Month Three: The Best Way to Improve Flexibility
Have trail and gym work turned you into a stiff? You need some flex time with Ashtanga yoga.
Running builds endurance. It also transforms your hamstrings into inflexible steel rods. Just ask any seasoned marathoner to lie on his back and lift a straight leg 90 degrees to the sky. Fat chance. And it's not just the road warriors who've been literally bent out of shape. Mountain biking puts a padlock on your hip flexors, weight lifting bows your shoulders forward, and over time, too much climbing will tighten your forearms like over-torqued piano wires.
“People think that training gets you in shape. Training gets you out of shape,” says Beryl Bender Birch, an East Hampton, N.Y.-based yoga instructor and author of two books on Ashtanga—aka power yoga. “Because their range of motion is so shut down, a lot of weight lifters can't access the strength they've spent so much time developing. Other athletes are in perfect cardiovascular shape for their chosen sport but they may be nanoseconds away from exploding somewhere.”
Birch believes you have to be soft to be hard, flexible to be strong. It's a mantra she settled on several years ago after teaching a class to the U.S. Nordic Ski Team and discovering that, even after their first, easy yoga session, the best endurance athletes in the world were so sore in the shoulders, back, and quads that they had to call in sick the next day.
Nordic skiers aren't the only ones who've found flexibility enlightenment: more than 20 million Americans—from hippie chicks to NFL linemen—now practice yoga, and three-quarters of all U.S. health clubs offer classes. Still, many of the elite competitors Birch works with take a little convincing. “Most athletes worry that if they start undoing the tightness they will lose performance,” she says. “In fact, it's the opposite. Becoming more flexible enables you to push the envelope further.”
Birch's counsel is especially applicable to those of you who have been diligently following Outside's five-month Shape of Your Life fitness plan. By now, strength training combined with two months of pounding the trail have increased your endurance, but likely rendered you as flexible as a certain flat-headed monster with bolts sticking out of his neck. In this, the third month of the program, you'll counteract this effect by learning the easy-to-incorporate set of Ashtanga yoga sequences pictured on these pages. Combining classic stretching poses with deliberate breathing techniques, Ashtanga, a 2,000-year-old Indian tradition, increases flexibility and builds eccentric strength—the kind you need to decelerate while, say, chugging down a trail. You'll also benefit from performing multiple joint movements (like the sun salutation) through all three planes of motion—front-to-back, side-to-side, and rotational—which will help fortify your core.
Sun Salutation A
- Start standing, big toes together, ankles an inch apart, arms at your sides with fingers spread.
- Inhale, lift your arms outward and above your head, pulling your torso upward.
- Exhale, sweep your arms downward, and bend forward. Keep your back straight as your hands reach the floor (bend your knees if necessary), and then relax your back and let your head hang at the bottom of the exhale.
- Inhale, place your hands on your shins, and lift your chest and head.
- Exhale, place your palms on the floor, and walk your feet back into push-up, or “plank,” position.
- Inhale, lower your chest to the floor, point your toes back, push your shoulders up so your back is arching, and pull your hips toward your arms. (Those with back trouble should rest on their knees.)
- Exhale, turning your toes under, straighten your arms, and lift your waist into “downward dog”: butt up, legs and arms straight. Lengthen your torso and rest here for five to eight breaths.
- At the start of the last inhale, either lunge or walk both feet to your hands and return to position four.
- Exhale and release your back and head.
- Inhale, stand straight with arms above you again.
- Exhale back into the start position. Repeat.
“Ashtanga is the single best thing you can do for flexibility, breathing, and balance,” says big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, our fitness consultant for the Shape of Your Life program. Hamilton recently took up Ashtanga in an effort to boost his all-around athleticism, and he's already seen improvements in his flexibility and his ability to repeatedly extend into tougher poses on the board—and pull back into position without wiping out. “The biggest thing it has done is give me more positions I can be powerful in,” he says.
But athletic perks aren't the only reason to embrace the world's oldest fitness practice. The controlled, rhythmic breathing central to Ashtanga benefits your life in ways that extend far beyond your favorite outdoor sports. Two-part yoga breathing involves taking a deep inhale through your nose that fills your rib cage, and then exhaling through the back of your throat—slightly constricted—and out your nose with an audible sigh. By constraining and pressurizing your airflow, you generate heat internally, allowing you to reach deeper into difficult poses. Studies show that yogic breathing also slows the heart rate, decreases tension and blood pressure, and even increases V02 max, the standard gauge of your cardiovascular efficiency. For Hamilton, the breath work—and the accompanying mental clarity—is a great part of power yoga. “There's a certain calmness you get by dealing with pain and pushing through the wall,” he says. “You become more comfortable in situations that would be really taxing.”
