Can Yoga Replace Strength Training?

Tone up with these poses — no weight training required

When you hear the term strength training, you probably think weight training — numerous reps of muscle contractions using weights as resistance. But if you’ve ever had sore muscles after a good yoga class, you’ve probably wondered: Does yoga count as strength training?

Experts advise doing some form of strength training at least twice a week to keep metabolism running efficiently, and many doctors recommend weight training as the No. 1 preventive measure against bone loss.

For many of us, this conjures a vision of becoming an eternal slave to weight machines, dumbbells or resistance cords. So ... can you just do some yoga instead?

Can yoga really build muscle?

“People always ask me, ‘Don’t you lift weights?’” says yoga expert Rodney Yee. “I sort of giggle to myself and say, ‘Yes — I lift my own body weight!’”

When you do yoga poses, Yee explains, “You’re putting your body in positions and orientations that you ultimately have to support with your muscles. So you are lifting weights.”

Rodney Yee Cobra Pose

Like many yogis, Yee doesn’t like focusing on how yoga can sculpt your physique. They want students to focus on yoga as a way of thinking, feeling and being, versus getting preoccupied with perfecting their outer appearance.

Still, when you look at Yee’s arms (the photos in this article show him in a few strength-building yoga poses) or those of his wife, Colleen Saidman (pictured above), you can’t help but want some of the yoga poses they’re having for breakfast.

The upshot is that you can increase muscle tone and definition — and even muscle size — with yoga. But because you're limited to “lifting” your own body weight, it may take a lot more skill, time and determination than it would with lifting weights.

“Yoga can be just as effective as weights when it comes to building a stronger, more impressive physique,” says Nicholas DiNubile, M.D. Yet experts agree that whether yoga can be your sole form of strength training depends on your goals.

Weights are best for building bulk

“If all you’re looking to do is build muscle, weight training is the more practical approach,” advises DiNubile. In fact, the American Council on Exercise defines strength training as “exercising with progressively heavier resistance for the purpose of strengthening the muscular skeletal system.”

Yet the key phrase here is progressively heavier resistance. Basically, your muscles and bones must be overloaded to keep developing. With traditional weight training, as your muscles adapt to the resistance and get stronger, that weight is no longer a challenge, and you have to add more weight to achieve the same results.

With weight training, theoretically you can continue to grow the size and strength of your muscles forever — as long as you continue to add weight.

Yoga is a more well-rounded approach

There are several reasons yoga is a more balanced way to do strength training:

  • A regular yoga practice can reduce your risk of injury and condition your body to perform better at things you have to do every day: walk, sit, twist, bend, lift groceries .... A form of functional fitness, yoga moves your body in the ways it was designed to move to help ensure that it keeps functioning properly. For example, in yoga you use both large and small muscles and move in many directions (twisting, arcing, etc.), not just back and forth on a one-dimensional plane, as in the forward-back motion of a bicep curl.

  • Yoga tones muscles all over your body, in balance with each other. Weight training exercises typically isolate and flex one muscle or muscle group at a time.

Rodney Yee Triangle Pose
  • Yoga relies on eccentric contraction, where the muscle stretches as it contracts, giving the muscles that sleek, elongated look while increasing flexibility in the muscles and joints. Weight training relies on the opposite physical principle of concentric muscle contraction, which means the muscle gets smaller as it contracts. Without proper stretching, the muscle fibers heal close together, giving the muscle that compact, bulging look.
  • Yoga increases muscle endurance because you typically hold any given pose for a period of time and repeat it several times during a yoga workout.

For good general fitness, do some of both

I advise clients who are just trying to stay fit and healthy (not do body-building) to get a mix of both body-weight exercises and workouts using weights or resistance tools. Many studies have shown that the more variety in your workout routine, the faster you’ll see results.

Note that body-weight exercises also include good-ol’ pushups, squats and other calisthenics — any type of movement that requires you to hold or lift yourself up with your limbs.

While the most important thing is to find a form of exercise you love and can see yourself doing as a lifelong habit, I encourage my clients to continally try new and different forms of exercise. If you include many types of workout techniques, you’ll continue to test and push your body in different ways, and you'll keep growing as a fitness enthusiast and as an individual.

Which yoga poses are best for developing strength?

Rodney Yee Yoga Pose

Yee explains that certain types of yoga poses build muscle tone in different ways.

“Challenging arm balances and inversion poses are very effective for building muscle strength,” he says, “because they flex groups of smaller muscles — not just the major muscles you work with a weight machine — to support the body’s weight during the pose.”

“Holding standing poses such as the Warrior Poses and Triangle Pose is great for strengthening the leg muscles.” he adds. “And in balance poses such as Tree Pose, one leg has to hold up your entire body. So you’re increasing your strength just by putting your weight on that leg.”

