A Yoga Practice to Strengthen and Tone Your Legs

I originally started yoga as a means to bounce back from a recurring knee-injury, so I’ve always been really interested in yoga’s capacity for developing and maintaining greater leg strength and stability in a way that is low-impact and non-stressful for the joints. This week’s sequence will both strengthen and tone your legs.

The practice develops the strength of the hamstrings, adductors, hip-flexors, quads and glutes through a combination of fluid movements in Sun Salutations, static holds in standing, prone and supine positions and standing balances.

I have found standing balances to be particularly beneficial for cultivating strength and proprioception in the lower body because they activate the deeper stabilising muscles that support the joints, such as the knees, ankles and hips.

Yoga’s strengthening capacity usually comes in the form of eccentric contraction, where the muscles are gently lengthened and then held under load, or isometric contraction, where the muscle length does not change as it’s placed under load. This is a beautiful compliment to, and balances out, other forms of strength training and exercises which shorten the muscle fibres as they’re contracted.

If you are using this sequence to help strengthen and stabilise your knees one of the main alignment cues to bear in mind is that the kneecap should track in the same direction as the 2nd/3rd toe. Don’t let the knee roll inwards or outwards but ensure it is tracking straight forward over the center of the foot. This will help protect the soft tissue structures of the knee, such as the menisci, but also ensure better musculo-skeletal balance in the legs.

To develop greater strength and stamina in the legs consider holding the poses for a minimum of 5-8 breaths and longer if possible without strain. You may notice you have one leg that is stronger than the other – if this is the case, explore holding the poses on the weaker side a little longer to even things out.

For a printable version of the sequence, click here.

P.S The O.S slide means – repeat on the Other Side 😉

 

A Practice to Strengthen your Upper Back and Shoulders

This week’s Yoga for Strength and Conditioning Sequence is focused on the upper back and shoulders. There are just a few quick pointers I want to make before we dive in with the sequence itself.

 

  1. Strengthening the upper back is key to improving posture.

When it comes to improving our posture, appropriate strength training plays a vital role. I get a lot of clients who come to me with the classic desk-bound posture – for example, rounded upper back, hunched and rolled forward shoulders and a forward head position. If that’s then combined with time in the gym hammering out push-ups and bench presses you have a recipe for imbalance – a tightened, shortened front body and a weakened, over lengthened back body. This can play a huge role in that knotty feeling between the shoulder-blades that is so common and is also a huge contributor to symptoms such as headaches.

I teach my students to find a more upright posture often by using a wall as a guide and by helping them to open up the front of their shoulders by stretching out their pecs and chest. But equally important is to balance out this process of opening and lengthening the front body with strength and conditioning of the upper back and of the muscles that keep the shoulder blades onto the back.

In the following sequence I’ve tried to choose poses that serve to both lengthen and open the chest whilst simultaneously engaging and toning the muscles of the back body.

 

  1. We need to incorporate shoulder-pulling movements into our upper body strength training regime.

I honestly believe that yoga provides for the most part a very balanced, comprehensive training system for the body and mind. However, if we look at the modern asana practice you’ll notice that most of the poses involve ‘pushing’ motions – think plank, crow, downdog – but very little in the way of ‘pulling’ movements where you’re pulling against some sort of resistance such as your body weight.

I have included in the sequence below a few forward bend variations that require you to pull up on your feet to help address this imbalance but this is probably not load bearing enough to balance us out.  Therefore I do recommend people to introduce other pulling movements into their exercise routines to cultivate more balanced and integrated shoulder strength. Think exercises such as rows using a resistance band or variations of pull-up exercises.

 

  1. When you do chaturanga, do not let the front of your shoulder dip lower than your elbow.

When I used to teach Vinyasa 101 workshops, I would often spend well over half of the workshop teaching the importance of proper shoulder alignment when practicing chaturanga. It’s important to note that when done well, chaturanga is a great upper body strengthener – similar to a push-up. However, done with poor awareness chaturanga is responsible for a lot of yoga-related injuries including bicep tendonitis and rotator cuff injuries – I speak from experience.

Chaturanga is undoubtedly best learned in front of the experienced eye of a yoga teacher who can check that your shoulders remain in good alignment as you lower your body down (many people will find their shoulders start to round forwards putting unnecessary stress and strain on the front of the shoulder). However a few tips I can offer here:

  • Bring your knees to the ground when learning this movement – it takes much more load off the upper body so that you can concentrate on maintaining good form.
  • Don’t’ lower too low – your shoulder should be at the same height as your elbow or slightly higher.
  • Keep your chest broad and your collabones wids as you lower down, don’t let the shoulders round forwards.
  • A great practice exercise to help build strength is what I lovingly call (joke) chaturanga push-ups. Essentially you come into a modified plank position with knees on the ground and place a block on the high or medium height under your chest. You work on dipping down just to the point that your chest taps the block before pressing back up. Repeat 5-8 times before taking a break in childs pose and then repeating another set.
  • At no point should you feel strain, discomfort, soreness or achiness in the front of the shoulder either during or after your practice – if you do it’s a sign that your shoulders are rounding forwards and/or you are lowering too low in your chaturangas.

 

For a printable version of the sequence please click here.

Why you need to include glute strengthening in your yoga practice (and of course a sequence!)

Has anyone noticed that Instagram seems to be full of images of people in their gym kit showing off their derrieres? Having a firm and rounded booty seems very much in vogue these days, which is kind of ironic as our more sedentary lifestyles are causing our glutes to weaken!

 

Aesthetic reasons aside there are some really good reasons why it’s worth introducing regular glute strengthening work into your yoga practice, particularly as this is an area that I feel is often not given much emphasis in many yoga classes. So here are just a few incentives followed by a yoga sequence that will help you to cultivate greater strength in your glutes and more stability in your pelvis.

 

  • You’re less likely to get injured and glute strengthening can prevent injury recurrence

The job of the glutes is to provide stability for the pelvis as well as controlling and providing power and propulsion for lower body movements as walking, running, climbing stairs and squatting. Knee injuries, shin splints, hamstring tears and tendinopathies usually respond well to a program of regular glute strengthening as well as helping to reduce the risk of repeated injury.

 

 

  • You may feel less tightness, tension and pain in your lower back

A common postural pattern these days is to have weak glutes (partly because we sit on them all day!) and tight, overworked spinal extensors. Sometimes this can lead to tension, discomfort and pain in the lower back. Targeted exercises that strengthen the glutes whilst simultaneously teaching us not to grip with the lower back muscles can really help to bring some much-needed ease to the lumbar spine.

 

 

  • You will improve your athletic performance

Whatever your sport, strengthening your glutes will really help your performance by improving your hip extension (essential in sprinting and running) as well as enhancing your ability to accelerate, decelerate, switch directions and create speed and power in jumps.

 

 

  • You will bring more balance to your regular yoga practice

There is a lot of emphasis, particularly in many of the traditional yoga sequences such as Ashtanga, on stretching out the hamstrings and by extension the back of the hip. This in itself is not a bad thing but like all things we run into issues if this is not balanced by appropriate strength and conditioning work. Remember a healthy muscle is one that is relaxed, pliable and resilient – it contracts and engages when we need it to and relaxes when we don’t. Remember too that just because a muscle is tight, doesn’t mean it is strong. Strengthening your tight muscles will actually improve your flexibility and range of motion – they are not mutually exclusive as many people tend to think.

 

For a printable version of the sequence please click here.

 

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