Many times you’ve walked past a yoga class, glanced in, and thought, “Yeah, right.” You’re a gym guy. You don’t do that stretchy stuff. But there are very good reasons why men going for muscle may want to work on stretching—and there’s no better way to stretch than yoga. Check out the six compelling reasons why you should try yoga below. Then try it out yourself, using some starter yoga poses courtesy of Jamila Dunn, an experienced yoga instructor at the University of California at Berkeley.
Yoga for Muscle Guys—and Everyone Else
Why do even the biggest guys need to do yoga? Dunn and her colleague Devin Wicks, UC Berkeley fitness director and premier strength coach to some of the university's teams, narrowed down the list to these six primary benefits:
- Increase Your Range of Motion: Stretching increases the range of motion through which you can move a muscle. If you load that muscle across that larger range, as when you’re lifting, you ask the muscle to do more work—and thus can add size. If you’ve hit a plateau, doing yoga and increasing your range of motion may give you that little edge you’re looking for.
- Strengthen Your Stabilizers: Yoga focuses on your stabilizer muscles, not just the large muscle groups. So yoga can help to strengthen the muscle complexes you need to support the development of bulk. Too often, muscle guys focus exclusively on the big, “pretty” muscles like the pecs and biceps—but you need your stabilizing muscles to strengthen alongside them.
- Develop Core Strength: Yoga develops core strength, which is neglected in many weight-lifting programs, but which is absolutely crucial to sustaining big lifting programs. All of your lifting should be stabilized through your core—but if your core isn’t strong, you may have trouble managing big weights.
- Reduce Risk of Injury: Stretching helps to prevent injury by increasing elasticity.
- Reduce Your Resting Heart Rate (And Your Stress Levels): Yoga can help to lower your resting heart rate, a goal often talked about for performance athletes but important for us all. Plus, the practice further reduces stress. A study out of Yale suggests that a regular program of yoga and meditation has a positive effect on both stress and the deleterious effects of stress on the body.
- Loosen Up and Motivate: Yoga stretches are a great way to warm up before an intense workout. While you don't want to do a full-on yoga class and then immediately hit the weights, a simple few poses before you strength train can help you prepare physically and motivate mentally.
According to Dunn, the best context for yoga is a class with a trained professional who can correct your form and talk you through the complexities of the poses. But if you want to get a feel for how yoga can benefit you, follow the short sequence of poses below. These poses are intended to help loosen up muscle-bound guys by targeting their tightest areas, and helping to develop the balance you need for stability. They’re intended to be done in the order described, as they follow a progression through the body, from hips and hamstrings, to buttocks, to shoulders, to core and balance. When you do this mini program, hold each pose for at least a full minute, developing deep, regular breathing.
Pose: Reclining Foot Pose (Supta Hasta Padagusthana)
Targets: Hips and Hamstrings
Lie on your back on the floor with legs extended. Put a towel around the ball of one foot and hold one end of the towel in each hand. Bring your abs in toward your spine to create stability for the leg to move freely. Bend the knee of the leg with the towel and extend the leg in the air. You may bend and extend a couple of times, working toward a full extension. Flex your foot, pressing the heel away from you. If you have tighter hamstrings, extend with the leg at an angle closer to the floor. Your goal over time is to achieve a stretch with the leg extended vertically, or even past vertical toward your chest—but this requires flexibility, and will take practice. As Dunn says, “This is a time to be honest with yourself about your hamstring flexibility.” In other words, don’t pull on your leg to prove a point—try instead to develop flexibility by holding the pose for at least a minute.
Reclining Foot Pose Variation: Iliotibial Band Stretch
Targets: Iliotibial Band, Hips, and Hamstrings
Still with the towel around the foot and the leg straight, point your toe. Bend the opposite knee with that foot on the floor. Keeping the toe pointed and the leg straight, bring your extend leg across your midline to the opposite side. This is an iliotibial band stretch, which is particularly great for runners. To balance the crossing leg, use the bent leg as a “doorstop,” letting it come slightly across your center line and press into the crossing thigh for stability.
Pose: Figure 4
Lie on your back on the floor with legs extended. Place one ankle over the opposite knee, with the ankle bone on top of your opposite thigh above the knee. Bring both legs in toward your chest, using your hands around the bottom thigh for leverage. Keep the top foot flexed as you sit into the hip on that side. You may use your elbow to push the crossed knee away from you for leverage.
Pose: Standing Yoga Seal (Dandayamana Yoga Mudrasana)
Take a towel behind your hips and hold one end in each hand, about shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees slightly as you bend your upper body forward at the waist. Bring your straight arms up behind you overhead, until your arms are vertical.
For a more advanced version of the standing yoga seal, do this exercise without the towel, and with hands interlaced behind you. The further your feet are apart, and the more bent your legs, the easier this will be. To add difficulty, bring your feet closer together and straighten your legs (without locking the knee).
Pose: Tree (Vrksasana)
Stand upright with hands either on hips or together in a “prayer” position in front of your sternum. Standing on one leg, lift the other heel so that the heel rests just above the ankle of the standing leg and your toe is still lightly on the floor. Use your center to balance and develop regular breathing. Once you have found stable balance, bring the resting foot up the inside of the leg until it is resting flat against the standing calf, with your bent knee pointing out to the side. Again, develop stability in this pose from your center, keeping your abs engaged and upper body vertical. Now, if you can, bring the resting foot higher again, pulling it up the inside of the leg until it is pressed against the inside of the thigh (never against the inside of the knee).
For an advanced version of Tree pose with a shoulder stretch, take a towel in the hand on the side of the standing leg and stretch that arm straight overhead. Bend the elbow of the arm with the towel, letting the towel hang down your back. Grab the towel with the opposite hand (the hand on the side with the bent leg). The elbow of the upper arm lifts in toward your ear, and the top palm faces your body; the bottom elbow points down (not out) and the palm faces away from your body. Your goal is, over time, to bring your hands closer together.