Yoga, Muscle, and Athletes: How can yoga help?

Dean PohlmanBlogs, From Dean, Lifestyle & Wellness, Sports & Fitness1 Comment

Yoga, Muscle, and Athletes: How can yoga help?
Yoga, Muscle, and Athletes: How can yoga help?

I wrote this blog specifically for athletes who want to build muscle and are interested in knowing how yoga can help. Below, you’ll learn about the biggest differences I noticed before and after I started doing yoga, how doing yoga changed my perceptions of it, and what it taught me about fitness in general.

This blog will be especially relevant to you if you can relate to any of the following statements:

  • Your first exposure to fitness was organized sports and a high school weight room.
  • You didn’t place much value on flexibility, because your main goal was building muscle.
  • You didn’t (or don’t) understand how mobility, balance, and flexibility improve your performance as an athlete.
  • You don’t value mobility, balance, and flexibility as much as you value strength.
  • You’ve noticed your body changing as you get older, and you assume that you just won’t be able to work out like you used to (this is only true if you aren’t doing the right supplementary exercises).
  • You’ve experienced recurring or regular injuries and haven’t been able to “fix” them for good.
  • Nagging aches and pains that you used to be able to ignore are getting worse and preventing you from exercising the way you would like to.
This blog explores the following 5 topics, including my experience with them both before and after yoga.

I’m sharing this information with you because I believe it will be valuable to you to know how yoga can make a typical athlete stronger and also change his perspectives on fitness (for the better).

  1. Weight training
  2. Soreness
  3. Flexibility (and other neglected aspects of fitness)
  4. Injuries
  5. Perceptions / assumptions about the relationship between yoga and muscle

Topic 1: Weight Training

My primary form of fitness before yoga was weight training. I lifted 2-3 per week when I was in high school, and I lifted HARD. I went from 120 pounds in my Sophomore years to 165 pounds by my Senior year. (Everyone in high school knew me as the workout guy.) I continued weight training through college, and then took a sabbatical from weight training following my discovery of yoga, mainly because I realized how weak I was in other aspects of my fitness. When I did eventually return to weight training, I noticed some huge differences, and made some big changes.

Weight training difference #1 – I focused more on proper technique.
Thanks to my yoga training, I was much more acutely aware of the position my body was in. Instead of just focusing on getting the repetition completed, my goal was to make sure that each part of my body was doing what it was supposed to be doing, and that I was feeling the exercise in all the right places.

Weight training difference #2 – I slowed down each exercise.
Yoga changed the way I move. Instead of moving quickly without focus, I slowed everything way down. I spent more time getting my body into the correct position, and more time on the exercise itself – and it made me stronger as a result!

Weight training difference #3 – I started using less weight.
I realized that I didn’t need as much weight as I was previously using. Don’t get me wrong – there are huge benefits to using more weight. If you are weight training, it’s important to regularly challenge yourself by using a level of resistance you can only lift for 2-6 reps without rest. But it’s also important to be able to CONTROL the weight, and not rely on momentum. That slow controlled mastery of the weight is what really helps to develop more muscle mass.

Weight training difference #4 – I had more body awareness.
When all you’re doing is fast movements (running, shooting or passing, lifting for explosiveness, etc), you’re not really developing body awareness. The only way to do that is by moving slowly. This is one reason yoga totally changed me. Before yoga, I had good body awareness, but yoga took it to another level. Now, I’m incredibly aware of my posture at all times. My core was always engaged. My shoulders were constantly pulled down and back. The body awareness that I practiced in yoga carried over to my weight lifting. The results were better muscle engagement, improvement in my form, and less pain or discomfort from bad technique.

Topic 2: Soreness

Before yoga, I honestly had no idea how to take care of soreness. Soreness was a badge of honor. “I worked out so hard yesterday, I can barely walk.” Many of us have been there. To me, recovery had nothing to do with movement, and everything to do with eating and resting. It wasn’t until yoga that I learned that the best way to recover was through MOVEMENT. As a result, I started stretching after every workout session. I left lacrosse practice 15 minutes after everyone else because I was still on the field stretching. Basically, I learned that recovery was an important part of your workout routine, just like strength training or skill development.

But when you’re a high school athlete in the weight room, nobody tells you about recovery. The coaches down there are old school football coaches with the “push, push, push” mentality, and the focus is totally on strength, with minimal focus on mobility or recovery. If I had known what I did about yoga prior when I was in high school, I would have avoided many of the injuries I experienced from ages 16 – 23. But better late than never!

