Strength trainers and gym enthusiasts in a way are at an advantage when it comes to yoga and flexibility training, due to their strength. As with many forms of physical activity, if individuals do not cross train, movement deficiencies and injuries are common. Often overly flexible individuals are vulnerable to injury, especially those who are already hypermobile, whereas when weightlifters are to incorporate yoga or other forms of mobility/flexibility training into their routine they have the advantage of starting with a strong foundation.
Is yoga just about being flexible?
Yoga is much more than flexibility exercises made to make you feel and look uncomfortable. To put in simple terms yoga is a form of exercise that focuses on multiple aspects of fitness such as balance, coordination, strength, mobility, flexibility and breathing (just to name a few) to boost physical and mental wellbeing. The main components of yoga are a series of movements and postures that help to improve these elements of fitness. For this blog, let’s look at how flexibility, mobility and breath and the ways yoga can incorporate these elements to make us all better lifters.
First, let’s talk terminology:
- Flexibility - Flexibility refers to the range of movement (ROM) in a joint or series of joints, and length in muscles that cross the joints to induce a bending movement or motion. These ranges vary for each individual body.
- Mobility - Mobility is the ability to move a limb actively through its full range of motion.
- Breath - an inhalation or exhalation of air from the lungs. In regard to strength training, it goes much deeper than this.
Is Flexibility & Mobility not the same thing?
No. Mobility is controlling the ROM without assistance, flexibility is assisting the movement passively to lengthen the muscle. Here’s an easy example to differentiate the two - If lying on the back and you lift one leg up using your hands behind the leg, the leg lifts relatively high. This is static ROM which is not related to active ROM (MOBILITY), the body will give you more ROM when it does not need to control speed, tension, and stabilization in that ROM. That's flexibility. Mobility is being able to control the entire ROM of the leg using the leg muscles only with no assistance from the arms.
How can Yoga help me as a Lifter?
First, let’s create some context!
Yoga incorporates many variables of fitness, ultimately leading to quality of movement. As strength athletes and gym enthusiast’s flexibility and mobility usually gets less attention, however, often this can be what is holding an individual back from getting stronger. Finding time for yoga will help to increase overall flexibility and mobility allowing greater movement in the body, increasing physical performance due to the muscles working more effectively. A muscle that is looser and less tense is a muscle that will work more efficiently, here’s how:
- Increased range of movement
- Stronger movement in end ranges
- Feeling more comfort and requiring less effort when performing movement
- Muscles can relax due to overall balance in strength
- Able to maximize full potential when lifting weights
Gym enthusiasts and strength athletes lack the ability to access deep ranges of motion within complex lifts (Squat, bench, deadlift), e.g. being unable to hit full depth in a squat or being able to lower a bar to the chest when performing a bench press without the shoulders ‘dumping’ forward. If someone can’t hit certain ranges of motion without compromising position, tightness will occur in specific areas i.e. the adductors or the calves when not able to squat low. When tightness occurs, there is a tendency to assume its due lack of flexibility, which is not the case - tightness is the body’s safety mechanism for weakness, the body must create this sensation of tightness to establish more stability that the weak muscle can’t offer.
Performing partial squats or rounding the back when going to pick weight up fuels the problem creating tighter, weaker and less mobile muscles and joints. Stretching for a minimal time each day isn’t going to cut it. It takes time and a lot of consistent dedication, but the result is worth it. Nonetheless, always remember some is better than none. This is where yoga can help.
So, how can yoga help me?
In yoga there are 6 movements of the spine; flexion (forward folds) extension (back-bends) rotation (twists) and lateral flexion (side bends). When it comes to training, yoga takes a holistic approach to training the body. When it comes to doing your own resistance training in the gym, there is a tendency to train our favorite muscles groups and usually selecting our favorite exercises, inadvertently neglecting other muscles and/or certain movement patterns. Unless you have a strength coach of course.
Benefits of yoga:
- Yoga incorporates all muscles groups to maintain the bodies equilibrium
- Sustaining yoga postures helps to strengthen weak areas
- Improves core stability through anti-extension and rotation exercise, transferable to strength training
- Restorative yoga practices (YIN) can reduce muscle soreness following intense weighted sessions improving the recovery period. Hot yoga can also help better this process
- Lifting weights is inherently competitive, whether that’s with yourself or others. On the other hand, yoga is reflective and develops self-discipline.
