Why Strength Training Can Be Crucial for Tightness
Do you feel like perpetually tight muscles are just part of your burden to bear? Strength training might change everything.
AN EVOLVING YOGA JOURNEY
I used to be a gymnast, and that was what first got me interested in yoga. I was drawn to the challenging classes, to the creative flows, to the arm balances and inversions.
It felt like I had found a practice that could help me get stronger and more flexible, and I would never have to step foot in a gym. Within a few years, I decided to take a yoga teacher training and started to teach regularly..
But after five years or so, I began to feel more and more limited in my practice. Things that felt like intermittent problems before became more constant issues. I often felt tighter after a yoga class rather than more mobile. Up to once a month I would get a debilitating feeling of tightness in my back or left shoulder, and my hips and glutes would ache regularly.
Arm balances felt uncomfortable during and after practicing them, and it felt like I was hitting a plateau in my practice. I blamed it all on getting older and a chronic lower back injury I had from gymnastics. “That's the cause of all of this,” I thought. “It's my burden to bear - I’ll just have to be less active.”
I started to lean more into the slower yoga practices - yin, gentle, and restorative - and eventually avoided the active classes altogether. A big part of me was excited to slow down, to give myself and my body a break. To meditate more, to rest more.
CHALLENGING MY BELIEFS ABOUT YOGA'S ROLE IN TIGHTNESS, PAIN, & STRENGTH
Slowing down brought many benefits to my life. But it grew challenging to teach more active classes because they no longer felt authentic. At the same time, I grew frustrated that my pain and mobility issues weren't improving no matter how "easy" I took it, no matter how much time I spent moving slowly through deep stretches.
By only doing slow practices with low muscle engagement, I had lost so much stamina. And each time I tried more active practices, I was met with the same challenges as before.
It took me a long time to accept that yoga on its own wasn't going to work for me. Yoga was not the answer to everything and, ironically, believing that it should be only made my yoga practice less and less accessible. I needed some guidance from people who had struggled with and overcome similar challenges.
LEARNING FROM NEW TEACHERS
The universe often offers us solutions when we're open to them. And around the time I was feeling fed up, I saw that a former grad school classmate, Meredith Witte, had created a cool new movement app called the Playground. She was posting about it on instagram and sharing a bunch of tips and tricks, many of them related strength training.
Back in grad school, Meredith had recommended a few yoga teachers for me to follow on social media. Both of them had struggled with injuries or plateaus in their yoga practice and had found strength training to be the answer they were missing.
So I decided to look into what these teachers were offering. I bought Jenni Rawlings and Travis Pollen’s Strength for Yoga e-book - it was affordable, easy-to-follow, and required very little equipment.
And soon after, I took a yoga teacher continuing education training led by Laurel Beversdorf. I started to understand even more of the science behind the importance of strength training.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND STRENGTH AND MUSCLE TIGHTNESS
So, if you’re doing plenty of yoga and/or stretching, how might strengthening muscles help with feelings of tightness?
"Mobility is a conversation with our nervous system. If our nervous system doesn't feel 'safe,' then it tightens as a protective mechanism," explains Witte.
When certain muscles aren’t strong enough to perform a movement, exercise or activity of daily life safely, they can activate or "tighten" to help stabilize a joint or to help balance out a weakness in a neighboring muscle group. They can also feel tight simply because they are fatigued. Strength training makes your muscles strong enough to provide the necessary support so your muscles can relax and not fatigue too quickly (1, 2).
UNDERSTANDING ‘RANGE OF MOTION’ & HOW IT RELATES TO TIGHTNESS
Range of motion is the ability of a body part to move in relation to a joint or reference point. So, an incomplete range of motion would be bending your knees a small amount in a squat while a full range of motion would be squatting as deeply as possible.
Witte says that accessing strength in deep ranges of motion is essential for decreasing feelings of tightness and increasing mobility. The nervous system can feel unsafe as a “result of weakness (ie. your hips chronically feel tight no matter how many pigeons you do because you have no muscular control within that deep range of motion). Gradually building strength in deeper ranges of motion gives your body the sense of control and safety it desires. And with safety, comes fewer sensations of tightness and achiness.”