Topic 3: Flexibility

(and other neglected aspects of fitness)

Most guys think that flexibility is a feminine aspect of fitness. I know that I did (stupidly). Nobody wanted to be flexible – everyone wanted to be as jacked and shredded as possible; more muscle, more definition. We didn’t understand how flexibility helped with that, so we didn’t focus on it.

Part of this is because of youth – most young people naturally have sufficient flexibility to avoid injuries that come from lack of flexibility. (If this were entirely true, we wouldn’t be seeing nearly as many ACL tears as we see in youth athletes.) In your 20s, that definitely starts to change. Those little twinges of discomfort turn into more substantial pains. Muscle tears, rotator cuff issues, and lower-back pain become more widespread. Many people take this as a sign of getting older, and they give up on their fitness entirely. Or, more often, they keep doing the same workouts they were doing in their teens, but on a less regular basis, so their body has more time to recover. They chalk up their issues to age, when really it’s something else that’s totally manageable with the right training.

That right training includes flexibility, core strength, balance, and mobility work. None of these strengths just “happen”. Your body doesn’t lie, doesn’t take excuses, and gives you exactly what you put it into it. Furthermore, there is no “maintaining” your fitness. You either grow or you decline.

Let’s consider strength training. If you stopped strength training for 6 months, you would not assume 6 months from now you would be just as strong. Flexibility is no different. If you aren’t focusing time specifically on your flexibility, you’re going to lose flexibility.

So what do we know about the relationship between flexibility and muscle now? We know that flexibility directly complements strength training; that by including flexibility work in our workout routines, we can put on more muscle more quickly, increase our potential strength, and prevent injury – so we can continue to work out and get stronger in the first place. It also means more range of motion for more momentum and more power, faster recovery, and just feeling better in general.

I’ll also briefly mention other aspects of fitness that I (and many other youth athletes) neglected, just because we didn’t know any better.

  • Balance – Balance was something I just assumed you had or you didn’t. Bikram Yoga, for example, dedicates their first 30 minutes of class to balancing postures; to actually practice standing on one foot. Balancing is not only important for injury-prevention, it’s also incredibly effective! It improves your muscle activation, improves stability in your lower-body, and makes you stronger. As athletes in particular, we need to be able to react to unexpected situations on the field, and when we don’t have that balance or ability to respond, we can get injured.
  • Core strength – We understood training our abs, but we didn’t understand the concept of core strength as a whole. Most of us thought “core strength” referred to ab strength, when in fact it refers to the areas from the mid-thighs to sternum. As a result, we trained abs, but we neglected training core strength as a whole. Even if we did know what core strength really meant, we probably wouldn’t have done them anyways, because we were so focused on building muscle and getting bigger that we would have looked at core strengthening as an obstacle to that; something that was good for us, but also a distraction from the more important goal of putting on as much muscle as possible.

Topic 4: Injuries

(and the interconnectedness of the body)

Most people tend to assume (logically) that if one part of your body isn’t functioning the way it’s supposed to, such as a knee, ankle, or shoulder, that the issue is with that particular body part. If we have a knee injury, we assume the issue is the knee. If we have ankle injuries, we assume it’s because of the ankles. As a result, we look at surgery or quick fixes as a great option. [Hint: This isn’t how your body works.] Back when I was 16, I was so upset that my knee gave me problems. When the option of surgery was presented, I thought of it the same way as I would repairing a car or house – do the operation, fix it, and let me get back 100% fully functional movement! That way of thinking was logical, but totally wrong.

It wasn’t until I started practicing yoga and learning more about fitness in general that I realized the body was interconnected, and that injury in one area of the body was usually being caused by weakness or muscular imbalances in another part of the body.

I had knee surgery when I was barely 16, but I really didn’t start addressing the root causes of that injury until I was in my 20s. It wasn’t until yoga and developing a genuine interest in how the body worked that I learned knee problems were more often related to a lack of strength or mobility in the hips and ankles, and had little (if anything) to do with the knee joint itself. If I had known this back when I was 16, I would have changed my training significantly. What I am now teaching people with yoga is the exact knowledge I wish I had possessed back when I was a teenager. One of my biggest goals now to help athletes avoid sitting on the sidelines due to injuries, so they don’t have to experience the same sadness that I did throughout my athletic career due to my numerous injuries, all of which stemmed from a lack of the proper training, and general ignorance about how the body functioned.

Topic 5: Yoga & Muscle

(The Indirect & Direct Ways Yoga Builds Muscle)

You want to get stronger, you lift weights. We look at people with large muscles and more often than not it’s in the context of lifting weights. This is an accurate perception for the majority of us. In order to build significant muscle mass, weights are necessary. What we don’t consider is all of the indirect methods of building muscle; the complementary exercises that allow us to build muscle more quickly, more safely, and ultimately more effectively.

