Benefits of yoga and Pilates. Originally published 6 April 2020. Last updated 2 October 2020.
I realized that I have mentioned yoga and Pilates many times before, but I never really took the time to discuss whether it’s helpful for those that are strength training. I’ve always said that both are great for beginners, the young and not-so-young, and of course for flexibility. It’s about time I discussed the actual health benefits of yoga and Pilates, especially for those that are already active. I’ll start with yoga first.
Benefits of Yoga
This practice has been around for thousands of years, but only within the last 20 or 30 has it really gained momentum. There are so many forms of yoga now, too:
Then, there are sub-types of each of these. Some instructors incorporate versions of each one in their practice. The variations are seemingly endless.
What they all have in common are proper breathing and holding poses.
It is believed that by practicing certain poses and controlling one's breathing, health benefits can be achieved. But is this really true? What does the research actually say about the benefits of yoga?
A study conducted at Arizona State University using healthy adults found that after following a 6-week yoga program, all of their participants saw decreases in blood pressure, and increases in upper body & trunk dynamic muscular strength and endurance & flexibility. They also reported having less stress. This study was small and only followed people for 6 weeks, so it would be good to see if these results lasted months later.
A separate study using 27 college students found that after following a 12-week yoga program, participants improved their grip strength, reaction times, and respiratory endurance (how strong your lungs are).
You may be thinking, “Okay, but were these folks athletes? What if they weren’t really active to begin with? Wouldn’t following any program help them?”
Those would all be valid points. Let’s look at the data on athletes…
Benefits of Yoga for Athletes
Sure enough, we find that yoga is beneficial for athletes as well.
One of the main benefits is injury prevention. A nice side effect of practicing yoga is improved flexibility, which can help prevent all sorts of injuries. There a number of studies that have shown yoga’s effect on flexibility.
The other benefit of yoga is that it tends to work your core. When you think about the poses that yoga requires you to perform, you’ll quickly notice that so many of those poses require you to engage the muscles from your chest and upper back down to your thighs and hamstrings–basically your entire core! Core strength and stability is so important for most athletes, especially if strength training is a large component of their routines.
Furthermore, the controlled breathing that yoga requires can reduce the lactic acid build-up that occurs when you work out at a high intensity! Imagine you’re running sprints and you notice your legs start to burn from all of that hard work. This burning sensation is telling you that your muscles are exhausted. Some researchers have found that with yogic breathing, you can actually decrease this lactic acid buildup or shorten how long that burning sensation lasts. This means you’ll be able to jump back in and run some more sprints sooner rather than later!
The same mechanism applies to weight lifting. When your arms (or shoulders or chest) start to burn when you’re working out, that’s lactic acid building up. With yogic breathing, some of that may be minimized.
Benefits of Pilates
What about Pilates? This method of training hasn’t been around quite as long as yoga, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The Pilates method was created by Joseph Hubertus Pilates back in the 1920s. Usually, Pilates involves 25-50 repetitive, low-impact flexibility and muscular endurance exercises with an emphasis on muscular exertion in the core: abs, lower back, hips, thighs, and glutes.
There is some overlap between the foundation of Pilates and yoga. Pilates also focuses on building strength through the use of various poses and focusing on one’s breathing. The research on this is not as abundant, but it appears that Pilates can help improve abdominal endurance, hamstring flexibility, and upper-body muscular endurance.
One study published in 2010 demonstrated that participants of a 12-week Pilates program were capable of producing significant increases in hamstring flexibility, abdominal endurance, and upper-body muscular endurance.
Here is a beginner 10-minute Pilates workout with pilates instructor Angie Newson.
Both yoga and Pilates appear to be safe and beneficial for most adults, even athletes. But what I particularly like about both of these modes of training is that they provide variety. We often get stuck performing the same workouts at the gym and doing the same moves.
But by incorporating something new, like yoga or Pilates, you’re changing things up. Plus, you’re changing things up using relatively safe, low-impact moves. And a potential side effect of practicing yoga and Pilates is you may actually feel less stressed and more focused in other areas of your life.
That sounds like a pretty good deal to me!
Is Power Yoga Considered Strength Training?
As a follow-up to the original post, I was so happy to hear from a listener in her mid-fifties who was maintaining her aerobic fitness and hoping to improve her muscular strength and endurance.
The question: is power yoga suitable for strength training purposes?
We know from lots of studies that strength training is super important for maintaining the health of not only our bones and muscles, but even our brains. Once we reach our 30s, our muscles start to shrink. So, it becomes even more important to support their growth whenever we can.
Once ladies reach menopause, bone breakdown starts to speed up. This same level of bone breakdown doesn’t seem to happen in men. Both men and women can expect issues with balance as we age. Also, our brains lose some of their sharpness.
Incorporating regular strength training may help keep our brains healthier and sharper. This is because new connections between the brain’s nerve cells are made when we force the body to move, especially when we perform movements that force us to contort and twist…moves that are especially common when we practice yoga.
Types of Yoga
As I mentioned earlier, there are different forms of this practice.
Many of us are familiar with the form of relaxation/stretching form of yoga. But there’s also power yoga. There are of course lots of other yoga variations, but I won’t get into that here.
I remember when I first tried power yoga – I found it more exhausting than some of my toughest weight training routines. It started nice and relaxing, but then gradually, the poses became more complex and we had to hold the poses longer. By the end, I was drenched in sweat.
What’s Power Yoga?
Power yoga is a type of Hatha yoga. Most forms of Hatha yoga include holding body positions, transitioning from one position to the next, and breathing exercises.
This yogic form is sometimes referred to Astanga Vinyasa and it’s different in that it focuses on smooth and quick changes of body positions combined with breathing exercises.
Here's an introduction to power yoga by instructor Brett Larkin.
Power Yoga and Muscular Strength
So, what does the research say about power yoga and muscular strength?
Well, it was difficult finding a lot of studies on this topic. But what I was able to find was promising. The results of these studies seemed to support yoga as a way of increasing muscular strength.
One study conducted among those that identified as female found that after 6 months of power yoga training twice per week led the women experienced increased muscular strength. Another study didn’t use power yoga as the intervention. Instead, they had participants perform traditional hatha yoga poses. In the end, they still found that participants’ muscular strength increased. I should mention that there are other fitness benefits to practicing yoga regularly. These include muscle and joint flexibility and possibly helping us lose some body fat.
Does this mean we should rely on power yoga for all of our strength needs? I wouldn’t say that. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine also recommends that we spend at least 2 days each week performing resistance training in addition to performing yoga-type exercises.
Resistance training involves incorporating a more structured weight-bearing routine. To really preserve muscle and create stronger, more dense bones, adding weights every now and then can help.
That is because these weights force the muscles and bones to adapt – and they adapt by growing larger and stronger.
The Bottom Line
So it seems that power yoga, and possibly just good ol’ fashioned regular Hatha yoga, may help increase muscular strength.
If you can, incorporate some weight-bearing exercises every now and then, too!