In order for strength training to also increase mobility/flexibility, it’s crucial to work through full ranges of motion in a wide variety of exercises/movement patterns. Those who strength train and believe that lifting weights is what makes them tight probably aren’t working through full ranges of motion in their exercises and/or aren’t utilizing a wide enough variety of movements.
BUT WAIT, DOESN'T YOGA BUILD STRENGTH?!
I used to think that yoga built strength and that doing certain yoga or bodyweight exercises cultivated the strength and mobility to do harder postures. But I came to understand that, while yoga can build some strength at first, especially with certain postures that are really challenging, after that initial period, yoga really develops something called strength endurance.
To build strength, focus on exercises that you can hold for max 20-30 seconds or weight lifting exercises using a load that you can lift for max eight-ish reps. Make sure to give yourself plenty of rest between sets. Body weight exercises can work for this too as long as they’re challenging enough.
Weights that are easier for you to lift (ones that you can lift for many reps) will build more strength endurance than strength.
WAIT, SO DOES THIS MEAN YOGA IS PROBLEMATIC?
No way! This does not mean that yoga is bad or unhelpful, or that it causes the feelings of tightness (it does not!). Yoga can benefit our mental health, stamina, flexibility, and balance (5).
Yoga can help increase our tolerance to muscle lengthening which helps support our mobility. What does this mean? Witte explains that one thing that can cause your nervous system to feel unsafe and to tighten is a lack of familiarity, so your hips being tight in pigeon when you're not used to doing pigeon. So, making poses more familiar by doing them can help with this type of tightness.
But it does mean that yoga is not the ideal way to build strength and therefore not the best way to help alleviate the feeling of muscle tightness that is specifically caused by muscle weakness.
It also means that if you're hitting a plateau in your yoga practice - finding it difficult to improve your postures - strength training can help. It can help you build the stability, strength, and mobility to access deeper, stronger versions of postures and, potentially, to access postures you could not have accessed before. Most of us can benefit from adding strength training, especially strength training where we are working through full ranges of motion.
As Rawlings and Pollen say, "Strength training through full ranges of motion is a research-backed strategy for improving range of motion as effectively as passive stretching does (6)! And the fact that we develop strength right alongside that flexibility simultaneously makes this strategy a total win-win!"
THE DIFFERENCE STRENGTH TRAINING HAS MADE IN MY LIFE (AND IN GETTING OLDER!)
I’m grateful for each part of this journey because it helped me do what I used to resist - slow down - and then it taught me how to get stronger. I now have a more balanced approach to movement, where I get to have practices where I’m moving very little and practices where I’m moving quite a bit.
You might be thinking, “Yeah yeah this makes sense, but I’m getting older and it makes sense that I’m not as active as I used to be!” I totally feel you! That’s exactly where I was, and I still value rest as one of my top priorities. But, as Beversdorf says, “When it comes to quality of life, bone density and muscular strength make increasingly bigger and bigger differences as we age. Mostly, they help us continue living our lives by keeping us physically capable and reducing the likelihood of fractures.”
It’s all about balance, about finding a routine that works for you, incorporating a variety of activities along with rest and relaxation.
These days, along with walking, hiking, and some running, I strength train and practice yoga regularly, using many of the exercises I learned in Strength for Yoga, Meredith's classes on the Playground, and the concepts and approaches I learned (and continue to learn) from Laurel. Adding these tools to my other resources and my own intuition and experience has been nothing short of transformative.
I can forward fold with straighter legs and more easily release my head, and I have a greater range of motion in back bending. I can access deeper versions of postures, hold them for longer, and feel good while doing it. I can walk out of a challenging vinyasa yoga class feeling grounded and at ease rather than tight and uncomfortable. I am practicing arm balances and inversions again. My back, shoulder, glutes, and hips are feeling stronger and stronger and better and better.
I no longer feel like being in my 30s means a declining ability to do challenging yoga postures or “keep up” in general. I’m still early in this journey, but it’s given me my power back.