Yoga for Strength and Conditioning: Is It Worth It?

STACK Expert Dalton Oliver examines the benefits of yoga for high performing athletes.

Many athletes have adopted yoga for strength or conditioning purposes, and books have been written incorporating yoga into athletic routines. Is this just another fad or are there real benefits to adding yoga to your training?

"Yoga" is a relatively broad term, much like "cardio." In this article, I refer to yoga as low-intensity, sub-maximal, isometric exercises done at full range of motion in an ordered series to support progressive muscular coordination and psychological relaxation.

Normal yoga sessions are slightly less (calorically) demanding than walking or moderate cycling.

RELATED: The 10 Best Yoga Poses for Athletes

Many claim yoga improves balance and strength through range of motion. Although that may be true for seniors or de-conditioned patients, I'm of the opinion that many dynamic athletes already have a high degree of balance and strength, exceeding anything yoga can offer. Moreover, yoga (in its "purer" form) is simply too low-intensity to meet the minimum recommendations of physical activity. Although yoga has many benefits, I'm not sold on the idea of yoga on its own for performance enhancement.

Here is a quick table of the benefits associated with yoga and how they translate to athletes, along with suggestions for further study. Keep in mind that sessions (and benefits) can vary depending on the design of the program and the skill of the instructor.

Benefit Potential Degree of Benefit to Athletes Study for Follow-Up
Improved Focus and Attention (Compared to At Rest) High Ganpat et al. 2013 Sheela et al. 2013
Stress Reduction High Yoshihara et al. 2014
Shankarapillai et al. 2012
Attenuated Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness High Boyle et al. 2004
Balance and Proprioception Low to Moderate Jeter et al. 2014
Accelerated Recovery Unknown Torres et al. 2013

Psychological Benefits

Yoga's mental and emotional benefits may be most significant for athletes. Do you have trouble handling stressful situations? Are you nervous from finals, relationships or other stressors that may impact your athletic performance? If so, yoga may shield you from outside psychological stress. For hundreds of years, many forms of martial arts have realized the benefits associated with meditation to do exactly that.

RELATED: Mental Toughness Tips for Athletic Success

Yoga may also engender social scenarios that foster team cohesion. It's easy to overlook the emotional stress that develops within social hierarchies, especially in young college athletes who are displaced from their families and friends. Those same athletes were regarded as the best on their team in high school. Humility begins on Day 1 in college when they are no longer "Top Guns." This is not my realm of expertise, but we may want to err on the side of offering more opportunities for athletes to engage socially, and yoga, done in a group or with partners, can be a team-building activity.

Physical Benefits

Offering yoga to enhance the the physical attributes of physically gifted and well-trained athletes seems like a weak proposition, considering the fact that dynamic athletes already possess a high level of balance and proprioception that probably outshines yogis (in dynamic situations) tenfold.

RELATED: Balance Exercises That Are Game-Changers

I can hear my readers exclaiming, "That's impossible! Yogis can stand on their heads or balance on one leg for minutes on end." Although this is true, yogis practice those poses for many hours on end, making them specific skill acquisitions rather than transferable, fundamental movement patterns. I seriously doubt headstands transfer to grabbing sideline passes or bouncing between 300-pound defenders. Athletes are beyond static poses in this respect and at a different level, called "dynamic balance." For a trained athlete to enhance measures of balance and motor control, dynamic movements might be more productive.

Yoga for accelerated recovery may have merit in theory. But I wouldn't teach my students to follow this principle in practice. Remobilization of joints and respective muscle groups may indeed increase blood flow, aiding in the recovery process. But at the same time, a certain point of added mechanical stress could potentially slow recovery. Advanced practitioners, who have intimate knowledge of yoga and the capabilities of their athletes, might use yoga as a form of accelerated recovery. I'd hesitate, however, to recommend yoga for accelerated recovery as a general rule for athletes, especially if they are already engaged in high-frequency programs or unfamiliar with the practice.

When to Program Yoga

Sport-specific skill training, resistance training, and conditioning routines offer greater returns on time invested than yoga for enhancing physical performance. Once these three aspects are accounted for, yoga can enhance psychological well-being and mental aspects of performance and, in some cases, accelerated recovery.

