Yoga for Weightlifters: Yay or Nay?

Hi guys, Tom here. Today we have a guest post by a familiar behinds-the-scene face here at The Strength Agenda: my wife, Beth. You may know her as the chief cook around these parts. She is a yoga instructor who specializes in, what else, working with strength athletes. I’ve done yoga on and off since having to find a 1 credit class to meet course requirements in college but for the past year or so have been doing it regularly and have noticed a difference in my training. Not only has it helped with my flexibility but has helped with my stress relief as well. So listen up and don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.  She is here to start off a 3-part series on the various benefits of yoga for weightlifters, CrossFitters, and strength athletes.

Hi, y’all! I’m happy to be writing to you today. I’ve been practicing yoga for years, starting with my very first class while I was a competitive swimmer in high school. Because of that initial introduction, I’ve always approached yoga as a modality to help athletes. Over the years, my personal practice has evolved to be an integral part of my fitness plan, as well as a major player for my emotional well-being. As I dove more into yoga as a general study, I kept thinking, “This is weightlifting.” Every time I would land in a big hip-opener, I kept thinking how much this could benefit all of the lifters and CrossFitters I knew. I’ve watched as people have begun to take mobility and recovery much more seriously, thanks in large part to people like Kelly Starrett, and I knew it was only going to get bigger.

Yoga is often misunderstood by people who don’t do it. (Name a sport that can’t say the same thing, right?) It either has the association of tight pants-clad soccer moms, or hippies with unshaven armpits chanting in ashrams. There’s a wide swath of yoga between that — the elites athletes who do it daily, the office worker who has taken it up to reduce stress and undo the effects of sitting all day, the person looking for a new hobby, the runner who needs a good stretch, the athlete looking for a challenge, or even the weird dude who wants to learn a new party trick that involves standing on his head.

Yoga can be anything you want it to be, really. But I suspect you’re here to learn what it means to you as an athlete, as a lifter, as a CrossFitter. As someone who has tight hips, tight hamstrings, and tight shoulders. As someone who gets out of bed feeling a little bit like the Tinman until you find your foam roller. As someone who feels a bit unfocused during training and needs more of a mental edge. As someone who needs to release the stress and pressure of being an athlete as well as a student, coach, employee, husband, wife, brother, sister, girlfriend, boyfriend, mother, father, etc. Yoga can help with that.

We’re going to start exploring the physical benefits of doing yoga in Part 1 of this series. The other parts will address the mental and emotional benefits, the direct correlation to your training, how to fit it in with your programming, as well as tips for looking for the right yoga class for you.

So, what are the benefits? Why should you bother?

  1. Flexibility
  2. Mobility
  3. Synaptic Density (Muscle Memory/Muscle Recruitment)
  4. CNS Recovery

Let’s start with flexibility. This is often a word associated with yoga. Bending, folding, stretching, reaching, pulling — over time, with consistency, your muscles will be lengthened and loosened. You’ll reduce the adhesions that form from overuse and you’ll work out any “knots” you already have. Just as you push yourself to move more weight everyday under the bar, you’ll push yourself beyond your current resistance and be able to touch your toes, then palm the floor, and then move even beyond that.

Mobility, often confused with flexibility, offers even greater benefits. Kelly Starrett demonstrates the difference in his succinct definition:

 “Stretching only focuses on lengthening short and tight muscles. Mobilization, on the other hand, is a movement-based integrated full-body approach that addresses all the elements that limit movement and performance including short and tight muscles, soft tissue restriction, joint capsule restriction, motor control problems, joint range of motion dysfunction, and neural dynamic issues. In short, mobilization is a tool to globally address movement and performance problems.”

Increased mobility means a deeper squat, a better overhead position, and the ability to push your body further than you thought possible. Creating a consistent yoga practice will help you keep your joints open for longer stretches of time. This will not eliminate your need to warm-up, cool down, or do accessory work, but it will definitely shorten the time it takes you to “feel loose” and ready before training. A regular yoga practice will help you identify muscle imbalances and slowly correct them over time. A great yoga teacher can help you with this, guiding you through postures that will help, or giving you modifications and assists to improve alignment.

Synaptic Density is a fancy way of saying “muscle memory.” It’s the ability for you to run in, essentially, auto-pilot, as you’ve done the movement so much your brain doesn’t have to devote energy to coordinating it. When you do something for the first time, whether it’s a weightlifting movement or playing a song on a guitar, the neurons in your brain begin firing and creating pathways in your brain unique to the activity. The next time you repeat this, neurons will fire using that pathway. The more you do the movement, the faster the neurons fire. So how does this connect weightlifting and yoga? When you do a yoga class sequenced properly for your sport, you will begin working the muscles responsible for your sports’ main movements. As you move in and hold these postures, you’re teaching the muscles to fire, and creating synaptic density in the brain (or, in the instance of specific movements like malasana, or prayer squat, improving your existing squatting synaptic density). When you connect your leg strength and core strength in a Warrior I, you tell your brain that this is how the muscles should fire in a snatch. When you’ve hit your bottom position, your snatch neural pathways, as well as your applicable yoga pose neural pathways will all light up, recruiting your muscles faster and more efficiently.

Lastly, yoga helps reduce CNS (central nervous system) fatigue, which is arguably one of the biggest obstacles in recovery for athletes. Pranayama, or the breathing aspect of yoga, calms the sympathetic nervous system. An hour of deep breathing, even without the benefits of the postures, will help calm down your CNS. Have you ever been in a yoga class where they’ve asked you to rest your forehead on a block or on the floor? This is one of the fastest ways to calm your parasympathetic nervous system. It is done by applying pressure to a Vagus nerve located in your forehead. (Your yoga teacher has tons of cool tricks like this, trust me!) Calming the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems plays an active role in calming down the CNS, allowing your body to recover faster and get back to hitting the heavy weights sooner.

This is the most basic overview of the physical benefits of yoga as related to weightlifters and CrossFitters. Having spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours on my mat, I can attest to yoga’s ability to benefit you both on and off the mat. Having worked with some of the elite athletes training on TeamMDUSA, I can tell you that yoga helps you on your platform, too.

Stay tuned for the next part of our series. We’ll be giving more insight into how yoga and meditation can improve your mental edge, and what type of yoga classes/instructors you should be looking for to get started.

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