If you think yoga’s just for hippies, think again: it can give you more power, flex and control in the gym. Personal trainer and yogini Cassie White explains.
Sure, you stretch. A few seconds on the hamstrings, a few on the shoulders — flexibility work done. How’s that working out for you?
Chances are, probably not that well. Taking your flexibility and mobility seriously can be the difference between nailing the perfect squat or hammering away with your heels stacked for the next five years because your calves are too tight.
For decades, serious lifters have dismissed yoga as weird stretching for women, but they’ve now cottoned on to its ability to significantly increase strength and power in the gym. These days, weight lifters regularly roll out their mats and eat a slice of (vegetarian) humble pie to get a seriously challenging physical and mental workout.
One of the most common complaints from guys is that they’re tight. Here’s the thing: muscle tightness can be a sign of muscle weakness, which means a higher risk of injury. Plus, a lack of flexibility in your muscles and low mobility in your joints means that no matter how heavy you load that bar, you’re just not performing your movements efficiently. Certain muscles won’t be doing their job because they don’t have full range of motion, or you can’t get them firing in the first place.
For example, you might think your glutes are pretty strong — after all, you’ve spent enough time squatting and deadlifting over the years. But did you know that you actually have three glute muscles? For most people, all three are pretty lazy, especially those with desk jobs. This means the quadriceps end up doing all the hard work when performing basic movements like walking. Tight quads, tight hip flexors and weak glutes are the trifecta of a shoddy squat.
The real test of butt strength is when you try standing on one leg. Balancing work will show weaknesses straight away. If your knee collapses inwards or you can’t stay steady, it’s probably because those other two glute muscles — the glute medius and glute minimus — have been neglected, while glute max got all the attention.
Yoga poses like Warrior III and One Leg Chair Pose can increase strength and stability, and you’ll learn how to turn those weak muscles on. Muscle activation is a skill you’ll take from class to the rack. Combine those poses with hip openers like Warrior II and Pigeon, and your squats will be more explosive in no time.
The overhead press is another move that limits lifters. You might have the brute strength to get the bar up, but if your pecs, deltoids and trapezius muscles are tight, you’ll be restricted and your lower back will do all the grunt work. Downward dog is essentially an overhead press. Get this pose right and not only will you lengthen those tight muscles, you’ll strengthen the stabiliser muscles in your shoulders. Pressing and benching will never be the same again.
A 10-minute yoga sequence makes for an awesome dynamic warm-up before a session. You’ll mobilise your joints, warm the muscles you’re about to use and fire up your core and stabilisers. Mobility, stability, activation and strength — reckon you get all that from your usual warm-up?
Another incredibly useful thing about yoga is the breathing techniques. What you’ll learn can have a huge impact on your power when lifting heavy. Learning to breathe deep from your diaphragm means you’ll stabilise your core when inhaling before a big lift. This protects your back while you’re showing that bar who’s boss.
Each yoga class will have you moving in every plane of motion. By dynamically pushing, pulling, twisting, balancing, rotating and bending muscles that you didn’t even know existed, you’re getting the true meaning of a full body workout. Try getting all of that in your regular strength session.
If half-arsed hamstring stretches on the gym floor aren’t cutting it, here’s how to build yoga into your training week.
Start with one class a week. Find a teacher you like with a solid understanding of anatomy. Shop around until you find someone whose teaching style suits you.
Ask questions. Yoga teachers worth their salt love helping people, so introduce yourself after class and fire away with the questions.
Don’t be a hero. Listen to your body and don’t push too hard. It took years to get that tight, one class won’t reverse it. Accept that you won’t be perfect, you’ll look a bit wonky and won’t impress any ladies just yet.
Sweat it out. Give hot yoga a crack. The first class might feel like you’re trapped in a hell-box, but the heat allows you to work further into tight muscles.
Cassie White is a yoga coach and personal trainer at Fitness First George Street in Sydney. She’s the creator of jöga — yoga that combines traditional poses with modern-day movements to build strength, flexibility and body awareness. Contact her at cassiewhite.com.