Yoga for Arm Strength - Not Just Push-Ups
As both a yoga teacher and a personal trainer, I spend equal time in the quiet of the yoga studio as well as in the noisy gym environment. Avid gym goers often ask me how best to build strength without looking too bulky. Of course, I recommend yoga.
While strength training in the gym requires the use of heavier weight to overload the muscles, yoga uses pure body weight to provide a more balanced and functional approach to strengthening and toning muscles. Yoga also has the advantage of toning both large and small muscle groups in balance with each other. Traditional weight training isolates one muscle group at a time, potentially leading to imbalance and injury.
Strength training with weights requires concentric contraction. The muscle gets shorter as it lifts the weight. As the muscle fibers heal, they often get a bulky appearance. Yoga relies on an eccentric contraction, where the muscle stretches as it contracts, giving it a sleek, elongated look.
Traditional strength training is a great complement to yoga. By training and increasing muscle strength and definition evenly throughout the body, yoga can help prevent injuries from muscular imbalances created in the gym.
The most common body area gym-goers ask me for toning and definition help with is in the arms. Since women have three layers of fat in the stomach and triceps area, combined with the loss of skin elasticity and decreased lean body mass, flabby upper arms, or bat wings as they are not so affectionately called, are often where women choose to focus their strength training routine.
The American Council on Exercise recommends push-ups, and more specifically triangle push-ups where the hands are placed in a diamond shape—with palms flat on the floor and the index fingertips and thumb tips touching—as the most effective method to strengthen and create muscle definition in the arms. Fortunately, yoga vinyasas rely on Chaturanga Dandasana providing lots of opportunities to work those bat wings away!
Although some hybrid yoga classes include weights, try these yoga poses to increase muscle strength and definition in the arms using just your bodyweight.
Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) – This basic yoga asana in every vinyasa class does wonders to strengthen the wrists, shoulders, biceps, and chest. Although Chaturanga can be difficult for beginners until they attain the required strength to maintain a strong and straight posture, dropping the knees to the floor is a modification that will still build upper body strength.
Half Push-Up Chaturanga – Push-ups are the powerhouse move in every gym session, and they can easily be added into a vinyasa or a flow of their own. Try flowing from Balasana (Child’s Pose) to modified Chaturanga (knees on the floor), into a half push-up, then back into Child’s Pose. Students ready for more of a challenge can flow from Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) to half push-up Chaturanga using the diamond push-up hand placement.
Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand Pose) – Handstand requires bearing full weight on the hands, so every muscle in the arms, shoulders and upper back is engaged. Although difficult, and perhaps scary, for beginners, practicing L-shaped Handstand against a wall is a modification that still reaps all the benefits. (pictured right)
To begin, find Child’s Pose with your heels against the wall. Lift into Downward-Facing Dog Pose, still with your toes on the floor and heels on the wall. For those with exceptionally tight hamstrings, Downward-Facing Dog Pose against the wall is a great way to prepare the hamstrings for the same yoga pose on the floor. When ready, place one foot higher on the wall at hip height. Don’t hop the other foot up. Instead, push the heel into the wall causing the second leg to lift. Both feet will be on the wall at hip height, creating an upside down L-shape with your body. For greater stability, continue pushing the heels into the wall and engaging from the core.
Whether in full Handstand or L-Shaped Handstand, be sure the fingers are spread wide and the finger pads are pressing firmly into the floor. As with all arm balancing yoga poses, also be aware not to sink down into the shoulder joint. Rather push down to lift up, staying engaged.
Bakasana (Crow Pose) – Crow Pose strengthens the arms and wrists while at the same time stretching the upper back muscles. Be sure the fingers are spread wide through crow allowing even weight distribution through the hands.
Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose) – For another fun upper body strengthening flow, try side plank with push-up variation. Smoothly flow between Vasisthasana, Chaturanga push-up on knees or toes, and then Vasisthasana on the opposite side. Take this flow slowly and mindfully being sure to place the hands firmly in line with the shoulders before turning into side plank or down into the push-up.
Pamper Your Wrists in Yoga
Arm strengthening yoga poses produce strong, sleek muscles but they also can create a strain on the wrists if not balanced with gentle stretches as well. Show your wrists some love with these gentle yet effective wrist stretches.
Grasping the right wrist with your left hand, gently pull down on the right wrist. You won’t see visible movement; rather you will feel an opening type of release. Repeat on both sides.
From an all-fours position, turn your right hand backward so the thumb is facing to the right. Be sure that the majority of your body weight is in the hips and the left, forward hand. If this feels comfortable, slowly push the hips back getting a deeper stretch into the forearm. When ready, push into the flat forward hand to lift and release the stretched hand. Switch sides and repeat.
Want more tips for an arms and shoulders practice? Read Meagan McCrary's article Yoga for Tight Shoulders: 5 Yoga Poses to Open Your Upper Back and Shoulders.