Does Yoga ‘Count’ as Strength Training? Cardio? Both?

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Practicing yoga can leave you feeling all types of ways: fatigued in your muscles, a little bit breathless, and somehow simultaneously relaxed. By the time you roll up your mat, it’s only natural to wonder: Wait, what kind of workout was that?

Which boxes yoga checks depend largely on what style you do. Yoga itself is pretty broad—it actually encompasses eight different types of practice, ranging from those rooted in physical movement to mindfulness and meditation—but let’s focus on asana, or the postures we generally associate with classes and flows. No yoga practice is going to look exactly the same, but the overarching benefits of each type will stay pretty constant.

So let’s get into it: Does downward dog, bridge, and plank set you up for some serious strength? Or is it more about getting your heart pumping or your muscles loosening? We tapped the experts to help classify where yoga stands in your exercise routine.

My quads certainly quiver in crescent lunge—so yoga definitely counts as strength training, right?

It’s common to leave a flow with your muscles feeling just as spent as they do after a lifting workout. So yes, most specific styles of yoga—including those that have you moving through and holding lots of different postures, like vinyasa, power, hot yoga, ashtanga, hatha, kundalini, and iyengar—can help you get stronger. (More slow-paced styles, like yin and restorative yoga, wouldn’t qualify because they center on seated and reclined poses, which are more about being chill than challenging.)

While it might not look like traditional strength training you’d see in a gym—you’re not lifting dumbbells or barbells, for one—yoga still challenges your muscles by using your body as resistance, Jacquelin Danielle Fryer, CSCS, RYT, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and registered yoga teacher in Phoenix, tells SELF.

As for what type of strength yoga builds, it’s typically a combo of muscular endurance (your muscles’ ability to work for a sustained period of time, or basically, stamina) and functional strength (a practical type that boosts your ability to perform daily movements safely and efficiently), Fryer explains. In fact, a 2015 study of 118 older sedentary adults published in The Journals of Gerontology concluded eight weeks of yoga was just as effective in improving functional fitness as strengthening exercises that used resistance bands, blocks, and chairs.

In yoga, the muscular endurance gains come from holding poses and repeating for several repetitions per session, Fryer says. This involves a lot of isometric contractions (those where you get into a position and hold) and prolonged time under tension. Yoga also involves concentric and eccentric contractions (moves where your muscles are shortening and lengthening under load) but its main emphasis on isometrics is one of the things that sets it apart from traditional strength training, Fryer explains. For instance, plank pose and warrior 2 are all about staying steady for a solid amount of time. Even though you’re technically not moving, your muscles are still working to hold that position, which can feel hard.

As for the functional strength benefit? That comes from doing postures that engage various muscle groups simultaneously and replicate daily actions like bending, lifting, pushing, pulling, squatting, rotating, side-stepping, and more, she adds.

Yoga builds strength, but not necessarily in the same way lifting weights does.

Following in line with the functional benefit, yoga generally strengthens across your entire body, Candace Harding, DPT, a physical therapist specializing in orthopedics and a registered yoga teacher in Arlington, tells SELF. That’s because a lot of classes engage large muscles in your legs, upper body, and core through moves like lunge variations, push-ups, and high plank holds.

But this doesn’t mean yoga smokes every single muscle you have. To challenge certain ones (like your lats, or your broadest back muscle, for example), you really need to pick up weights and pull them toward you, use resistance bands or cables, or do moves like chin-ups, inverted rows, and pull-ups that have you pulling the robust external load that is your bodyweight—all things you likely wouldn’t encounter in a yoga class.

Using this extra resistance is also important if your goal is to improve maximum strength and power, Fryer says, since yoga likely doesn’t deliver enough of a challenge to reap those gains. That’s because in yoga, you can’t make the stimulus heavier, since you’re limited to just using your bodyweight.