As a youth athlete, I just didn’t know any better. I, along with hundreds of thousands of students across the country, followed the very popular BFS “Bigger, Faster Stronger” training program. Everyone had the same workout, consisting of compound lifts like squats, deadlifts and bench press, and supplementary exercises like lat pull-downs or calf raises. It was all strength training. There was no mention of flexibility or mobility training, and no reason to assume that flexibility had anything to do with building strength or improving performance. (To my knowledge, this program is still just as popular as it was 10 years ago – meaning that most high school athletes are still significantly ignorant of effective sports training and injury-prevention.)

Now, thanks to yoga, I know better. I know that building strength through resistance is one way to increase strength, but there are also indirect ways of building strength. For instance, improving your mobility speeds up your recovery and increases your range of motion, which allows you to add on more muscle, and more quickly. I know that strength cannot exist without mobility. A few glaring examples where this truth is evident:

  • Deadlifting and hamstring mobility – If you lack the mobility to do a proper deadlift, you use your back instead. (End result – at best, lower-back pain; at worst, herniated disc.)
  • Overhead press and shoulder mobility – If you lack the shoulder mobility for an overhead press, you overload the fronts of your shoulders, and create a muscular imbalance. (End result – rotator cuff injury, shoulder pain, and a weak back).
  • Handstands and shoulder mobility – same with the overhead press. If you can’t straighten your arms overhead without arching your back, you can’t do a handstand. Yet many of us try anyways and injure our shoulders.

The list goes on and on. But if you want to be as strong as you possibly can be, to stay injury free, and to safely build muscle, you MUST make time in your workout routine for mobility work. A fitness-centric form of yoga is the easiest way to do this. No other form of fitness combines so many commonly neglected aspects of fitness into a single workout. Yoga improves your mobility, flexibility, core strength, balance, body awareness, and much more. (We haven’t even began to talk about breathing, stress relief, or posture yet!)

The bottom line is that yoga is not only incredibly effective for building muscle – it’s absolutely essential if we wish to have the ability to do so.

Without adequate focus on mobility, restorative work, balance training, core strength, and flexibility [all of which are typically found in yoga], it’s impossible to sustain a weight training routine into your late-20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond. At some point, the deficiencies in mobility, the muscular imbalances, and the lack of recovery work will manifest as pain or injury in your body. If it hasn’t happened yet, and you aren’t taking the time to focus on those aspects of fitness listed above, the process has likely begun. You might not have significant injuries now, but I’m willing to bet that you experience lower-back pain, discomfort in movements that didn’t used to bother you, or a general avoidance of certain exercises. But don’t worry – with the right training, you can fix all of that.

The answer isn’t giving up on fitness or abandoning your workout routine altogether – it’s to start addressing those aspects of fitness you’ve previously neglected. Once you start working on mobility, core strength, and balance, and correcting the imbalances that a strength-focused workout routine has created, you’ll be able to do all of those movements and exercises that have gotten harder. What’s more, you’ll be able to do them BETTER.

Don’t just take my word for it. The best athletes are all doing yoga. Both professional sports teams and Division 1 college programs are using yoga on a regular basis to supplement their existing training, to reach the highest levels of performance and stay injury-free while doing so.

This is the reason why I created Man Flow Yoga. I want people to show people how yoga can improve their physical fitness. Athletes who want to stay at the top of their game, stay healthy, improve performance, and prevent injury can benefit enormously from the inclusion of regular yoga workouts into their workout routines.

We already have professional and former-professional athletes, Ironman competitors, runners, triathletes, and many other athletes that I haven’t yet met using Man Flow Yoga to be better athletes.

And now…I’m excited to announce the release of the next Body by Yoga Program – Yoga Edge – our Yoga for Athletes Program, a necessary tool in the toolkit of any athlete with the goal of performing at his or her best. This program focuses on balance, mobility, flexibility, body control, and recovery – all of the best ways that yoga helps athletes be the best athletes they can be.

Ready to start?

Join the ranks of collegiate and professional athletes doing yoga to get stronger in new ways, become better athletes, and gain an edge on the competition. Enhance Your Training. Get Yoga Edge.Enhance Your Training - Get Yoga Edge

Thank you for reading this blog!
I hope you found it useful. Yoga has transformed my life for the better, and if you give it a chance, I’m sure it can do the same for you!

Don’t want to wait?

Learn more about getting started with Man Flow Yoga by clicking the link below to check out the Man Flow Yoga Members’ Area, where we house all of our workouts, programs, tutorials, Diet & Nutrition, and more. A 7-Day Trial is just $1.

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