Whether the reason for attending a yoga class is to develop a more mindful movement practice, to try and switch off from the busyness of life, or just to get more flexible, people rarely turn up with the sole purpose of building muscle.
‘Does yoga build muscle?’ is one of the most common questions I get asked by beginner yogis attending my classes. So, does it? The answer is absolutely (depending on the style you are practicing)!
I have certainly been in classes that have challenged my body more than a traditional weight training session (I’m looking at you, Ashtanga!), and this could be hard to believe if you’ve never attended a yoga class like this.
Often people turn to yoga as a way to improve their mobility, flexibility, or balance and prioritize weight lifting in order to build muscle. This means a whole host of people are missing out on the fantastic, holistic benefits of yoga with the added advantage of getting stronger.
This article will look at the following:
- How We Build Muscle
- Why Muscle Is Important
- How Does Yoga Build Muscle
- Best Yoga Styles For Muscle Building
- 6 Poses to Build Muscle
How Do We Build Muscle?
When we expose our muscles to stress, we damage our muscle fibers which cause tiny, microscopic tears (micro-tears) in the muscle. In short, the body sends nutrition and blood to help heal and rebuild the area and, over time, this turns into muscle mass.
If you want to think of it in more scientific terms, the body’s injured cells released something called cytokines. Cytokines send a signal to the immune system that it needs to get to work repairing something in the body.
This is when the muscles begin to get rebuilt. Over a longer period of training, a cycle of tear and repair takes place in the body which eventually leads to bigger, stronger muscles as they adapt to a progressive overload of resistance.
It’s important that we keep increasing the demand on the muscles if we want to build their strength, otherwise, they will plateau as they become accustomed to our everyday requests of them.
How does yoga build muscle?
We know how muscles are strengthened, so exactly how does yoga build muscle?
We answer this in the same way as any other workout during which muscle is built, even weight lifting. In yoga, the only difference is we aren’t using external weights, we are using our own body weight.
If muscle building is essentially tearing and repairing fibers, then this is exactly what holding certain asanas does for us. The principle of this is no different to weight training.
If we are looking at asanas solely in terms of using yoga for muscle mass building, then when we do these poses we are fundamentally bodyweight training. Bodyweight training is a central component of any successful strength-building regime.
Although, if you are looking to quickly increase bulk, it’s unlikely that yoga alone will be able to achieve this. This is because we are not adding on extra resistance to our movements, such as plates, bands, or kettlebells.
Yoga is a great compliment to other forms of training, though. Not only for bodyweight training but for:
- Muscular endurance
- Functional fitness
- Reduction in likelihood of injury
- Cardio and circulatory health
- Eccentric contraction of muscles
Eccentric contraction means that muscles are lengthening whilst they are under tension or contracting. This is the opposite of many weight-lifting exercises, which are concentric contractions and lead to shortening of the muscles.
Evidence suggests that eccentric contractions promote ‘greater gains in strength, muscle mass, and neural adaptations’.
Why Is muscle strength important?
We don’t just want to build muscle for aesthetic reasons; muscle is super important for all aspects of our life. You may have heard of the phrase ‘use it or lose it’, and this certainly applies to our muscles.
For example, a study demonstrated how athletes lost muscle strength just three weeks after they stopped training! Although, technically, we don’t ‘lose it’ and it doesn’t mean that you can’t regain the strength that you once had.
This is because we have something called ‘muscle memory‘, which means our muscles ‘remember’ all those months of swimming, weightlifting, or marathon training.
Where we once had this mass, and hence when we then retrain our muscles after a period of rest, they grow quicker and more effectively. So, ‘use it or lose it’ may be more accurately described as ‘use it or lose it, until you start to retrain it again’.
So, if you used to have a solid strength-building routine and then lost it (like many of us did during lockdown), all is not lost! With some dedicated practice, you will be able to regain and even increase your original muscle strength.
