One way to begin strength training is to buy a set of dumbbells and start moving them around. Over time, bit by bit, we come to understand that we can get better benefits by being more precise: we start organizing our lifting into sets and reps, measuring the amount of weight lifted, planning out which days to train, and so on. What a good trainer understands though, is that there is a step missing here. Like a student who teaches themselves piano and then goes to a teacher only to struggle with hand position ( I can remember at 19 struggling with using the correct fingering. What I had taught myself worked, but made certain reaches almost impossible to get past.). Or like building a lego tower without attention to the structure of the base. It is fine up to a point, but get to a certain height and the whole thing falls. With legos you can pick it up and build again rather easily (with a few tears depending on your age), and is a good way to learn proper building technique and patience and resilience. But with an actual building, as with your actual body, the stakes are bigger.
Most of todays trainers will not start 'pumping you up' until they address the base. For the body the base is where your body is in terms of alignment. We look to musculoskeletal alignment at rest, and then with movement... from the core through the whole kinetic chain (movement from one joint through others). Before you run, how do you stand? Before you lift a 10 pound dumbbell is the shoulder misaligned? A fencer may have muscles overdeveloped on their weapon side, a parent who holds a 12 pound baby on their hip may have tight muscles on one side. A person with scoliosis, or one leg longer than the other will have muscles that are either tight or lengthened. It is important to understand both what the human form and human movement looks like in theory, and what it looks like in your own form. Then it is important to understand the difference between those overuses that can be balanced, and those that must be worked around (Remember the prayer of St. Francis?)
At its best this understanding needs to go deeper than what the muscles and bones are doing. Even if your goal is to strengthen,or to sculpt the muscles, the actions of those skeletal muscles and bones will affect the heart, the other internal organs, the fascial web.
So what does yoga offer to strength training?
A long time ago when I was actively doing personal training I had a client come to me who worked in economic development in underdeveloped countries. She was going to be traveling to a place where she would have a small room, where outside running, or even walking without an escort was dangerous, where available equipment was non existent, and the length and difficulty of that travel made carrying weights a real challenge. Even access to clean water was an issue. I offered her a yoga practice, which would help with keeping her flexibility, her stress reduction, her overall health, as well as her strength.
In strength training we distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic training. Extrinsic training is about lifting, moving, or carrying weights: a dumbbell, a barbell, a child, or a couch. Intrinsic training is about moving one's own body against gravity: a push-up, a pull- up, getting out of a chair to make a sandwich. There is research available on the benefits of each. My sense is that unless you are training for a specific end (a body building competition, a cycling competition, and so on) it is less important to choose training that gives the best result within micorunits, but to do things that you enjoy, that give results, that minimize injury, and that vary, because varying the load helps minimize injury. So I think it is good to do some of both. For my client in that month she was traveling she could use the body weight exercises of the vinyasa yoga routine, and do whatever activities of daily living that were required of her, and then return to the weight room when she got home.
I can remember a real divide between the yoga people and the strength trainers years ago. I would say I see less of it now, but that may be because I walk more in the yoga world these days. I can remember body builders rejecting stretching or yoga as likely to undo the sculpted bulky muscles they had worked to create. I also remember vividly women particularly coming into the gym for the first time and being quite adamant that they only wanted to do cardio as if they did weights they thought they would get bulky. Leaving aside the competitive athlete, whose goals are specific and require a specific program of training, we need to remember that everything we do affects everything we are. The muscles you build with strength training are the muscles that work to burn calories during cardio. Strength training, cardiovascular training, flexibility training, balance training: these all focus on a different part of the human organism, but the systems they target exist in an interdependent web. Just as if you kill off the bees the plants will have problems, and if you kill off the plants the plant eaters like mice will have problems, and if you kill off the mice the hawks will have problems, and up the chain.
Yoga is associated with flexibility, but once you begin to practice you understand that while it enhances flexibility it also enhances other things: balance, focus, breath control, stress management, mind body coordination, and, yes, strength.
I think what yoga has to offer for strength training comes in a few areas. First goes back to the idea of creating alignment and balance of muscles before starting to strengthen any one area. Yoga is a system that is based on the idea of finding imbalance and creating balance so as to decrease compensation of tight or week muscles, and thereby allowing proper range of motion within particular muscles when training that muscle.
Yoga promotes (through dharana and pratayahara) kinesthetic focus that helps avoid chronic or acute injury. You move into positions slowly and with mind focused on what you are doing and what you feel. You are encouraged to back off if something feels wrong. I always tell my students that pain is their friend because it warns them where not to walk.
Yoga promotes balance between joint stability and joint mobility. Too much flexibility leads to joint instability. Too much stability decreases the ability to attend to activities of daily living, and decreases appropriate range of motion in individual joints. Yoga done improperly will lead to injury, like anything else. Yoga done properly can cause an injury, like any other body system, but is much less likely to as long as we adhere to the principles. I have had one or two injuries, but in each case it was not out of the yoga, but other aspects of my training. I have some ligamental damage from high impact aerobics with a poorly trained instructor. I had a shoulder injury from carrying heavy groceries after attending 2 10 hour days of a personal training convention almost 20 years ago. Clearly I was not listening to how fatigued I was. But after decades of yoga I still find the yoga helps me to work around where I have problems, rather than creating them: as long as I do not try to do ninja yoga, or forget to be present in my practice.
Yoga teaches us to decrease momentum, and thereby to increase control of our movements. This helps us keep the work within the range of motion and the particular muscles we are targeting.
Through the use of mulha bandha and uddiyana bandha yoga teaches us to work from the center (physically in this case, philosophical or spiritual centering is part of it, but not what I am talking about here) learning to engage not just the rectus abdominus, but all of the structures of the core.
And in its practice of pranayama yoga promotes the avoidance of breath holding, that in weight lifting is associated with transient increase of blood pressure. Breath work in yoga is good for many things, but very transferable to weight training in its avoidance of the valsava maneuver.
I thought about ending by recommending a few strength building postures, but I am hesitant to do so. I fear it would be like giving a new person entering the weight room 2 ten pound dumbbells and instructions on doing bicep curls. Really good in themselves, but if done repeatedly in the absence of a balanced program not enough, and likely to create imbalance, rather than balanced results. I hope if you do yoga you will consider trying a few of the strengthening postures. I hope if you do a lot of power yoga, you will consider trying some alignment and breath focused classes as well. I hope if you have injuries you will seek out someone with training in restorative yoga, as well as a good physical therapist. I hope if you are in my classes you will talk to me about what you feel and what you want and what you need in your class. I hope if you do not do yoga you will maybe give it a try. And I hope if you are going to give it a try you seek out someone who walks the middle path..... with experience and training.....who looks for more than the quick burn, and the most extreme moves. Most of all I wish you well wherever the path takes you.
Head, heart, and hands