Final thing: How much yoga counts as strength training depends on how strong you are to begin with. “It makes a difference where someone’s coming from,” Dr. Harding explains. For example, if you’re brand new to exercise, you’ll probably get a lot of strength benefits from the practice, since moving around your bodyweight will automatically be pretty tough for you, whereas if you’re a regular gym-goer, you may not reap as many perks since you’ll already have a solid baseline level of strength. That said, even experienced weight lifters could see gains by adding yoga to their routine, since it taxes your muscles in a different way, Dr. Harding says—it involves putting your muscles under tension for a greater amount of time than what they’d do in the gym when moving heavier loads for shorter periods. .

Can you consider yoga a cardio workout?

Cardiovascular exercise is generally defined as anything that demands more oxygen intake and involves the cyclical, repeated movement of large muscle groups, Dr. Harding explains. So answering whether yoga counts as cardio “has a lot to do with the pace of the class,” she says.

For instance, classes that have you flowing continuously through movements—like vinyasa, power yoga, and hot yoga—can definitely elevate your heart rate and provide cardio benefits, Fryer says. Just keep in mind that compared to more traditional aerobic activities like running and biking, the aerobic challenge yoga offers is generally “on the more mild side,” Dr. Harding says. Slower-paced sessions, like yin or restorative, wouldn’t provide a cardio challenge.

Similar to the strength benefits, how much cardio yoga provides depends on your current fitness level. “If someone's been sedentary, yoga may be enough” to qualify as moderate or possibly vigorous-intensity cardio, Dr. Harding says. But for an already active person, it may not bring a ton of heart-boosting benefits.

Yoga also checks a few more boxes too.

If you’re looking to improve your balance, yoga can be a smart choice. Really any type of class that flows through poses (unless it’s designated as “therapeutic” or “slow”) will challenge your ability to keep from wobbling, Dr. Harding says. Specifically, moves that have you standing on one leg—like tree pose, eagle pose, and dancer’s pose—will test, and ultimately bolster, your steadiness. Indeed, a 2015 meta-analysis of six studies involving older adults published in Age and Ageing concluded that yoga led to small gains in balance, as well as moderate boosts in mobility.

That second finding—better mobility–is another perk of yoga. Many classes involve moving your body through various positions and working your joints in lots of different directions. “In yoga, you twist, you bend, you arch, you side bend,” Dr. Harding says.

This variety of movement can help increase the mobility and range of motion in your joints, she explains, which is beneficial for a whole bunch of scenarios. For example, better mobility can help you progress in weightlifting, since muscles that are too tight or too loose are limited in their ability to produce force, Dr. Harding explains. It can also come in clutch for athletes who spend a lot of time moving in just one direction, like runners and cyclists, as it helps open up chronically tight areas and combat imbalances in both mobility and strength that result from primarily doing just one repetitive motion, she explains.

And if you’re looking to yoga as a way to finally help you touch your toes, you might be in luck: The practice levels up the ability of your muscles and tendons to lengthen, as SELF previously reported. According to a 2019 meta-analysis of 22 studies involving older adults published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, yoga can significantly improve flexibility. They do this through static stretching, or when you get into a position and hold it, like in bound angle pose, wide leg forward fold, and pigeon pose, Dr. Salay explains.

All this proves that yoga can be a great complement to tons of fitness routines.

There are loads of ways you can weave yoga into your workout routine, but one big takeaway? You’d be best served if it isn’t your only form of fitness. That’s because even though Dr. Harding describes it as a “great, all-around” functional activity, she still recommends doing other forms of movement to fully challenge your muscles and heart. That's because the strength and cardio benefits of yoga are typically more mild compared to traditional weightlifting and faster-paced cardio activities like running and biking. So if your goal is to really maximize the physical benefits of exercise, you may not get everything you need from yoga alone.

At the same time though, yoga can be an amazing complement to those other activities as it can get your body moving in different ways and provide mobility-boosting benefits that enhance your ability to effectively crush other workouts, Dr. Harding says.

Ultimately, how often you incorporate yoga into your routine is really up to you. At the end of the day, whatever form of exercise you do the most should be the thing you enjoy, Dr. Harding says. If that’s yoga? Great! Something else? Fantastic! Just know that by sprinkling some variety into your movement routine—whether in the form of more yoga, more weightlifting, or more cardio—will likely only enhance it.


Originally Appeared on SELF