Feel-good stress relief aside, don't be lulled into equating Ashtanga with a retirement-home stretching class; just learning the practice will entail a holistic ass-whupping. Men, notoriously lazy when it comes to doing anything about tight muscles, face a steeper learning curve than women, says Birch, because their greater muscle mass initially makes bending more of a struggle. The best way to confront that disadvantage is to join a class with a knowledgeable instructor—and to check your ego at the beaded door. Sit out the moves when you get winded; exhaustion will lead to bad form, and worse, injury. When asked, be honest about any past injuries; each yoga pose has a variation to minimize strain on problem areas. Most important, resist the urge to compete with the human pretzel next to you—this is Zen land, and no one is competing. And don't stress if you can't quite get into the chanting. The power-yoga drills you're learning can easily be done at home as a post-workout cooldown.
Strike a Pose
For this month's Shape of Your Life regimen, you'll incorporate power yoga into your Monday through Friday workout schedule with the poses illustrated in the sidebar. We've provided instructions for each pose, but to get started on the right foot, we recommend that you sign up for one 60- to 90-minute introductory yoga class per week for the first month. You can likely find a decent class at your local gym or health club, but chances are you'll discover the expert teachers at dedicated yoga studios (ask around, or check out YogaFinder.com). Consulting an experienced instructor isn't mandatory, but he or she will ensure that your form is correct and provide you with alternative poses if you have lower back injuries or other problem areas.
Done correctly, our 20- to 30-minute Ashtanga series will work as a flexibility-enhancing cooldown to your continuing heart-rate endurance work three days per week. Meanwhile, to allow your body the periodized break it needs to learn to stretch, your functional-strength training is slightly curtailed this month—a strategy that will also help to get you rested for month four's speed and power plan. Which is the best reason to start yoga now: You'll build maximum flexibility in the ligaments and tendons, giving your muscles more room to perform. “It's like your body is your tennis racket,” says Hamilton, “and you're giving it a bigger sweet spot.”
Warrior [5-8 Breaths]
Start standing and inhale while stepping your left leg into a forward lunge with your left knee directly over your ankle. Exhale, keep your back heel on the floor, rotate your hips forward, try to get your left quadricep parallel to the ground, and raise your arms to the sky.
Triangle Pose [5-8 Breaths]
While standing, place your right leg in front of you, keeping both legs straight and your back foot turned out 30 degrees. Inhale, raise both arms straight to the sides; exhale and bend down so your right arm rests on your right shin. Lift your left arm to the sky and turn your head to focus on your left palm.
Tree Pose [5-8 Breaths]
Standing with your feet together, inhale, use your hand to lift your left leg up, and exhale, placing the sole of your left foot on the inside of the right thigh above the knee. Inhale, lift your arms above you, and turn your left knee outward to open your hip. Too hard? Try starting with your left foot on your right calf.
Boat Pose [5-8 Breaths]
Sitting with your legs bent in front of you and your back straight, exhale as you lean your weight back, and lift your legs out straight at a 45-degree angle to the floor. If you're unable to straighten your legs, keep your knees bent, and grasp your legs just above your knees.
The Big Picture
Flexibility takes center stage in month three of The Shape of Your Life, and your first assignment is to include the following 20- to 30-minute yoga routine after each endurance workout, in this order: Sun Salutation, Warrior I, Triangle Pose, Back Stretch and Hamstring Stretch, Full Boat, and Tree Pose. All these poses are pictured with instructions on the preceding pages. Though classes are not mandatory, we do suggest signing up for a few beginner Ashtanga sessions to make sure you learn proper form and yield the maximum benefits from each pose.
As for your heart-rate-zone endurance work, you'll continue increasing duration. The schedule will be the same as last month: zone-specific intervals on Fridays, increased duration in weeks ten and eleven, and reduction in week twelve, with a final-day lactate-threshold test.
Your Tuesday/Thursday strength training, meanwhile, will be abbreviated from ten to eight exercises this month to prepare you for next month's speed and power drills. Twice a week, perform the four strength exercises shown above, as well as the following: upright rows, Swiss-ball flies, bent-over rows, and chin-ups.
Core Strength Cable Test
In the second installment of The Shape of Your Life we told you about a forthcoming standing cable push test you can do to measure your progress in core strength. The test is a favorite of functional-strength guru Paul Chek, who points out that “big benchers” can rarely push more than a third as much weight when they move the bench press to their feet in the form of a split stance cable push. And unless you're training to push yourself out from under an SUV, the man raises a good point: How often do you need your strength while on your back? The following test, which requires a cable or Nautilus machine, can be used every few weeks to gauge your improvement in core stability and functional strength as you work through our program:
Stand in a split stance (left foot ahead of the right) with your back to a cable machine and 70 percent of your weight on your back leg. Holding the cable in your right hand and at your chest with your palm down, inhale, pull your abs in, start the push from your back leg, then turn into it leading with your pelvis, only recruiting your arm when your shoulder is at three o'clock. Finish the movement as though executing a right hand punch. Find the amount of weight that leaves you maxed out—completely fatigued—after eight repetitions. Repeat this test every three or four weeks. If you can increase the weight, you've successfully increased your core strength.
Improve your flexibility with the third installment in our interactive training plan.