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The benefits of yoga for athletes of all stripes are well-known—and for good reason. In addition to the spiritual and mental health benefits of a yoga practice, the practice is important for flexibility, mobility, and bolstering the mind-body connection.
However, there is a flip side to all this: yoga practitioners would benefit from adding a bit of strength training and cardiovascular exercise to their routine, too, says Megan Hochheimer, founder of Karma Yoga & Fitness in Valrico, Florida.
Though many yoga practitioners worry that adding weights or cardio on top of their yoga practice will make them “tighter” and less capable of flexibility-based yoga poses, Hochheimer assures that this is a myth. In fact, the benefits of adding strength training, in particular, to your routine can carry over to your yoga practice and help you master more difficult poses, according to John Porcari, PhD, the director of the clinical exercise physiology program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who has conducted studies on yoga.
Here, the case for adding both strength training and cardio to your asana routine:
The case for strength training
There’s a plethora of reasons why you should want to get stronger. For one, strength training can ward off injury. “The more structurally sound a yoga practitioner’s shoulders, hips, and core are then the less likely they are to sustain an injury,” says Hochheimer. “And working through different ranges of motion (especially ranges unlike those of a regular yoga practice) can help build that balanced muscle and protect against painful imbalances.”
What’s more: Research shows strong muscles lead to strong bones, which helps prevent osteoporosis. That’s especially important knowing that we start to lose one percent of bone mass every year after age 40.
Finally, there are many mental perks to be cleaned from strength training that tie into yoga philosophy. “Tapas (the third of the five niyamas of yogic wisdom) is often defined as heat, but the translation isn’t exactly just about heating the body,” says Hochheimer. “Real changes in our patterns require the burning away of old habits and beliefs, and that is where the root of tapas (to heat) comes in as it pertains to any endeavor, but especially establishing a new routine or discipline.”
Hochheimer says that the other aspect of yogic philosophy that applies to strength training is Abhyasa, which she describes as focusing effort over a long period of time. The muscle and strength gains are minimal day-by-day, but because the work is so disciplined and consistent, she says, they all add up to a substantial improvement. The same could be said for your yoga practice.
Building that strength, though, will require a dedicated routine: “If you want to build strength, yes, it could happen to some extent on the mat, but you can do it more efficiently with weights off the mat,” says Ariele Foster, DPT, yoga teacher, and founder of Yoga Anatomy Academy. Adds Poracari: “Plank and Chair are going to help to increase the strength of your shoulder girdle and thighs, for example. But if you really want to get strong, you’re better off doing a set of squats, biceps curls, and shoulder presses twice a week. You’re going to get far stronger doing that than you are relying on yoga.”
The best strength-training exercises for yogis
If you’re new to strength training, your best bet is to get started with total-body workouts, whether it’s bodyweight exercises, dumbbells, or machines in the gym. However, Hochheimer notes that the strengthening of the glutes and back muscles in particular are often overlooked in yoga flows so giving the backside of the body (called the posterior chain) a little extra TLC would be wise. “Consider a couple personal training sessions just to make sure that you’re breathing properly, going through the proper range of motion, and you’re not lifting inappropriate amounts of weight,” Porcari adds.
Yoga practitioners could also consider Pilates reformer work. “There is definitely a strength component involved in Pilates-inspired fitness,” Hochheimer says.
Whatever you choose, dedicating 20 minutes twice per week to resistance training will score you the benefits mentioned above.
The case for cardio
“From a strictly physical standpoint, building up cardiovascular endurance will help a yoga practice as it makes the uptake of oxygen more efficient and makes the practice of pranayama more comfortable for students,” says Hochheimer. Runners, in particular, may have a bit of an advantage, she says. “Not only have they built up their cardiovascular abilities, but they have probably experienced the need to control their breathing differently while sprinting versus a long run.” Additionally, from a mental/emotional standpoint, running and yoga require focus and endurance. Both build internal strength and perseverance.”
And while other forms of cardio besides running will give you similar benefits, the experts in this article recommend looking beyond your yoga practice: “Even a yoga routine that has a lot of flow to it and goes from pose to pose with very little time in between will have minimal aerobic benefits,” says Poracari. His studies show that your heart rate is probably in the range of 100 BPM to 120 BPM during a yoga class, which is the equivalent of walking two and a half to three miles an hour. To increase your V02 max (which is a measure of your body’s ability to take in oxygen and use it to create energy; the higher that number is, the greater your endurance) you should get your heart rate to 130 BPM for at least 15 minutes a day, per Porcari.
That’s in line with The American Heart Association’s recommendation that adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity.
The good news is you don’t have to run a marathon or even sign up for a virtual 5K: Picking up your pace on a walk to three-and-a-half to four miles an hour so you’re breathing heavier but can still talk, counts. Though cycling, hiking, swimming, and running of course all work as well.
The bottom line
When adding cardio and/or strength training to your yoga routine, the key is to start out slowly in terms of how hard and how long you’re working, says Porcari. And don’t be afraid to take days off. Simply going for a walk before your yoga class could tick your cardio box, or doing an 20-minute at-home bodyweight strength circuit afterwards could count for your strength training.