If traditional yoga doesn’t fire up your muscles, try lifting weights while striking a pose. That’s exactly what’s involved in Iron yoga, a hybrid of yoga and strength-training founded by Ironman triathlete and fitness trainer Anthony Carillo. But does pumping dumbbells while you flow help you achieve that toned yoga body, or will it just weigh down your practice? We spoke with three experts to find out: Millie Miraglia, founder, director, and yoga instructor at the Exercise Studio, a yoga and fitness center in Brooklyn; Jolee McLeod, fitness instructor and yoga teacher at Eco Fitness’ Blue Turtle Yoga in Charlestown, SC; and Pete McCall, exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.
Carillo, a muscular athlete, took up yoga to complement his grueling training regimen. He developed the concept of Iron yoga in 2002 to improve his flexibility, heal his tired body, and create a challenging flow. “He had all this bulk,” Miraglia said of Carillo, who started a few workshops at her studio. “He could barely touch his toes!” (Video: 2-Minute stretches)
Carillo took 25 poses from the Power yoga practice, which combines Hatha yoga asanas with fluid movements and deep-breathing techniques, and created variations using light dumbbell weights. The result is 30 exercises that engage the entire body and improve strength, balance, flexibility, and range of motion. Carillo coined the name Iron yoga—“iron” refers to the hand weights and the triathlon competition—to emphasize both strength and flexibility. As the workout gained popularity, several copycat programs emerged, such as Buff yoga at Crunch gyms and Yoga Sculpt at CorePower Yoga studios. (Search: Iron yoga for runners)
How It Works
The 60-minute class begins with a Hatha-style warm-up that focuses on rhythmic breathing and establishing a mind-breath-body connection. “We start in a sitting position, and we do certain opening poses from Hatha yoga,” Miraglia says. “Then we pick up light weights.”
Students move into postures like triangle, tree, and warrior II, all of which are executed with dumbbells. As you enter a standing yoga pose, such as warrior II, the leg and torso muscles support your body; light dumbbells allow your upper limbs to become increasingly engaged. After opening into warrior II, you’ll do lateral raises and biceps curls before transitioning into a side lunge. “You use the breath to move with the weights,” says McLeod.
The Iron yoga sequence incorporates isolation and compound weight-training movements—like triceps kickbacks and chest presses—which improve lean muscle mass and build upper-body strength. The number of reps and sets varies, depending on the posture.
If you’re new to yoga, bypass the weight rack for your first practice so you can focus on the motions and poses, says Miraglia. “Then start off with 1 pound, and build your way up. The 1-pound weights can feel like 2 or 3.” It’s common for students to switch between two sets of weights, Miraglia says; they use heavier dumbbells for easier poses and then lighter ones for difficult postures. “It’s important to work according to how your body feels and your level of endurance.”
Just like the other types of yoga, this practice increases range of motion, improves balance, sharpens concentration and mental focus, and may tone your body. What’s more, the hand weights increase the calorie burn. The average practice burns 200 calories per hour, and lifting weights raises muscle metabolism and can torch up to 230 calories per hour, according to Elysium Yoga.
That’s not to say you can skip the weight room altogether. If you want to build muscle and tone trouble areas efficiently, McCall says to go heavy or go home. “There’s a whole false concept about lifting light weights,” he says. In order to develop muscle definition, you need to activate type 2 motor units. “Doing yoga poses, even with added resistance, [activates] type 1 muscle fibers, which are more related to postural control and aerobic energy production than they are to strength, power, and muscle definition. By doing poses and holding light weights, physiologically, you’re not stimulating what you need [to build muscle].”
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