Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
You don’t need to hit the gym to strengthen or sculpt your body. Instead, you can turn to yoga for toning muscles throughout your body (and best of all, you can do it from the comfort of your home).
With toning, you’re looking to reduce body fat and replace it with lean muscle. High-repetition exercises, like what you move through in a yoga practice, pave the way for that change. Unlike weight-training, which is great for building muscle mass, yoga uses your body weight as resistance, which strengthens and defines your muscles over time. In this way, yoga is similar to cardio workouts like running, an exercise that’s known to build lean muscle. Running is an aerobic form of exercise that burns body fat for energy to keep you moving, while simultaneously strengthening your legs and core with every step.
If you’ve ever taken a vinyasa class or completed 10 Sun Salutations in a row, you know that the feeling in your body is similar to running for a few miles—your heart is beating and you feel the strain in your muscles. Yoga has the added benefit of toning your muscles—and you can target areas of your body based on the poses that you practice.
So what are you waiting for? Get ready to feel the burn and shape your body with these yoga poses for toning.
6 best yoga poses for toning
Sculpt your legs
Gym exercise it replaces: Much like a weighted lunge you’d perform in a gym, High Lunge strengthens the inner and outer thigh, quadricep, hamstring, glute, and hip flexor of the extended leg. Your torso is also activated because your obliques fire to prevent you from falling over. As a toning exercise, focus on doing multiple repetitions from Three-Legged Downward-Facing Dog Pose—at least 10 per leg.
How to: Begin in Downward-Facing Dog Pose. On an inhalation, lift your right leg so it’s in line with your back. It should extend no higher than your hips. On an exhalation, step your right foot through to the inside of your right hand. Keep the ball of your left foot firmly planted on the floor. On an inhalation, lift your arms toward the ceiling so that your biceps frame your ears. Keep your back straight and be mindful to keep your front knee directly above your ankle so it doesn’t drift forward over your toes. Hold for 1 breath. On an exhalation, plant your hands back down on the mat, keeping your right foot inside your right hand, and bring your right leg back to Three-Legged Downward-Facing Dog Pose. Repeat for a total of 10 repetitions, then plant your right leg back in Downward-Facing Dog Pose, raise your left leg into Three-Legged Downward-Facing Dog Pose, and practice 10 repetitions on the left side.
Gym exercise it replaces: Bridge Pose is reminiscent of hip thrusts. It strengthens your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps. Repetition is also your friend here for strengthening the posterior chain (calves, hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, and latissimus dorsi) and toning the muscles of your legs.
How to: Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet hip-width apart, leg parallel to one another. Draw your feet closer to your buttocks so you can touch your heels with your finger tips. On an inhalation, press down through your feet and lift your hips. Initiate the movement from your pelvis and not your legs. Interlace your fingers underneath your back and widen your chest as you bring your shoulder blades to the mat. Hold for 2–3 breaths. Exit the pose on an exhalation, releasing your hands back to your sides and lowering your buttocks to the floor. Repeat 15–20 times, or until you feel tired.
Build a strong core
Gym exercise it replaces: Yes, you can tone your abs without sit-ups. With Boat Pose, your entire core is engaged as you strain to keep your back straight and legs lifted while balancing on your bum. Your hip flexors work the hardest to hold your legs up. Even though you feel a noticeable burn throughout your rectus abdominis (the long muscle running from your pelvis to your ribs), it’s mainly working as a stabilizer to prevent you from falling over.
How to: Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Press your hands on the floor slightly behind your hips. Keep an open chest, wide shoulders, and flat back as you begin to lean backward. Balance your weight on the tripod of your sitting bones and tailbone. On an exhalation, bend your knees, then lift your thighs so they are angled about 45 degrees above the floor, with your knees still bent. If possible, begin to straighten your knees and legs. Next, lift your arms straight in front of you, palms facing in, arms parallel. Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute, then slowly bend your knees and drop your feet to the floor. Repeat for 2 more sets.
Gym exercise it replaces: A staple in any core workout, Forearm Plank targets the transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, and obliques. There’s also the added bonus of toning your legs, arms, and shoulders (they’re engaged to keep your body lifted, while your abs work to hold your body in a flat and stable position). It’s similar to holding your body in a push-up position but recruits more core muscles to keep you elevated.
Try it: Place your forearms on the floor with your hands shoulder-distance apart and your shoulders stacked above your elbows. Draw your elbows toward your midline to engage your shoulders. Step your feet back so your legs are hip-width apart. Press through the balls of your feet to engage your quadriceps. Lift the tops of your thighs away from the floor while lowering your tailbone to the floor to create a slight posterior tilt in your pelvis. Extend your chest forward and press your heels back. Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute, then lower your knees to the floor to release. Rest and repeat for 2 more sets.
Tone those arms
Gym exercise it replaces: Work your triceps without doing push-ups. This movement is relied on as an important transition in many yoga classes, but you may simply think of it as a yogic push-up. Either way, your triceps activate to hold your body in Plank Pose, stabilize your torso as it’s moving toward the floor in Four-Limbed Staff Pose, and keep your back flat and arms extended as you press back into Downward-Facing Dog Pose. As in Forearm Plank, your shoulders and legs will feel the burn.
How to: Begin in Plank Pose with your shoulders slightly in front of your wrists and pressing through the balls of your feet. Push back through your heels to engage your quadriceps as you reach your chest forward, maintaining a flat back, tailbone toward the floor. On an exhalation, bend your elbows and slowly lower your body until your elbows are at around 90 degrees. Keep your elbows directly over your wrists and drawn in against your sides. Press your hands firmly into the floor. Bring your gaze to the floor about 6 inches in front of you and continue to lower until your shoulders are at the same height as your elbows. Continue to reach through the heels, sternum, and crown of your head as you breathe. From this lowered position, raise your pelvis up and back toward the ceiling behind you as you press your chest toward your thighs and heels toward the floor, entering into a Downward-Facing Dog Pose. Stay in Down Dog for 1–2 breaths. Then, rock onto the balls of your feet again and return to Plank Pose. Repeat 2–4 more times, or until you feel fatigued.
See also: 9 Yoga Poses to Build Arm Strength
Gym exercise it replaces: Trade exercises such as the bench press for this pose. Dolphin Pose is excellent for the upper body in general but especially works the shoulders and triceps since you’re pressing through them to keep your torso lifted. Every time your head and shoulders dip a little and you’re forced to press firmly through your forearms to raise them back into alignment, you’ll realize that it feels like a modified Handstand push-up. As a bonus, your lats are also engaged, which helps to develop a strong V-shape in your back and improve your posture.
Try it: Begin in Tabletop. Lower your forearms onto the mat. Keep your elbows underneath your shoulders as you move your hands together and interlace your fingers with your right thumb on top. Press through your forearms as you lift your hips back and up, extending through your heels. Keep your legs and back straight. On an inhalation, slowly walk your feet toward your chest. Focus on keeping your back straight and shoulders wide to prevent your chest from collapsing toward your thighs. Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute. To exit, walk your feet back and lower down to your knees.
Are you ready to deepen your asana knowledge? Become a member to access our comprehensive Pose Library, which blends expert tips from top teachers with video instruction, anatomy know-how, pose variations, and more.