By holding the positions longer, doing more repetitions, and learning new yoga poses, you can make your yoga practice more or less challenging, just as you can with traditional body weight exercises like squats and lunges. Just don’t try to go straight to the advanced yoga videos and poses like arm balances to get on a fast-track to “cut” arms. Start with basic yoga poses at a class or using a yoga DVD. All of Gaiam's yoga videos are now streaming at

Learn new yoga poses or test your memory of what certain poses look like in Gaiam’s ConcentratiOm yoga pose matching, memory and learning game.


Related Articles:

Arm Exercises Without Weights

Why Women Need Weight Training

Don't Forget to Strength Train

The Benefits of Yoga


Yoga Solutions:

Fit Body Yoga DVD 

Power Yoga: Strength DVD with Rodney Yee

Grippy Yoga Gloves

Gaiam Sol Power-Grip Yoga Mat

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MBA's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 2 weeks ago. Offline
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Thank you, thank you! I have been practicing yoga for many years, and even now I'm not ready to go beyond lifing my own body weight. I am now 59 years old, and I will happily settle for keeping my current level of strength and flexibility for the next 59 years! (;-0)

Lynn423's picture
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I absolutely love this article, many people have a misconception about yoga and why yoga is practiced.
I love how you have explained how yoga can be practiced to strengthen and tone muscles and that weight training is not the only way to do that.
I just love reading all the different articles regarding all the many benifits yoga can provide to so many different things.
thank you

Infinity's picture
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I have to comment here, that as a yogi who has also done weight training, that both pale in comparison to the strength built at a typical rock climbing gymnasium. These facilities emphasize the movements you learn in yoga in a practical way that requires you to support your own body in many ways, as well, many often carry a full service weight gym in them, although most people find the combination of endurance and strength that climbing builds gives them the ability to both increase strength and lose weight and tone the muscles, not to mention that it is amazingly fun. I am not saying yoga should be dropped when climbing, but small amounts of yoga with climbing have yielded far better results at my rock climbing gym for many than any combination of weights and yoga, or weights and yoga alone.

Eric Kenyon RKC
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I found that the Yoga-centric view of the writer and the commentary, and the American bodybuilding-centric view of strength training that has infected these same writers, obscures more than illuminates.
There are many types of Yoga, but more imprortantly there are many levels of quality of Yoga instruction and practice. The same is true of “strength training.” To compare Yoga to strength training coherently we have to compare the best of both. Rodney Yee is an example of the pinnacle of quality in yoga instructors. He also has a conspicuously fit and pleasing phyisque. We should also take a look at his counterpart in the strength training world, Pavel Tsatsouline.

Much more important than the men’s aesthetic physiques are the methods of health and strength they are teaching. Both are truly great teachers. Anyone who takes instruction from either will see some sort of improvement in strength, physical ability, relief from pain, etc...
One difference between the two men is that Tsatsouline is at least twice, maybe three times stronger than Yee. Pavel’s students are by extension similarly stronger than Rodney’s.
To clarify an ongoing misconception: strength training and bodybuilding are two different things. I know, I have taught both. Real strength athletes are not “preoccupied with perfecting their outer appearance.” they are concerned with building strength for some purpose.
Although top rock climbers are impressively strong, rock climbing is also not strength training. Competitive rock climbers must do strength training if they want to compete. As in every other sport you can not climb yourself to greatness. you must do special conditioning. Although climber Chris Sharma may be stronger than either Yee or Tsatsouline in the odd requirements of his sport, such as hanging from one finger joint, in a test of general full-body strength such as the deadlift, I estimate he has about the same strength as Yee, far less than Tsatsouline.
Yoga is not strength training, bodybuilding is not strength training, rock climbing is not strength training. If you want to get strong or extremely strong quickly and safely, you must do strength training. Get your instruction from a quality source like Pavel Tsatsouline.

mbg's picture
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just like any form of fitness or diet, it's important to find out what works best for you -- there's no one-size-fits-all. whether this means finding the right types of yoga for you to complement your strength training -- or to replace your strength training -- it all depends on your individual needs and what works for your body. 

Eric Kenyon RKC
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"what works best for you -- " and "it all depends..." type comments imply that people are so different and varied that you can only find effective health and fitness modes by trial and error. Luckily nothing is further from the truth. We are a tiny bit different from each other and very much similar. If we were not constructed that way, Yoga could not exist, neither could strength training or medicine, nor any other kind of system of healing, training or instruction.

Any type of Yoga can complement your strength training. The quality of instruction is MUCH more important then the style. There is no Yoga on this planet that can replace high quality strength training.

Funny thing is strength training at the highest level is substantially influenced by the Yoga traditions. What yoga really teaches is quality of movement. This quality governs the effectiveness of all strength training, all athletic conditioning and all movement that is done for pure health reasons.

Dorothy422's picture
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Yoga is not meant for building body or muscles neither Meditation.

