For much of her adult life, Glenda Twining wanted stronger, more toned, shapelier arms. She tried everything from weight lifting to rock climbing, but her arms remained relatively weak, thin, and undefined. Things finally changed about eight years ago, when she discovered yoga.
"My arms, shoulders, and back underwent a total transformation," says Twining, 52, who wrote Yoga Turns Back the Clock and Yoga Fights Flab (both published by Fair Winds) and teaches vinyasa-style yoga in Dallas. Her praise for yoga's ability to shape up and strengthen the arms is echoed by Leigh Crews, a yoga instructor in Rome, Georgia, and a program developer for Reebok University (the educational arm of the apparel and equipment designer). Crews says many of her students particularly like the look they have achieved through yoga: "It's not bulky. Rather, it's sculpted."
Vanity aside, strong arms do much more than allow you to wear tank tops or spaghetti straps with confidence. They make the rest of your life easier, Crews says, by enabling you to lift and carry things like groceries, babies, packages—you name it—without strain.
Anatomy of Arm Strength
Many large and small muscles help you curl your fingers, move your hands, flex your wrists, extend your elbows, and lift your arms. For everyday activities, three of the most important are the biceps, the triceps, and the deltoids. The biceps run along the front of the upper arms and are responsible for bending the elbows. The triceps, along the backs of the upper arms, extend the elbows to straighten the arms. The deltoids, which form the outer layer of the upper arms where they meet the shoulders, lift the arms to the sides; they also help lift the arms to the front, extend the arms behind, and rotate the arms inward and outward.
Although yoga might not be the first fitness pursuit that comes to mind when you think of strong arms, yoginis such as Twining and Crews argue that it can tone and sculpt the arms as effectively as traditional weight training. Just about any yoga posture in which you place your palms on the floor and use them as a foundation to support your body weight strengthens your arms and shoulders. Standing postures in which the arms must work to resist the downward pull of gravity develop arm strength as well.
Yoga, however, takes a somewhat different approach than weightlifting does to building arm strength. When you curl a barbell or dumbbell, the biceps muscle contracts and shortens. That's what physiologists call a concentric (or isotonic) contraction. It builds the explosive strength needed to perform actions such as quickly scooping up a child who is toddling into a busy intersection. If you do "negative reps"—that is, you resist the pull of the weight strongly even as the arm lowers back down to its original position—you're doing an eccentric contraction, in which the muscle works even as it's lengthening. In yoga practice, you engage in both of these types of conditioning when you move from pose to pose, as in the push-up-like movement from Plank Pose to Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) and back. But when you hold postures in yoga, you strengthen your muscles mostly through what's known as isometric work; that means the muscle is activated but its length remains the same. Isometric work builds the kind of muscle endurance that helps you hold a child in your arms as you wait for the traffic to cease.
If your current yoga practice does not emphasize the upper body, you can change that by shifting your focus within postures you already practice and by adding arm-strengthening asanas to your routine. In standing poses, concentrate on keeping your arms firm and straight, reaching out expansively. And include plenty of poses that challenge the arms, like Plank, Chaturanga Dandasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), and Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose).
You can alternate strategies for practicing these poses: One day, concentrate on holding them as long as possible; another day, move in and out of them repeatedly. A traditional version of the latter strategy is Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). There are a number of variations of this series of poses, but most include Plank, Chaturanga, Downward Dog, and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose). Twining suggests using Sun Salutations to warm up for your practice and then sprinkling them throughout your asana routine. (For further instruction on the Sun Salutation series, visit www.YogaJournal.com/sun.)
As you gain strength, Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) and Sirsasana (Headstand) also become excellent ways to build even stronger arms and shoulders. (Make sure you learn Headstand from an experienced teacher who can monitor the safety of your neck in the pose.)
Yoga and Cross-Training
As a complement to your yoga practice, consider a weight-training routine for the upper body that includes exercises for the front of the upper arms (biceps curls), the backs of the upper arms (triceps kickbacks and presses), and the deltoids (lateral raises, military presses). Make your free-weight session just as meditative as your yoga practice by bringing your awareness inside your body, feeling each muscle contract and relax, and matching your breath to each of your movements, suggests Lauren Eirk, group fitness director at the Louisville Athletic Club in Kentucky and a national fitness and yoga educator.
"Free-weight training is very complementary to the practice of yoga," Eirk says. Yoga can lengthen the muscles, which in turn gives bodybuilding yogis the potential to lift heavier weights. Conversely, weight lifting helps yogis build the strength needed for challenging postures such as Handstand and more advanced arm balances. Because weight training requires contracting specific, isolated muscle groups, it also increases body awareness. "When you combine yoga with weight training, it gets easier to stay in poses for a longer period of time and focus on what you want to focus on without thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, I want to get out of this,'" Eirk says.
Muscles need 24 to 48 hours to recover from any strength-building session, whether you've worked them in the weight room or on the yoga mat. If you tax your arms and shoulders every day, you may end up tearing and injuring them rather than strengthening them. You'll have to use a trial-and- error approach to discover just how much downtime between sessions is optimal for you, but in the beginning, it's a good idea to sequence your workouts so you don't focus on your arms two days in a row.
Although arm-strengthening exercises can be challenging, rest assured that your body will grow stronger over time, regardless of your fitness level or age, Crews says. In her yoga classes for seniors, Crews heavily modifies traditional arm-strengthening postures to match the abilities of her students. "Gradually, I show them how they can move from modified versions to the complete pose," she says. "One day, I saw this lady who is nearly 70 in full Side Plank. Her form was excellent, and she was so proud of herself. There was no way that she could have done that initially. But she worked at it slowly and progressed gradually. Now she can do things she could never have done before."
Use Your Body as a Free Weight
To develop the explosive strength that weight training creates without lifting a dumbbell, try these yoga moves.
1. From Plank Pose, complete several "push-ups," lowering to Chaturanga and lifting back into Plank while keeping your legs and torso in one, straight line.
2. Periodically modify your hand position when you lower Chaturanga. The traditional posture with the fingers pointing forward tones the front of the deltoids, the triceps, and the pectorals (chest muscles). If you reverse your hand position (point your fingers toward your toes) and place your hands closer to your feet, your biceps muscles will kick in as well.
3. From Plank, move into Side Plank, back to Plank, and then to Side Plank on the other side. Side Plank helps build stability in the shoulders and strength in the triceps. If possible, repeat the sequence several times.
Alisa Bauman is a freelance writer and yoga instructor in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.