Do Athletes Need Yoga?

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By Madeline Schaefer 

Athletes need yoga, and not just because it is a great recovery day option for movement. When practiced with intention and led by a teacher who is molding the class to fit the needs of the students present, yoga is an incredible source of untapped potential, overall health and strength. This is why we have added yoga to the schedule at POINT.  So many of the pains, limitations and inefficiencies that show up in our group classes can be effectively addressed through a regular, intelligently implemented yoga practice.

For the purpose of this blog post I will be focusing on some of the physical and anatomical benefits of yoga, but I do not disregard or discredit the powerful teaching and benefits of yoga as a spiritual practice, as well as the many different forms and ways people utilize and practice yoga.

            Yoga has the ability to help us recover from or prevent injury, and also to enhance our overall movement and performance. One of the many reasons for this, and the area which I will describe in the most detail in this post, is its use and practice of isometric activation. In traditional sports and fitness training we work muscles in eccentric contraction, concentric contractions, or isotonic (a combination of the two). For easy reference, I have put quick definitions of these actions below.

Isotonic = actions in which the muscle changes length
Eccentric contraction = When a muscle is lengthened under load and joint angle increases  (negative pull up)
Concentric Contraction = When a muscle is shortened under load and joint angle decreases (pull up)
Isometric= joint angle and muscle length do not change during action (wall sit)

When we are deadlifting, overhead squatting, performing walking lunges, 1 foot hops, monkey bar swings, cleans, running, hiking, etc., we are working the muscles in an isotonic way. Basically anything that has a set # of reps and not an amount of time spent in the action is an isotonic action. Why should you care?  Because Isometric and Isotonic actions strengthen the body in different ways, and for optimal health in movement and performance, and to prevent and/or heal injury you want and need both in your movement practice.

One major benefit of Isometric activation, is that it develops and strengthens the tendons and ligaments. It is extremely important to focus on strengthening what connects our muscles to our bones (tendons) and what connects our bones to our bones (ligaments). As the saying goes “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”, and if you are not focusing on tendon, ligament and muscle strength, you are limiting your ability to progress. As with all things, it is in the balance where we find the most progress and health.

Intelligent use of Isometrics also help to increase range of motion (flexibility) and mobility. It is vital to have range of motion and mobility in combination with strength. We must have the ability to get into the range of motion we want to train. If you want to deep back squat (past 90 degrees) then you first need to be able to sit in a deep squat without added weight. If you want to do a proper Cossack squat then you need to be able to get into that deep range of motion in your hip, knee and ankle. Want to be able to overhead squat? Then you need the range of motion and mobility in your shoulders, hips, knees, ankles, and spine. Continuing to repeat these strength exercises (upping your weight but not your depth or range of motion) will not increase your range on its own in a healthy way. Isometric activation helps to improve stability and control in new ranges of motion through tissue adaptation and reduced nervous system response.

Reduced nervous system response means that our nervous system feels safe and comfortable going into a specific range of motion. Range of motion is more of a nervous system response than we often realize. Our nervous system guards and protects us against specific ranges it feels are not safe. If our nervous system is not comfortable in a specific range of motion, it will prevent us from being able to express it with our bodies. Most of the time this happens as a result of injury in the past, trauma, misuse or disuse. If we continue to force, and add weight, our nervous system will react by tightening and protecting even more. However if we take the time to slow down, to stay in a pose, and allow our nervous system to adjust, we can begin to coax our bodies and nervous system into deeper ranges in a healthy and safe way.

Isometric exercises can create more muscle activation than other forms of exercise (that utilize eccentric and concentric contractions). In intense and focused isometric exercise you activate 95 percent of your muscle as opposed to around 88-90% in other forms of activation. This 95% activation happens within a 20 degree range of the held position, on either side. In other words, you can target your areas of weakness very effectively using isometrics. For example, if you are weakest at the bottom of a pull up, but continue to do repetitions with the same band at the same speed you are not benefiting as much as you could if you added focused training with isometrics. If you were to hold in your area of weakness, you would target strength in that specific range, at 95% muscle activation within 20 degrees around that position.

For all of the reasons listed above, isometrics are very helpful in preventing and healing injuries and in increasing overall strength and performance.

In case I haven't already convince you that you should drop in for a class, and add yoga to your training program/fitness, here are a few more ways yoga can benefit you.

  1. Increase overall power

By focusing on proper body mechanics and alignment you can access more strength and power in your movement. A very common inbalance I see in athletes is quad dominance. When this is happening, the athlete is losing the strength potential of their hamstring, glutes, and back. Through retraining the movement pattern, these athletes can increase power and strength by harnessing the strength of their back body. Yoga provides the space and guidance needed to allow you to feel into your own imbalances and areas of weakness. Our classes at POINT are specifically designed to address the most common tendencies and imbalances that show up in group classes.

2.             Improves Balance and Proprioception

Yoga trains and improves balance and our awareness of our bodies in space. Proprioception plays an integral role in how we move and our overall cordination. Through training our balance and proprioception we can glean more power, more efficiency and prevent imbalances and injuries in movement.

3.             Breath

Yoga trains us to integrate breath into our movement. How many times do you find yourself holding your breath while working out? Stand up from a wall walk or a plank and feel a little light headed? Chances are you were holding your breath. It’s hard to retrain these habitual patterns, especially while moving fast or lifting heavy. Yoga allows space and time to focus on retraining the body to breath naturally and to breath in movement.

4.             Time and Space

Yoga allows you the time and space to focus on slowing down, identifying ineffective movement patterns, or areas of instability and weakness. It leaves you with information about your body and your movement that you can take with you back to the gym, to the mountains or to the track to help you move in a more balance, effective and healthy way.

Our aim in leading yoga classes at POINT is to address the needs and wishes of those that come to class. For that reason, for the next few weeks we will be focusing a lot on isometric activation, and back body chain development in our Tuesday night Yoga class. If you have an injury that just won’t go away, can’t complete a true overhead squat, don’t feel your hamstring when you deadlift etc, come to our yoga classes and you may be surprised how your movement changes.


Primal Vinyasa meets Tuesdays at 6:30. Sign up here! 

Need a more personalized approach for you injuries? Schedule an appointment with Madeline for Holistic Yoga Therapeutics