Strength Building: How Long to Hold Poses
In the past, I have given some guidelines on how to use yoga poses to increase or maintain the strength of both your bones and muscles. Based on some new information I have learned, I’d like to revisit my guidelines for how long to hold your poses because I’m going to make some different recommendations.
Building Stronger Bones with Yoga
For building stronger bones, I initially used information from Dr. Loren Fishman’s book Yoga for Osteoporosis, in which he cited an animal study that showed placing strain on a bone starts to stimulate new bone to be laid down as early as eight seconds. But in his recently completed 10-year study that utilized 12 poses done over 12 minutes, Dr. Fishman had the participants hold the poses for 30 seconds each. Nine of the poses were asymmetrical and therefore would take one minute total to complete. Results were positive.
So for strengthening bones, I’m now going to suggest that you hold your postures for 30 seconds, if possible. Could you hold them for less than 30 seconds, especially if you are weak or fatigued? Sure, but we don’t have evidence at this time that those timings would be as effective for bone building.
How to Build Stronger Muscles with Yoga
In a previous post, I recommended that holding your yoga poses statically for 90 seconds would build muscle effectively. Unfortunately, I cannot locate the research I used to make that statement. But in going back to look at this more closely for our upcoming book, I discovered some important facts I’d like to share with you today that flip my earlier recommendations almost upside down.
Isotonic Muscle Contraction
There are two commonly used techniques to build muscle mass and strength, both in sports training and rehabilitation from injury. The first technique uses motion against resistance, called resistance training, as in curling a 10-pound weight up and down with your arm smoothly at the gym to build up your bicep.
This utilizes what is known as “isotonic” muscle contraction (with the muscle contracting and visibly shortening during the curl) against some sort of resistance (the hand weight) to build muscle. Because you lower the weight down slowly, your bicep muscle also is contracting as it is grossly lengthening, which is called “eccentric” contraction.
For this action to be effective, you have to do multiple repetitions. In our yoga practice, dynamic sequences or mini-vinyasas could count as resistance training, especially if you do them more slowly. Since we are using our own body weight as the resistance, it may not work as quickly to build muscle as weight training, but it will still build strength. See below for more recommendations about how to use this technique in your asana practice.
The second technique is isometric holds, usually accomplished by pushing or pulling on an immovable object, which maximally contracts the muscles involved without changing the gross length of the muscle (in other words, triggering an isometric contraction of those muscles).
You can trigger the same response—although maybe not as maximally—by pretending to push or pull against an imaginary surface/object in yoga poses. For example, as you come into the full Warrior II pose (Virabradrasana II) and hold it for a while, the leg muscles that keep you in position, such as the quadriceps, and the muscles that keep the arms out to your sides, such as the middle deltoids, are all working isometrically.
You can enhance the number of muscles contracting isometrically by consciously firming all the muscles around a particular bone or joint towards the bone, sometimes called “hugging the bone.”
In the world of sports training, these holds are usually for 8-10 seconds and done in a set of 6-12 reps, sometimes for more than one set. If we applied this to our yoga practice, you could do six rounds of a mini vinyasa, staying in the full pose for 3-4 breaths (around 10 seconds), while hugging the muscles to your bones in all the major areas that you want to strengthen. You could even do a second set.
Vinyasas for Strength
If you want to practice mini-vinyasas for strength, which of these two techniques should you choose? Both ways can build strength, although the second technique might arguably do it faster.
But if you are new to the practice, out of shape and weak, or simply wish to gently warm up your muscles, you might wish to start with the first technique. I prefer the first technique when I plan on practicing a static hold of the pose afterward.
Now, what about longer isometric holds? Certain modern yoga systems encourage longer holds for poses that are strengthening, such as Warrior III (Virabradrasana III). The Iyengar yoga system is a prime example of this approach. Isometric training is said to have the advantage of not putting as much stress on joints as other muscle building methods, which could be particularly useful in rehabbing an injury.
Another strength-building concept could apply here: the idea of taking the muscles to a point of fatigue, possibly indicated by muscle shakiness, as a way of stimulating the muscle to grow. But whether that is definitely applicable here is unclear. One study I reviewed did compare shorter three-second isometric holds to longer 30-second holds, and found that the longer holds led to greater strength in the muscles tested.
But another study showed no difference in strength gains in a group over 55 between short and longer holds, yet both groups did get stronger. And, for even longer holds, it may be that you will be increasing muscle endurance, rather than muscle strength, which is a different quality and characteristic of muscles.
The only warning about longer isometric holds is that they can cause an increase in blood pressure during the hold, so those with untreated hypertension should probably avoid this method until their blood pressure is under control.
New Recommendations for Building Bone and Muscle Strength with Yoga:
For building bone strength, hold yoga poses for 30 seconds or more, if possible.
For building muscles using isotonic and eccentric contraction with a mini-vinyasa, do the vinyasa slowly for six repetitions, possibly for two sets of six. As you increase in strength, you can add more reps per set.
For building muscles isometrically with a mini-vinyasa, hold the full yoga pose for 8-10 seconds (3-4 breaths) for six repetitions, possibly for two sets of six. For example, if you were doing the Warrior II mini-vinyasa, you would inhale from the starting position into the full pose, hold full Warrior II for four breaths, and then exhale back into the starting position.
For building muscle strength and endurance in static yoga poses, hold a full pose isometrically until your targeted muscles become shaky and feel fatigued, and then exit the pose. The length of time you hold the pose could be short if you are weak, out of shape, or recovering from injury, or much longer if you are healthy and relatively strong to start. You can gradually build up your length of time in the pose as your strength increases.
In general, do your strength practices every other day to allow a day off for muscles to rest and repair, which is part of the muscle building process. (On alternate days, focus more on gentler practices, such as stretching or restorative practices, or work on pranayama and meditation.)
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Baxter Bell, MD, is a yoga teacher and educator, physician and medical acupuncturist. These days he focuses on teaching yoga full time, both to ordinary students of all ages and physical conditions, and to the next generation of yoga teachers, to whom he teaches anatomy and yoga therapy along with his accessible, skillful style of yoga. Baxter brings a unique perspective to his teaching, combining his understanding of anatomy and medicine with his skill at instructing people from all walks of life and all levels of ability. Baxter is the co-founder and writer for the popular Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, where he shares his knowledge of medical conditions, anatomy, and yoga with practitioners and teachers across the world. In addition to being a frequent presenter at Yoga Journal Alive events and yoga conferences such as IAYT’s SYTAR, he is often quoted as an expert on yoga and health by major national news outlets such as The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. To learn more, visit www.baxterbell.com, www.yogaforhealthyaging.blogspot.com, and his YouTube channel Baxter Bell Yoga.