When integrating yoga, daily practice at low-intensity might be most beneficial. Practicing yoga first thing in the morning could enhance presence of mind and carry over to more complex decisions throughout the day. I've seen this strategy in the workplace, and I see no reason why it shouldn't apply in collegiate settings. Whether an athlete is preparing for a stressful set of practice rounds or final exams in chemistry and calculus, yoga may curb some anxiety and better prepare him or her to focus on the tasks at hand.

Most of the benefits of yoga to athletes probably come after they develop a solid foundation. This calls for relatively high frequency. Three or more days per week, 15 to 20 minutes per day, might be an appropriate recommendation for athletes learning new poses. Once they have acquired the basic skills, athletes may have a better basis for extending their sessions to focus on the meditative aspects, which undoubtedly take longer than 20 minutes for full effect.

Yoga and Rehab–A Side Note

A few therapists I've worked with over the years have integrated yoga (in supplemental fashion) into their routines on a regular basis. Joint stability can sometimes be safely improved through yoga during an athlete's climb back to the playing field. After injuries, full-body, stretched and active positions can be useful for extending functional range of motion.

Integrating yoga should be based on a rational, systematic approach to your entire athletic program. Randomly engaging in yoga, especially in place of skills practice or strength training, could be an inefficient strategy if your goal is athletic performance. The trick to proper programming, after all, is weighing the significance of the benefits in order to prioritize the most important modes of training. This puts you in a much better position to make decisions about the best use of your time.

References:

Ganpat TS, Nagendra HR, Selvi V. (2013). "Efficacy of yoga for mental performance in university students." Indian J Psychiatry, 55(4):349-52. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.120550.

Sheela, Nagendra HR, Ganpat TS. (2013). "Efficacy of Yoga for sustained attention in university students". Ayu, 34(3):270-2. doi: 10.4103/0974-8520.123117.

Shankarapillai R, Nair MA, George R. (2012). "The effect of yoga in stress reduction for dental students performing their first periodontal surgery: A randomized controlled study." Int J Yoga, 5(1):48-51. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.91714.

Ray US, Pathak A, Tomer OS. (2011). "Hatha yoga practices: energy expenditure, respiratory changes and intensity of exercise." Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, 2011:241294. doi: 10.1093/ecam/neq046. Epub 2011 Jun 15.

Yoshihara K, Hiramoto T, Oka T, Kubo C, Sudo N. (2014). "Effect of 12 weeks of yoga training on the somatization, psychological symptoms, and stress-related biomarkers of healthy women." Biopsychosoc Med, 8(1):1. doi: 10.1186/1751-0759-8-1.

Boyle CA, Sayers SP, Jensen BE, Headley SA, Manos TM. (2004). "The effects of yoga training and a single bout of yoga on delayed onset muscle soreness in the lower extremity." J Strength Cond Res, 18(4):723-9.

Jeter PE, Nkodo AF, Moonaz SH, Dagnelie G. (2014). "A systematic review of yoga for balance in a healthy population." J Altern Complement Med, 20(4):221-32. doi: 10.1089/acm.2013.0378. Epub 2014 Feb 11.

Torres R, Pinho F, Duarte JA, Cabri JM. (2013). "Effect of single bout versus repeated bouts of stretching on muscle recovery following eccentric exercise." J Sci Med Sport, 16(6):583-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2013.01.002. Epub 2013 Feb 9.

Hagins M, Moore W, Rundle A. (2007). "Does practicing hatha yoga satisfy recommendations for intensity of physical activity which improves and maintains health and cardiovascular fitness?" BMC Complement Altern Med, 7:40.

Zech A, Hübscher M, Vogt L, Banzer W, Hänsel F, Pfeifer K. (2010). "Balance training for neuromuscular control and performance enhancement: a systematic review." J Athl Train, 45(4):392-403. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-45.4.392.


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Topics: YOGA | EXERCISE | TRAIN | RECOVERY | INTENSITY | STRESS