, with your left knee facing toward the top of the mat and your left foot facing down toward your right hip — as long as you keep your hips even, that’s okay. You’ll get more bendy as time goes on.)
  • 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 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 progress. Hold the pose through five breaths before switching sides.

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.

[Related: Long day of sitting? Try these 8 stretches to unlock your hips]

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 (like you’ve snatched a barbell).
  • 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. With each inhale, get a little longer, and with each exhale, sink a little deeper into the position. The stability you’re creating will help your bench press’s range of motion and strengthen your legs unilaterally to boost your squat and dead.

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, like with your crescent lunge, keeping your shoulders away from your ears even as you reach up high.

Use the same breathing cues as with your crescent lunge and expect similar benefits to your lifts.

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 (a theme we’re developing here — oh, the gains to upper body strength and stability) and sinking your front thigh as close to parallel as feels comfortable.

Try to breathe through the pose for at least five or six long breaths.

Warrior II

  • From Warrior I, keep your feet in the same position. This time, 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, and keep steady through your legs.

Again, try to breathe through it for 30 seconds or so (five or six good breaths).

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-legged 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.

The upper body stability you’ll build with all three of these moves will do wonders for your lat activation in all of your big three lifts, and the lower body balance and hamstring activation (particularly in Warrior III) will make for a much more stable and less injury-prone deadlift. Always make sure to even out the Warrior poses on both sides.

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.

Maintain this tension and your balance — just like you’ll need to build for a great deadlift and lat activation for all three lifts — and breathe through five or six cycles of long breaths.

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 cooldowns, the benefits of yoga for strength athletes all add up into one thing — you, lifting heavier and healthier.

Featured image via Bojan Milinkov/Shutterstock

Jay Polish

Jay Polish

Dr. Jay Polish is an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer, and holds an additional certification in Kettlebell Athletics. A competitive powerlifter, their personal training practice focuses on empowering both new and experienced lifters with body positive training methods of strength and circuit training.

They teach Theater and English in the CUNY system, where they received their PhD in English. They live in California with their wife and their fantasies of having multiple puppies. Their website is here. You can train with them through Trainerize.

When they're not in the gym, they moonlight as the author of two young adult books, LUNAV and LOST BOY, FOUND BOY (March 2018, NineStar Press).

Their debut novel, LUNAV, a lesbian enemies-to-lovers faerie tale, features dragons that grow on trees and friendship amongst rebellion. Their debut novella, LOST BOY, FOUND BOY, is a scifi re-telling of Peter Pan in which Neverland is a holomatrix, Hook is a bisexual cyborg, and Tink is an asexual lesbian computer interface.

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