To get strong, you really don’t need weights. Just look at all those yogis and gymnists who specialise in moving and manipulating their bodies! Here, writer and yogi Donna Noble explores the value of body weight for getting stronger and how we can build more strength without touching a single dumbbell.
Does “strength training” immediately conjure up images of dumbbells and weights rooms for you? If so, you’re not alone – lots of us equate strength and weight training with each other. To do so, however, ignores one of the best tools for building power and strength available to us: our own body weight.
Our bodies are arguably the only thing we need for building both mental and physical strength. They’re truly amazing vessels that support us in every imaginable way.
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Why choose bodyweight training?
This might sound obvious but it’s worth clarifying that “bodyweight training” involves performing strength-building exercises with just the weight of your body. You build strength from resisting gravity as you lift, lower, hover and hold your body in various positions.
There is so much value in using your body weight to get stronger. In my professional opinion as a long-time yoga teacher, it represents exercise in its most natural form and the beauty of it is that you can work out anywhere with no equipment. Bodyweight movement is also one of the oldest forms of exercise – which perhaps explains why it’s never really gone out of fashion.
Let’s take yoga, for example. We don’t really know when yoga first began but we do know that it has origins in ancient India, with some experts suggesting that it could be over 5,000 years old. The practice hasn’t just stayed around because of its calming effects; there is so much more to yoga than being zen.
A lot of students who turn up to my classes seem to come expecting to spend the next hour sitting down. In reality, they find themselves doing things with their bodies that they never imagined possible – lifting themselves into crow pose, or doing the equivalent of a yogic press up with Chaturanga.
Yoga is a classic bodyweight practice because it requires you to support the weight of your body through a series of poses. Whether you’re in downward dog, plank or tree pose, your core is having to work hard to maintain balance and stability, while your leg, back and arm muscles switch on to hold you in those postures. Over time, this will inevitably improve strength.
Cultivating a regular yoga practice allows you to move the body how it was designed to – ensuring that it continues to function correctly as we age. During a yoga class, the body is moved in many more directions than we’re used to when weight training. In a weights class, you might move forward and back, adducting and abducting limbs (moving away and toward the body), but how often do you get to arch, twist and invert?
If you think that yoga is a “softer’ style of training, again, you’re mistaken. There are yoga styles that can build the same kind of strength one might expect from weight classes and resistance machines. More dynamic yoga styles like vinyasa, hot yoga and power yoga (Ashtanga) not only build heat and physical power, but also mental fortitude, balance, flexibility and endurance.
How to build strength through yoga
There are really three main tools you can use for building full-body strength via your yogic practice:
Starting the day with a few rounds of sun salutations and vinyasas is a simple and effective way to build strength over time. The salute to the sun warms up the entire body and is a staple of yoga. You might find it a little crunchy to begin with but after a few weeks, you should find yourself moving with greater ease – a sign that your muscles are adapting!
Increasing the length of time that you hold certain poses for (particularly in the warrior sequence) is one of the simplest ways to build strength and endurance. Balance poses such as tree pose, which involves balancing your entire body weight on one leg, get every single lower body muscle working from toe to hip. Rather than staying in a position for 30 seconds, why not see if you can start to increase the amount of time spend under tension. Set a timer and work up from 20 seconds to two minutes. I guarantee that you’ll feel every muscle in your shoulders if you were to spend two minutes in dolphin pose!
Holding the postures longer, doing more repetitions, and learning new yoga poses can make your yoga practice more challenging. The key is to keep switching things up. If, for example, you committed to doing 20 goblet squats at the same speed, at the same weight every day, you’d plateau pretty quickly. In yoga, you want to keep on learning, moving and trying new things to keep the brain active and the body strong. When we practice new skills and movements with regular repetition, the brain gets a workout too.
Strength without comparison
Speaking from personal experience, yoga has made me infinitely stronger. My yoga journey saw me go from struggling to do a downward dog to being able to lift my body weight with ease – something I never imagined I’d do. The mental strength element came a little bit later down the line.
I remember male friends being shocked at the fact that I could do press-ups. As someone who couldn’t do one to save my life pre-yoga, I’d developed that kind of explosive full-body strength from doing Chaturangas. They couldn’t believe how deep and powerful my press-ups were; not only was it satisfying to prove them wrong, but it also proved something important to me: there’s no competition in yoga.
9 benefits of bodyweight training
Bodyweight exercise goes above and beyond being able to do strength circuits. Here are just some of the benefits of learning how to move your own body freely:
- Increased mobility, flexibility and stability
- Accessible and easily modified to make it easier or harder
- Most moves are compound, meaning that they work multiple muscles at once
- Many bodyweight exercises mimic the way we move in day-to-day life
- Improves balance and coordination
- Requires little room and no equipment
- Helps to prevent injury by conditioning the body to move through all ranges of motion
- Provides a more balanced option of training
- Can help with body image issues, as it switches the focus from what your body looks like to what it can do
Check out the How To library for 100s of bodyweight moves that’ll strengthen and lengthen every muscle in your body.
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