Building Muscle With Yoga – Can it be Done?
Wouldn't it be great if you could get a muscular body through yoga alone?
Sounds too good to be true.. but maybe it's not.
I mean, a quick Google search of the word "callisthenics" will bring up endless streams of jacked dudes. Now I know, we're not talking about callisthenics here, but yoga and callisthenics share a common bond – they're both body-weight driven.
I've definitely seen some impressive yoga physiques too, so there has to be something to it – and there is.
Now, if you're looking to get huge, yoga is not the fastest way to get there. You're better off lifting weights (or do both!), but that's not to say you can't build significant muscle through yoga alone.
You can stimulate your body to build muscle through a variety of mechanisms, and yoga happens to be quite effective at it.
How Yoga Builds Muscle
Yoga fits two mechanisms of muscle growth: first through progressive overload, and second through metabolic stress.
On this, I look to Jeff Cavaliere – expert physical therapist and strength coach – to explain these concepts. Or you can skip and read on to see how they apply to yoga specifically.
Progressive Overload Through Yoga
Most men are familiar with the concept of progressive overload. After all, it's the core principle behind weightlifting.
It's simple really. You keep lifting heavier things, and over time, your body responds by building muscle to facilitate that.
Building muscle through yoga works through the same principle, but it's a little more complicated in practice. In yoga, the weight we're lifting is our body, and you probably don't want to be adding 10lbs to it each week either..
So how do we use progressive overload in yoga?
Through pose modification. Let me explain.
Any yoga pose can be modified. In class, a teacher will often show you a few variations of each pose – from easy to hard – to make it accessible to students of all levels. We can use these progressively difficult variations as our own form of progressive overload.
For example, if you're looking to build muscle in your arms and shoulders, Chaturanga is a strong pose to practice. Depending on your current level of strength, there's a Chaturanga variation you can start from:
The driving force of this process is the tension that your muscles are undergoing.
But what if you're already practicing the most difficult variation? How can you further increase that tension?
Don't you worry, there's another driver of progressive overload – and that's volume.
This one is a lot more straightforward to employ. In fact, with the many sets of Sun Salutations and Vinyasas throughout a typical yoga class - yoga is a great form of volume training.
On a pose level, using the Chaturanga example, just do more! Hold each pose for longer, or work more instances of the pose into your practice.
Metabolic Stress Through Yoga
A term that combines the words metabolism and stress.. can't be good right?
Well, you'd be surprised.
This is not the kind of chronic work stress that keeps you awake at night and on-edge all day. That shit is bad news all-round.
Metabolic stress is a physiological process that your muscles and tissues undergo during exercise. We've all felt it – it's the burn!
When you're approaching your last rep and your muscles are bulging and screaming at you to stop. That's metabolic stress. It's caused by the accumulation of waste metabolites in the muscle from exercise.
Fortunately, the process has been shown to have a beneficial effect on muscle growth.
The amount of metabolic stress you generate during a yoga practice is going to depend heavily on the kind of yoga you're practicing.
A vigorous Ashtanga or Vinyasa flow class will have your muscles burning in on time, where a gentle Yin class will have the opposite effect.
Do I Need a Training Plan?
No, absolutely not.
With an understanding of these processes, you can specifically train target muscles through yoga if you want.
But as long as you're practicing yoga regularly and advancing in your practice – this process is built-in. Unlike lifting weights, I don't really have a "training plan" for building muscle through yoga.
I have my yoga goals - some of which involve building strength for advanced poses - but I don't practice yoga specifically for muscle growth.
So many of these processes are built into a standard yoga practice. Sun Salutations for volume, long vinyasas for metabolic stress, and pose variations for progressive overload.
As with any other muscle building process (besides steroids), progress will be the result of hard physical work. So whether you're practicing at home or going to classes - make sure you're pushing yourself for maximum results.
Which Yoga Poses Build the Most Muscle?
Here's the million dollar question ey?
It has a pretty straightforward answer really.
You want the biggest anabolic (muscle building) effect on the body? Target the biggest muscles.
There's a reason anyone looking to build muscle in the gym should be doing the big lifts. Nothing will get your body into an anabolic state faster than the likes of deadlifts and squats.
Again, yoga is no different.
The yoga poses that use the full body, in big compound movements are the most effective.
I told you, you'd have to work for it right?
Nothing will ramp up that metabolic stress and build the burn quite like Chair pose.
The biggest muscles in the body are in the legs, and Chair pose uses just about all of them. Holding a rock-solid Chair pose will have you engaging your glutes, your quads and your core.
There's a lot going on in Warrior poses.
Just to start, you're sinking into your hips, tightening your core and glutes, raising your arms and engaging your quads. It's a powerful, full-body pose, that's going to test all of your muscles at once.
Being the most natural expression of strength progression in yoga, arm balances are going to be a key component in muscle building.
Chaturanga comes up a lot in yoga. It's part of your Sun Salutations and most Vinyasas.
It's a pillar of a pose (literally) that forces you to engage your core and your legs, whilst holding your weight on your arms.
It's a movement that effectively utilises all three mechanisms of muscle-building discussed in this article – and lucky for us, as yogis, we do it a lot!
Where Can You Learn More?
If you're looking to build muscle through yoga, nobody does it better than Dean Pohlman over at Manflowyoga.com
They do things a little differently over there.
It's fitness-centric yoga to the very core. So if the spiritual side of yoga isn't your thing, and getting shredded is your goal – check him out.
The Upper Body Program is designed to build muscle and functional strength, so you can get that aesthetic body you want, and nail those inversions too.
Handstands not for you? No worries. There are a range of training programs to fit your fitness goals.
So what do you guys think?
Have you successfully put on muscle mass through yoga alone?
If you have, let me know your secrets in the comments.