When I grew up practicing Ashtanga I did the same routine of poses almost every day for a handful of years. My movement education was a series of postures, good alignment within that series, and some basic modifications incase I couldn’t put my body into the original shape. The first five years were focussed, sweaty, and blissful, but soon after this milestone passed I started to notice that my body wasn’t feeling as good as it used to. Lower back spasms, and strange popping in my knees had me wondering what I might be missing.
Initially I made a move to find out what was “wrong” with my physical practice. I started to blame certain movements, believing poses or stretches were injury producing. Later, I found out that practicing a set series of movements almost daily wasn’t necessarily a balanced approach to movement and I found that basic strength training complimented my asana practice without taking anything away from it. My narrative has shifted tremendously over the last seven years, as I’m sure your’s has as well.
When I started strength training in the gym I immediately learned what progressive loading was, and how human tissue adapted. I started to reconsider how I was teaching, asking questions like are people actually prepared for these poses, and, maybe rather than avoiding certain ranges I could help people develop strength in them.
I learned that the series of movements I had been practicing didn’t offer enough of a few things for my body at least. Pulling, back strength, hip extension and knee flexion were all very weak. This was a confusing time, the more I strengthened, and did new things the better I felt, and the better my yoga poses felt. My body was feeling amazing, but my movement practice was looking like it never had before, which in and of itself was confronting.
I also noticed some feelings I had about lifting weights versus lifting my body weight. I would kick up into a handstand without batting an eye, but ask me to press a weight over my head, and I gravitated towards the 5 lb weights. It took a skilled coach to help me understand strength progressions and the benefits of higher loads. The more people I work with the more I see this playing out, we do poses and exercises with our body weight that are intense (because our bodies are heavy weights), but when we hold weights in our hands we feel nervous, like we are participating in something that might be dangerous. Interesting right?
Before we get any further I have to say, you don’t have to be in the gym to build your strength, you can do things at home with a small set of weights and resistance bands. The gym has more equipment and thus more options, but if you just can’t stand it, I understand.
When you begin strength training you can pick a movement to start with, let’s begin with a deadlift. The deadlift is simple, it’s wonderful for folks who want to develop their posterior chain strength, I believe it’s a perfect compliment to most postural yoga systems. When you begin deadlifting how do you get started and how much weight should you lift? Mapping out the movement first without external load is probably a good idea, make sure you know what you are trying to do. If people don’t have pre-existing conditions I generally recommend people start deadlifting a 25-35 lb kettlebell, it’s heavy enough to get some of the feelings happening, but in the greater scheme of things it’s light. Think about lifting a 25 lb toddler, would you lift them up without a structured warm-up?
Your first set could be viewed as a warm-up set. After your first set you might choose to increase the load. In my personal opinion, if you aren’t increasing the load after your first set, you are probably starting out too heavy. What are other signs that you are starting too heavy? If you can only do 3 reps you might be starting out with too much load (unless you are a powerlifter, or an experienced lifter). I recommend beginners practice within the 8-10 rep range for most movements, this will dictate the load for you. If you feel very uneasy or nervous these are other signs that you might be trying to lift a weight that is too heavy.
In this industry we have been made aware of over loading, but less so of under loading. Over loading can lead to injury, but so can under loading. Under loading can lead to de-conditioning and weakness over time, which means the body can become less resilient.
How do you know if you might be under loaded? First of all, if you avoid weight bearing exercise or movements you will probably notice a gradual decline of strength and resilience. It’s also possible for one area of the body to be appropriately loaded, and thus stronger, while other parts might be under loaded.
Generally, if you are doing an exercise like a deadlift or over head press for upwards of 25 or 30 repetitions, I would recommend adding more load. Like I mentioned earlier, aiming for an 8-10 rep range will help you find the right amount of load for you. If you only ever use 2 or 5 lb weights you might not be exposing your body to enough stimulus to activate strength gains and further resilience. Yes, there are a handful of exercises where 5 lbs is a lot, but for deadlifts, squats, farmers carry, presses and pulls think more in the 10-40 lb range.
The beauty of progressive strength training is that you only lift heavier loads as your body is adapting and ready for them (this is really important!). This means that if the strength training is done effectively, it is relatively safe, because the body is quite prepared. Lifting weights in a non-progressive way does not give us the benefits we are looking for.
Strength training is also a really great compliment to forms of movement like postural yoga, dance, gymnastics and other body weight modalities. Further to this, strength training can help us prepare for the more challenging movements our individual modalities have to offer. If you are well adapted to lifting, pushing and pulling your entire body weight, body weight movements will feel much easier. How much easier would downward dog or handstand be if you could control a full body-weight over head press and a pull up?
In some ways strength is specific, squatting heavy might not increase your comfort in downward dog pose, but strengthening your bench press will definitely help with Chaturanga.
Here’s the thing about building strength, you actually have to do it in order to gain the benefits. How do you do that if you aren’t the gym goer type? If you are interested in an online membership I have to plug the Mindful Strength Virtual Studio here, you can follow along with myself and Kyle, we will teach you some basic lifting and resistance classes, it’s pretty awesome.
I’ve also prepared an instructional video of these four wonderful exercises that can be done at home with 1 dumbbell (10-20 lbs) and 1 heavier (25+ lbs) kettlebell. Click here to check it out! I love this routine because it compliments the asana practice so nicely. It offers pulling, lifting, posterior chain strength and over head work.
Bent over row 8-10 reps, 3-4 sets
Farmers carry 30-60 seconds each side, 2-4 sets
Over head press 8-10 reps, 3-4 sets
Deadlift 8-10 reps, 3-4 sets
Practice these four movements, for three to four rounds and rest 30-60 seconds in between each exercise (or more depending on how you feel). Do a brief warm-up of your choice, and end with five minutes of passive stretching or anything you find calming, because relaxation is key. This routine can be done in around 30 minutes, in your living room with the above listed basic props. If you enjoy it you can repeat this routine 2-3 times a week, alongside your other movement or yoga practices.