Yoga as well as Meditation is helpful to reduce stress level and make our body really full of positive energy. Both are really helpful for our body if done properly and regularly.

Eric's picture
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Dorothy, no it’s not true because Yoga works best for reducing weight as well as getting good strength into body.

Earlier, I was feeling embarrassed due to having thin body, I have consulted many Doctors but not get good results and then one day one of my old friend suggest me to take help of Yoga and it really works for me.

Today I am enjoying good physique and this all has been due to regular workout and Yoga.

SweetBlue's picture
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Hi Everyone,

I need help. I don''t know if this is the right place to post this but I don''t know who else to ask and I am embarrassed to ask my yoga teachers this. I started doing yoga March 2010. Before I started I was 130 pounds. It has been almost 6 months that I have been doing yoga 3 times a week, my diet has not changed ( I have always watched what I eat) and for some reason on the scale my weight has gone up to 140 this normal?? I didn''t think that yoga alone 3 times a week could make your bones that much stronger. My cardio is fine, I do power walking or step/spin combo class...... this is driving me crazy!! Someone please help me!

Cheryl74074's picture
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This is for SweetBlue-
First of all, you should feel like you could talk about this with your instructor! There's no reason to be embarassed- maybe you should find an instructor that puts you more at ease and doesn't seem too judgemental.
Second, if you had not been doing any form of exercise before, I would guess that you have developed a significant amount of muscle mass. You were probably thin with little muscle mass at 130, and you have developed the muscle mass and it shows with the weight gain. Remember also that muscle weighs more than fat, so you could be losing fat and gaining muscle, which could result in a weight gain.
Third, have you keep track of your measurements or just your weight? How are your clothes fitting? Sometimes you can lose volume but stay at the same weight (again muscle vs. fat).
I hope this helps. Talk to your instructor!

PhysicalTherapy3's picture
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As a physical therapist I am faced with this question all the time. Can yoga replace a strength training program? The answer according to The American College of Sports Medicine is NO. In fact based on current scientic journals yoga will slow down your metabolism. It is however a great part of a flexibility component to a program design for an individual in need of strenthening. A full design should incldue strength, flexibility, and cardio. This is important for individuals with recommendations from thier health care providers to know when choosing a trainer and a workout routine. There are certain principles to strength such as the principle of adaptation which states the our muscles will adapt the amount of stress placed on them which means at a certain point those body weight poses will not be enough. Also the principle of specicifity is another important example when chooses exercise, you truly want to get stronger while involved in a functional exercise. People should not be afraid of weights bulking them, talk to an exrecise specialist and you will find out how hard the process of hypertrophy is. It is extremly hard work for a person to actually "bulk". People should not be afraid of weight beause of injury either, as a therapist I have more often patients in with hyper fleixibility issues and weakness then injured power lifters. With anything the goal is to do it right. Yoga is a great combination to a strength training program but not a replacement.

Glenis's picture
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Can yoga replace weight training and strength training to tone and build muscle? I think with right yoga program weight training, tone and build muscle will come naturally.

For more details visit

angelock8's picture
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Hi everyone!

Since Yoga is effective in strengthening the muscle, are there any studies or systemic review to prove this? I badly need it for my thesis. Please help!

Thanks a lot people! :)

duke carmel
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Few years back I used to jog and occasionally run short stretches on the road system in our development, and after a few weeks started doing a number of yoga poses, including several where I stood on one foot and slowly bent forward and then back (lifting and lowering the raised leg to the rear). The stress on the foot, ankle and lower leg during the one leg poses was quite noticeable, as was the fairly quick improvement in my jogging/running. My impression was that the standing on one leg poses built up strength, stability and endurance that improved my moderate running ability in a short time.

Would standing leg raises on the toes while holding a barbell have obtained the same results faster in my case? My impression is that the yoga poses worked different muscles in different ways, and were more interesting (and fun),and may have been better than doing leg raises. The yoga also stretched the leg and foot muscles, instead of cramping them, which must have helped in many ways.

Regarding overall strength, different people might obtain different results from the same yoga exercises. Some might build muscle and feel really fit from yoga, others may need more heavy training as a supplement. You have to find what works for you. Willie Mays, the great baseball player, used to do standing toe raises when he felt weak, and he said that that exercise was enough to give him renewed strength. For most, toe raises would do little for overall strength.

lazur's picture
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Yoga's *great* for building strength & muscle. Stretches are contractions of the opposing muscles: Stretching one muscle group more completely = contracting the other muscle group more intensely. This can
be further intensified by contracting *both* opposing groups at the same time, but a little less so for the side you wish to stretch. Eliminating the stretch entirely, you can "freeze" in mid-movement, contracting opposing groups equally. For poses with bodyweight resistance, hold the segment of the movement where you feel the "heaviest", & extend the time in this position from session to session.

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