When we have stronger muscles, it reduces our risk of injury in general life as well as in sports activities, as strength training reinforces our tendons and increases our bone density which reduces the likelihood of injury.
This is especially important as we get older, as we gradually begin to lose our bone density from the age of 35.
Styles of yoga for muscle Mass building
In order to progress, we want to have a varied yoga routine and work at increasing the difficulty level of our asanas over time. This leads to muscle activation and therefore muscle growth.
Luckily, the extensive variety of yoga styles and asanas means you have a lot to choose from!
1. Hatha Yoga
Hatha may be an underrated style for building strength as it’s usually considered to be a more gentle style of yoga. However, a study found that 12 weeks of Hatha Yoga improved muscular strength and lower back flexibility!
2. Vinyasa Yoga
Depending on the type of class you attend, a vinyasa flow may be calming or powerful. This style of yoga can definitely be a whole-body workout, inside and out!
Physically, it will work on stabilizing your core and building its strength, improving your cardio, and increasing your muscular endurance and strength.
3. Ashtanga Yoga
Because of the asana repetition, it will build your cardiovascular strength as well as strength across the whole body – especially in the arms, wrists, core, and legs!
4. Power Yoga
Power Yoga has a strong focus on fitness and physical asanas, whilst it is still as dynamic as ashtanga, it follows less of a set structure.
This is a vigorous style of yoga that is targeted at those who want to work up a sweat!
5. Rocket Yoga
Rocket Yoga is another fast-paced flow that was created by a dedicated ashtanga student, Larry Schultz.
There are levels of Rocket Yoga:
- Rocket I
Based on Ashtanga Yoga’s primary sequence and focuses on the lower body.
- Rocket II
Moves focus away from the legs and more onto the upper body – particularly the back, upper body, and core. Think arm balancing, backward bending and twisting.
- Rocket III
Combines all aspects of the previous two series, it’s often referred to as ‘The Happy Hour’ by rocket yogis because there are lots of fun transitions and challenging asanas.
6 Yoga Poses for Muscle Building
1. Any Style of Phalakasana/Plank
We all know that the potential this asana has to build muscle is undisputed – I know this mainly from the groans and moans of my class when I cue this pose.
This could be a full plank, half plank, side plank, upward facing plank, forearm plank, one arm plank, and the list goes on…
It works the entire body and is especially important for building core strength and endurance.
2. Utkatasana/Chair Pose
Another asana that many people tend to have a strong preference against, for good reason (it’s hard)! Chair works your thighs, hamstring, knees, calves, ankles, shoulders, upper back, and lower back.
This is a really good asana to hold for as long as you can if you want to build strength in the above muscle groups.
3. Navasana/Boat Pose
Navasana will work you out from head to toe. If you can’t quite hold full navasana yet, you can work on half boat pose.
This one’s particularly good for the core and hip flexors. There are so many benefits to strengthening our hip flexors but they are often overlooked in a training regime.
4. Chaturanga Dandasana/Four Limbed Staff
If you have less strength in your upper body, this might be an asana that you have to build up to in order to maintain proper alignment. Often people tend to collapse into this pose which doesn’t actually help to build strength.
You can try it with your knees on the mat or try building up to it.
If you’re here and you want to go further, try holding the asana or repeating the sequence of pushing up from Chaturanga Dandasana into Phalakasana, then lowering back down and repeating.
5. Virabhadrasana II/Warrior 2
Just by the name of this asana, you might be able to tell that it’s a strong pose. As well as opening the hips, it engages the lower and upper body. If you hold this for an extended period, you can really start to feel your shoulders and thighs fatiguing!
6. Ardha Chandrasana/Half Moon Pose
Any posture where you’re balancing on one leg recruits a lot of muscle groups and is therefore a great muscle builder.
This engages our entire leg muscles as well as the core.
There are so many other asanas that you could add into your practice to build strength, you can start by looking at some of the styles mentioned above or Youtube classes such as this one!