Do you want to get strong? How about lean? If so, then hopefully you’re already lifting weights then and have your nutrition in check (if you need help with that, check this out ). If you are lifting though, and doing some cardio, and eating right, I have the missing puzzle piece that will set you on a new path of righteous gains, the likes of which you may have never thought possible.
What sorcery do I speak of you ask? Well, it isn’t witch craft, but it is just as old, if not older. The answer my friend, is yoga.
My relationship with yoga has be a tumultuous one. We had run ins in the past with one another, but we were really just two ships passing in the night. That is, until this year, something clicked. Now, I’m still far from a dedicated yogi, but I have a new found appreciation for the art (sport? activity? dance craze? I don’t know exactly what you’d call it, but you get me).
To explain to you why I am such a firm believer now, I have to explain to you how I found myself where I am today.
A few years ago- hell, a few months ago- if you would have asked me how I spent my weekends, the answer would have either been drunk, hungover, binge watching Netflix, or some combination of the three. Maybe I’d cram a shitty workout in there one day to try to “sweat out the demons” (a cheeky phrase I like to use for when I’m sweating pure vodka at the gym on a day after heavy drinking).
Recently though, I’ve dialed it in a little bit. Yes, I still go out now and again, but Friday and Saturday nights have become much more tame. Maybe it’s that rapidly approaching thirtieth birthday creeping up on me, who knows.
These days, if come Monday morning you were to ask me, “so what did you do this weekend?,” I’d be much more likely to say something along the lines of, “I stayed in, worked on my social media, did some writing for my blog, read a bit, and oh yea, yoga.”
All of these things are good. I am being more productive, working on myself, my health, my business. I know myself though, and I go through phases. I’ll be back to going out and partying eventually; I’m not going to spend the rest of my life cooped up behind a laptop screen.
There will come a time when being a productive member of society just doesn’t sound as appealing as crowded Brooklyn bars and overpriced cocktails with friends. When this happens, and my priorities shift a little, maybe I’ll let my reading fall behind, maybe I’ll just get a lot less than the recommended six to eight hours of sleep (something I currently pride myself on achieving).
One thing that is clear to me though, that I will not change, and not let slip, is yoga. I have seen the light, and I am a true believer. *Ohms silently to myself*
I started doing yoga at the beginning of this year. I’m usually not one for New Year’s resolutions, but at the time I had been suffering from chronic and debilitating back pain, the likes of which are usually reserved for people twice my age.
After several doctor visits, and ruling out an actual back injury, I found that my “back pain” was actually due to various tightnesses and imbalances throughout my body. My hamstrings and my hips were cripplingly tight.
You may not know this (it clearly surprised me), but everything in the human body is connected. When one muscle is tight, it pulls on another. One kink in the chain can mess up the entire system. Years of heavy deadlifting, squatting, and other such things, with no regard for stretching or recovery, had finally caught up with me. I was broken and my body was revolting against me after years of misuse.
So, I made it my goal for 2018 to get out of chronic pain. I was going to stretch, roll, massage, and whatever else I had to do to get back to being able to stand up, or put on my shoe without pain.
I started with a dedicated stretching routine. I tried to do it every day, especially on days I lifted. It helped, but what I quickly found was that as gung-ho as I was about it, I kept forgetting. Or my workouts would take longer than I thought, and I wouldn’t have time before my next appointment. Or at best, I found myself doing the same 4-5 stretches day after day. I didn’t want to give up on my goal, so I needed a new answer.
I had tried yoga in the past. I got into it for a while a few summers ago, but it never really stuck. I decided to try it again. I figured, instead of trying to figure out my own 10-20 minute stretch session every day, I could just go to yoga a few times a week. That’s basically like a 60-90 minute stretching class. It would force me to move and stretch. That way, even if I missed my daily stretching routine, I’d still be doing something.
Did it work? You could say that. Sitting here writing this today, almost nine months later, I am a new man. My sciatica and back pain are things of the past. My flexibility is worlds above where it was. I can bend and move and balance in ways that I never would have even thought possible.
So what though? What does this have to do with you? Well, if you are like me, and have imbalances and tightness throughout your body caused by years of misuse, then I definitely think that yoga could help you with that.
It’s much more than that though. Yoga isn’t just for soccer moms and beat up old meatheads. It truly has something for everyone. I have seen improvements in places I needed, but also in ways that I never expected.
Yoga isn't just for soccer moms and beat up old meatheads. It truly has something for everyone.
I am going to outline for you some of the greatest benefits from my yoga practice, and explain why they would be good for you as well. Some may be obvious, others not so much. Hopefully by the end of this list, you’ll agree with me that yoga should be a part of every person’s life, and especially athletes and those who care about physical performance.
1) Flexibility and Mobility
This is the obvious one. I think it would be fair to say that a lot of people get into yoga for the perceived benefits in flexibility. That’s what got me into it.
Although similar, there is a difference between flexibility and mobility. Flexibility is the ability of a muscle to be stretched. Mobility is the ability to move and control (that’s the key word here) your body and muscles through a full range of motion.
Think of bending over and touching your toes, that’s a hamstring stretch. That’s flexibility. Now picture a ballerina, who is able to stand on one toe, and raise her other leg up over her head with full control, move it in all different ways, and then gracefully place it back on the ground, unencumbered. That’s mobility.
Both are independently beneficial, and they are heavily influenced by the other. However, while most people think flexibility is the holy grail, mobility is where it’s at.
In life, nothing happens in a vacuum. We don’t simply bend at the waist. We bend at the waist, while bending at the knees, and reaching with the arms, to lift a box and turn and hand it off to our friend in the truck. We need to be able to move, but also be strong and controlled in those movements.
