Having a dedicated, regular yoga practice is great—but if you’re going to keep your body strong, it’s important to cross train. One of the most transformative—and perhaps unexpected—ways to accomplish these goals is with weight training. In fact, the right regimen of weight training can totally transform your practice and strengthen your muscles so you feel stronger when practicing every asana, from your standing poses to your Chaturangas.
“If you plan to practice yoga long term, it is imperative that you strengthen every muscle that you lengthen through yoga,” says Amy Dalton, a yoga and fitness instructor based in Boulder, Colo., who uses a regular weight-room regimen to improve her practice. “Otherwise, our bodies become like weekend rubber bands. They might be flexible, but they won’t hold up well to stress.”
What’s more, a study in Complementary Therapies in Medicine suggests that strength and resistance training can provide an inner calm and focus similar to a Hatha yoga practice. Dalton agrees: “Our yoga practice does not have to end when we enter the weight room,” she says. “Enjoy how these movements can be part of your practice and a moving meditation. Practice all these movements with a calm and focused breath.”
Below, Dalton offers strengthening exercises that’ll help keep your body safe—and also help you see improvements in your yoga practice.
The move: Weighted donkey kicks
Dalton believes the glutes are the key to strengthening the back body. “They help to balance and stabilize us,” she says. “These donkey kicks help to strengthen the glutes while allowing you to stay very focused on making sure the glute is actually activating, which is very difficult for many people. Healthy glutes make healthy hamstrings.”
To do this move: Come onto your forearms and knees and stay engaged in your core by pulling your low ribs upward. Use a mirror to see that your back is neutral, not rounded or arched. Place a hand weight directly behind one knee and squeeze it lightly with the calf. Start with light weight (such as 3 to 5 lbs) and gradually work your way up. Squeeze your glute, then lift your heel toward the ceiling and lower. Repeat until fatigued, then rest. If you want a variation, you can pulse or hold at top and squeeze glute muscle, lift knee to the side (like a dog at a fire hydrant), or do circles in both directions. “I don’t believe in reps,” she says. “Instead, I recommend doing as many as you can, rest, and then do as many as you can again until you have reached fatigue.”
The move: Hamstring curls on a leg curl machine
“Our hamstrings get pulled and stretched, and then stretched some more, in our yoga practice,” says Dalton. “The common misconception from yogis is that we want loose or open hamstrings. But what we really want are mobile, agile, healthy hamstrings—hammies that can handle both a forward bend and handle a weighted lift.”
To do this move: Using the leg curl machine, start with light weights and gradually work your way up. Focus on squeezing the glutes when performing this exercise; the hamstrings are healthiest when the glutes fire along with them (or even before them). Think about squeezing glutes, then hamstrings, then curl. Be sure to press your low back into the bench behind you and stabilize by using your core muscles “You can do both legs together, but I suggest you do each leg separately so that one leg doesn’t do the work for the other leg,” says Dalton.
The move: Oblique and back strengthening with the back extension machine
The muscles around our spine connect to our obliques, which connect to our core. A strong trunk helps to support us in all our twisting and bending.
To do this move: Facing toward the floor, place your feet on the machine’s foot placement pedals. Hug your navel and low ribs in and bring your hands behind your head. (Or, if that is too intense, cross your hands across your chest.) Lean forward and then slowly lift your body up, twisting slightly to one side, lower, then the other side. Repeat until you reach fatigue, then do another set until you completely fatigue that muscle group. This movement is perfect for improving your agility in twists, says Dalton. “It strengthens the entire trunk and hits the muscles of the core, teaching all of them to work together as the body twists.”
See also 7 Poses for Core Strength
The move: Foam roller wheelbarrows
“Our core is an integral part of our yoga practice and crunches simply just don’t cut it,” says Dalton. “We should be working the core in multiple directions and in a variety of ways for optimal strength. Using the foam roller, we are able to activate the core muscles deeply by reaching and then pulling.”
To do this move: Start on your knees in a tabletop position with the foam roller in front of you. Move the foam roller out a bit further than you think you need to, then bring your hips forward so that you are in a kneeling Plank position. Place your forearms directly below your wrists, on the foam roller, and start to roll it away from you (toward your elbows). Repeat until fatigue, and be sure to keep an arch in your low back by pushing down into your forearms and lifting your low ribs upward. “Move slowly and don’t worry if you are only able to do one to two reps at a time, says Dalton. “Focus more on how you are doing the movement and in staying engaged, rather than on how many reps you do.”
The move: Forward and lateral raises
This exercise helps to strengthen the muscles around the spine, as well as the muscles that attach to the shoulders and neck. “When these muscles are healthy, not only does our posture improve but our backs and shoulders are strengthened and are more mobile,” says Dalton.
To do this move: Keep your knees soft and use light weight to start (3 lbs-5 lbs). Draw your shoulders back and down, stand up straight, and engage your core. Lift your hands straight forward to shoulder height, then move your arms out to the sides (beside your shoulders), and slowly lower the weights, repeat. Reverse directions. Lift out to the side, then forward, then lower. Perform until you fatigue and then repeat.
The move: Hanging shoulder rotations
“We use our shoulders in Planks, Down Dogs, Handstand and ask them to rotate and do so many crazy things in many different directions,” says Dalton. “It is important to keep the muscles attached to the socket strong and mobile.”
To do this move: Using hanging bars, grab on with both hands and let your body hang. Slowly start to rotate the shoulders around in the joint. Make circles both directions. As you feel comfortable, safe, and strong, you can gradually add ankle weights. Perform until you fatigue, and then do it again. (If you have a history of shoulder injuries or this feels unsafe in your body, start with your feet on a block and do rotations without hanging. If this still feels unsafe, consult a physical therapist or doctor.)
The move: Oblique cable machine rotation
This movement is perfect for improving your agility in twists, says Dalton. “It strengthens the entire trunk and hits the muscles of the core, teaching all of them to work together as the body twists.”
To do this move: Stand a few feet away from the machine with strap in hand and feet hip-width apart. Start with a light weight on the machine, and gradually work your way up. Bring your hands to shoulder height and pretend you’re hugging a tree. Slowly start to twist your body away from the machine and even more slowly, return back to center. Repeat until you’re fatigued, take a short rest, then do another set. Then, repeat on the other side.