- Yoga adds variety to movement patterns allowing our body to remain healthy
Within yoga, there are two forms of stretching – passive and active. For example - passively holding a squat with the two elbows between the knees (Flexibility) or actively holding a squat without the use of our arms (Mobility). Both passive and active forms of stretching develop ROM but active postures increase strength within that ROM. For optimal movement, flexibility should be trained with mobility.
Yoga strengthens postures in the end ranges of a movement, creating more efficient transitions from point A to point B. In terms of lifting, quality trumps quantity. Take an Olympic weightlifter for example, they are probably the most efficient movers on the planet. When under extreme loads they can maintain optimal posture. This is due to years of working on flexibility and mobility incorporating postures you would recognize in a yoga class to improve movement quality to meet the demands of the sport. A great weightlifter will always prioritize quality over quantity. Yoga enables individuals to create a greater awareness of the body increasing recognition of when the body starts to break down and knowing when to take a step back, to take two steps forward.
How does the breath help me get stronger?
Take a big breath in… Exhale. Did your chest or belly inflate? If your belly inflated, well done! If all the air went to your chest this is something that needs to be improved on for lifting quality and efficiency.
When it comes to strength training the breath is one of the most overlooked elements of getting stronger, yet it is the most important.
So, when training in the gym and performing movements such as the barbell squat it is vital that we maintain the integrity of our posture through the entire squat, adapting a technique suitable to the mechanics of the individual body. When a barbell rests on the back it places a higher demand on the stability of the trunk. The body can meet these demands by increasing the stability. A stable core will allow movements such as the barbell squat to be performed efficiently and powerful.
How to Improve breathing
To move heavy weights in a safe manner learning how to breathe properly is vital. Cue yoga! At the start of any yoga practise the focus is the breath. Yoga teachers can guide the class with many breathing techniques but one of the most common is the belly breath or ‘Ujjayi breath’. This breathing technique is a diaphragmatic breath through the nose, which first fills the lower belly, rises to the lower rib cage and finally to the upper chest and throat through the inhale. On the exhale, the lower belly is drawn in towards the spine, followed by the lower rib cage, chest and throat. Experiencing this belly breath creates awareness of how and where to breathe.
To transition in and out of postures in yoga, the inhale is typically used to lengthen or move the body and the exhale is for depth. This breathing technique can help immensely towards greater posture impacting the position of the rib cage. Particularly those who are in seated postures throughout the day the breath can become shallow.
Deep breathing has many benefits in helping people to reduce anxiety and depression. Apart from these benefits, breathing properly can also be used to focus the mind and body before a training session. Adapting control over the breath and learning how to brace after the breath is how an individual’s performance is going to increase.
Breathing and Bracing - Utilizing your breath under load
An unstable foundation will see a flared rib cage or a “proud chest”, whereas a strong foundation will see a stacked rib cage over the pelvis which helps maintain proper alignment when performing weighted movements. When it comes to lifting a bar from the ground or placing it on the back maintaining a stacked rib cage position is how we optimize movement quality simply by focusing more on how we breathe.
When learning how to adapt this approach (diaphragmatic breath), the volume inside the core increases; the diaphragm contracts and descends towards the stomach. Breathing more so into the chest doesn’t fully utilize the rise in volume of the intra-abdominal cavity (the belly). As a lifter, if the goal is to lift heavy weight efficiently, stop thinking about trying to strengthen the outer layers of the core and instead learn how to increase the pressure within.
When breathing into the stomach combine this with a brace – brace as if you are about to take a punch in the stomach. Combining these actions in a step by step format i.e breathing in deeply through the nose allowing the belly to fill with air, bracing hard and holding the breath until the movement is complete. This increases the pressure inside the abdominal cavity creating intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) adding more rigidity to the trunk. Increasing IAP in this manner helps stabilize the lower spine to an even greater degree than with bracing alone. Here’s an example -
Have you ever noticed someone hit the bottom of a squat and you visualise a rounding in their lower back? One of the most common reasons for this can be due to a lack of awareness on how to use the breath to stabilize the trunk - a simple tool that can have a huge effect on strength and quality of movement.
Overall, yoga helps bring these elements of fitness together. It places the body into positions where it is weak in order to strengthen. This creates an awareness of movement quality, improving flexibility and mobility and establishing breathing techniques that are optimal for posture and training performance.