Yoga builds mobility because all of the stretching is done through movement. Yes from time to time you are holding stretches at an end range, like leaning over and grabbing your toes. More often than not though, you are going through flows, bending into stretches and pushing them deeper as you go.
You learn, as does your body, not just how to bend, but how to move. How to control your body through space, in different positions.
Running, jumping, squatting with heavy weight on your back, deadlifting, and any other exercise you can think of, all benefit from increased mobility. When you can move better, and control yourself better through your movements, you can be stronger. Your body will be more efficient, and you will have less chance of injury.
When people think of rest and recovery, they often think of doing nothing. Lift three, four, five days a week, and the remaining days are “off days”. They are REST days, right? What else are you supposed to do but rest?
Well, if you want to get the most out of your workouts, and do what’s best for your body, you don’t just rest, you recover.
Yes, recovery can be passive. Sit around, let your body do it’s thing. Instead though, you can be proactive, taking your recovery into your own hands and making it an active process.
Active recovery methods are varied, but basically they all look to do the same thing: they get you moving. Rather than just sitting around and turning into a couch potato because “It’s my day off BRO!”, you should still look to be active in some way.
Go for a hike, a walk, a bike ride. Anything to get your limbs moving, and your blood flowing. This increased blood flow will get more oxygenated blood to your muscles that are recovering. This will, in turn, help them to heal better, bigger, and quicker.
Enter, yoga. The perfect mix of movement, and intensity. It will get you sweating, stretching (as I talked about before), and moving, all while preventing overdue strain on your muscles, like say, a heavy lifting session. Yoga is the perfect rest day modality to help you bounce back from whatever your really intense, weekly workout throws at you.
You might not know this, but breathing is pretty important. *GASP* I know, shocker, right?
It may sound silly, I mean, you’ve been breathing your entire life. Many people don’t realize though, that breathing is actually a skill. You can be good at it, or bad at it. Most of us tend to be bad at it.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing is a skill that takes a lot of practice. It is also something that is well worth the effort you put in. Firstly, you are learning to control your body and use your muscles in the way they were designed to be used. Secondly though, and this is important for athletes, especially strength athletes or anyone else trying to become strong, is you learn to use your breathing to strengthen your body.
Check out this video for a beginners guide to diaphragmatic breathing:
If you’ve ever been coached on a squat or deadlift before, you’ve probably heard something along the lines of “squeeze your abs,” “big deep belly breath,” “tight core,” or any other of the countless cues that coaches may use. All of these things though, are trying you to get you to brace your core. A tight, braced core will protect your spine, and keep your back from rounding during heavy lifting. These are good things.
While squeezing your abs tight might feel like you are bracing your core, it’s really only part of the picture. In reality, deep breathing is how you can get a truly strong, stable spine. By inhaling deeply into your belly, using diaphragmatic breathing to take what is know as a “360 breath” (a breathe that goes around your entire core), you will feel your trunk stabilize and a new found strength.
This breathing technique was a game changer for me, and allowed me to increase my deadlift and squat numbers because I could better protect my lower back from injury. Although I had known about such breathing techniques for years, it was the constant practice in yoga that really reinforced it for me and helped me to master it.
4) Mind-muscle Connection
If lifting weights, body building, or any type of strength sports is something you’re into, then you’ve most likely heard of the infamous, “mind-muscle connection.” What that is referring to, is exactly as it sounds, the connection between your mind, and the muscle(s) you are using while you are working out. While this may sound simple, even obvious, it is actually quite an advanced technique that takes lifters years to develop and master.
The average person has little-to-no body awareness. If I were to ask you to turn on your glute, or feel your serratus during a pulling motion, would you be able to? If you said no, that’s fine, neither can most people.
Yoga is like installing broadband on what was once your shitty dial-up mind-muscle connection. It’s a new super highway that will have you feeling and understanding your body in ways you never thought possible. The extreme focus on body control makes you focus on individual movements and postures so much, that you get a feel for what muscle does what. It is an excellent way to learn the road map that is your body.
Scientific studies have shown that just through mind-muscle connection, actually THINKING about the muscle being used during an exercise, we can increase the activation of that muscle (seriously, it works). So yea, the mind-muscle connection is pretty important, and building this skill will have lots of carryover into lifting and other physical activities.
Yoga doesn’t really have any special fat burning or muscle building properties. It won’t make you leaner than traditional cardio, or bigger than lifting weights.
If however, you integrate it into your routine as I’ve highlighted above, as a rest and recovery modality, or as a type of cardio, it very well can have positive effects on your outward appearance. This, in addition to the many internal ones we’ve already covered.
Using myself as an example, in the last few months, my physique has visibly improved. I am getting leaner (my scale weight has dropped from the high to mid 180’s to the mid 170’s), but all of my big lifts have either remained the same or even increased. All without changing my lifting or diet.
My increased mobility, decrease in lower back pain, and improved breathing techniques have allowed me to get back to squatting and deadlifting heavy. I am also moving more efficiently when I am lifting, and have a deeper mind-muscle connection, so I am able to lift more weight. Thus, workouts have gotten more intense, I’m getting stronger, and I’m burning more calories.
6) Yoga is for EVERYONE
I think I’ve made it pretty clear by now that I am pro yoga. I have basically been screaming it from the roof tops to anyone who will listen. I think the positive carry over for athletes, particularly lifters, should not be overlooked. That’s not to say though that I am only recommending it if you are someone who takes part in said activities.
Far from it in fact. One of the best things about yoga is it is great for everyone, and can be done by anyone. Gender, age, fitness level, all are welcome, and all can use this ancient modality to propel themselves forward. No equipment needed, no special facilities. It truly is exercise in its simplest form.
Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years. It is not new, or revolutionary. In a world that’s always going, where everything needs to be the newest and shiniest, the flashiest or the coolest, sometimes it’s the old, tried and true that we really need.
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