You want that chiseled-muscle look, but you don't want to spend hours lifting weights in the gym. If you're more of a Zen type of fitness enthusiast, you might wonder if you can gain lean muscle mass simply by doing yoga. The answer? A little, but it can't be your only source of strength-training.
A couple of studies back up the idea that you can gain muscle through yoga. First, research published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine in 2012 found that eight weeks of yoga in women aged 35 to 50 boosted leg strength — but it didn't have much impact on muscle anywhere else. Another study, published in 2013 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, looked at Bikram yoga's effect on physical fitness in young adults, and found that regular practice improved deadlift strength. Again, it didn't build muscle much elsewhere.
So, you might conclude that you can't build much lean muscle mass through yoga; however, that doesn't mean it can't challenge your muscles and improve your physical fitness — including muscle strength — overall. You simply need to pick the right poses.
Muscle-Building Yoga Poses
Novices tend to think of yoga as a way to stretch and relax and, in some cases, that's true. However, a number of poses require you to lift your own body weight and that can build muscle, if done enough.
To build leg muscle, focus on poses that require holding standing poses, such as Warrior I, Triangle, Chair and Tree. Plenty of poses allow you to work on core strength; they include Plank, Boat and Locust poses. When you're ready to train your arms, try Upward Plank, Crane (Crow) and Side Plank pose. While each of these poses might feel like they target a certain part of the body, they actually recruit multiple muscles at once. For example, the Plank pose might work your abdominals the most, but it also hits your arms and shoulders. The Side Plank will leave your arms shaking, but your obliques will hurt, too. These compound movements make building strength via yoga a more efficient practice.
The practice of power yoga is devoted to building your fitness level, as opposed to meditation or breath work like other disciplines. Power yoga is typically a vinyasa practice, meaning that you flow from pose to pose, building up a sweat, increasing your heart rate and taxing your muscles.
Power yoga is a derivative of Ashtanga, a flowing yoga class based on a set sequence of poses. However, a key difference is that the teacher of a power yoga class will vary poses — and that's great for muscle-building, as it keeps your muscles challenged.
Additionally, this fast-paced flow is actually better for muscle-building, according to a 2017 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine. Researchers found that swiftly transitioning from one pose to another produced higher muscle activity than poses held for a longer period of time.
If you're really interested in gains, yoga isn't going to be the most time-efficient way to do it. While yoga will benefit your overall health, you'll want to lift heavy weights to gain lean muscle mass. Aim to engage in resistance training for all major muscle groups — legs, hip, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders and arms — at least two times a week. If you don't like traditional weights such as dumbbells, barbells and weight machines, you can do bodyweight exercises such as pull-ups, push-ups and squats or invest in resistance bands.