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What Kind of Muscles Will Yoga Leave Me With?

How much downward dog are we talking about to leave me yoga yoked?

I never considered doing yoga of any sort until I noticed Diamond Dallas Page’s book Yoga for Regular Guys discounted on Amazon in 2014. It’s a shame that it took the endorsement of a professional wrestler for me to give yoga a fair shake, but I’d been dealing with some persistent lower-back tightness and shoulder pain for years at that point, and I reasoned that engaging in some rehabilitative stretching wouldn’t be the worst thing I could do.

That first yoga experience was magical, and I felt like I’d discovered the secret sauce to exercise perfection in the form of a pre-weight-training yoga warmup. But did I stick with it for more than three months? No, siree. Do I regret my lack of dedication to yoga? Without a shadow of a doubt. At no point in my life had I ever felt more flexible, nimble and all-around stable than when I was fusing yoga with other forms of resistance training and a steady dose of cardio.

That’s cool and all, but isn’t yoga basically just a bunch of stretching?

Nice try, but I’m not going to fall into that particular trap.

It would be irresponsible of me to imply that yoga is just a bunch of stretching, because there is far more to it than that. In particular, yoga is linked with virtually every form of organized religion in India. Therefore, referring to yoga as just a bunch of stretching would be akin to distilling contemporary American Christianity down to groups of people who sit around in pews listening to speeches and then attend potluck dinners afterwards. Even if it’s unintended, stripping the reverence and spirituality away from what many consider to be innately spiritual is rather belittling.

My bad. But you said yoga helped your flexibility and made you stronger.

Yes, properly executing yoga poses is virtually guaranteed to have a net positive result on your strength and flexibility levels. This is because yoga forces your muscles to contract as they’re stretched, with much of the stretching occurring gradually as your body swells with each successive breath you take.

Imagine you’re standing nose-to-nose with a semi-truck. Feeling inspired by watching Mark Henry’s strongman highlights, and feeling yoked enough to square off against Optimus Prime, you decide to place your hands against the front of the truck and push against it with all of your might, as you fantasize about putting Optimus in his place and shoving his alien ass straight back to Cybertron. Does the semi-truck move? Not a millimeter. Do your muscles engage and contract? Do they ever. You probably strained against that truck with your entire muscular system, and if you continued that for a long enough period of time, your muscles would have been completely enervated.

Likewise, when you press against the floor with all of your might while performing a yoga pose, the floor doesn’t give any ground. However, your muscles are designed with the ability to stretch, expand and give way, and they do exactly that while being simultaneously strengthened through the strain they’re exerting by holding your body in place.

You’re making it sound like the most efficient way for me to gain muscle mass is to just press against inanimate objects.

That would make muscle building a whole lot easier, but unfortunately, it’s not that simple. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s always essential to consider the natural range of motion of a muscle and then train it along that path, pattern or movement. Just because a muscle is being strengthened through the application of tension in a static position doesn’t mean it’s also being conditioned to exert tremendous force throughout that muscle’s full range of motion.

So you’re saying I should give yoga a shot?

It’s absolutely worth a shot. Yoga is almost peerless as a tool for developing flexibility, it will help you to cultivate a specific type of strength, it diagnoses muscle imbalances with incredible effectiveness and it’s proven itself to be helpful with respect to rehabilitating injuries and enabling people to retain strength in their muscles as they recover from injuries.

Now, should you be doing yoga specifically to gain muscle? Probably not. Targeted muscle training is a much better bang for your buck if your intent is to bulk up. But the key takeaway here should be not to take such a myopic view of what’s required in order to strengthen your body. Case in point: One of the most impressive physiques I’ve ever seen was possessed by my Brown University summer writing instructor, who had incredible upper-body development.

“Do you go to the gym a lot?” I asked her.

“Oh, this?” she said, before proudly flexing the muscles in her arms. “Nah. This is from holding the reins every day when I go horseback riding.”

That was mind-blowing to me. She had carved out a granite-like physique for herself simply as a byproduct of controlling an animal’s movement. This is really the answer at the heart of the question you’re asking: Any strain you exert to control your own body or to control an object has the potential to develop your muscles. On its own, yoga won’t grant you a physique capable of moving mountains, but it will provide you with the strength and flexibility necessary to go toe-to-toe with most people. 

Going toe-to-toe with a Transformer is a whole ‘nother matter.