By Julie Kailus
Summer is just around the corner. Are you ready to wear those T-shirts and spaghetti straps? Whether you’re already studying yoga or want to begin a practice, this discipline is arguably one of the best for sculpting your upper body into tank-top material.
Unlike weight lifting, which tends to contract and shorten muscles, creating a bulkier look, yoga develops a long, defined and fluid physique through isometric poses that activate muscles while maintaining their length. This kind of resistance work encourages lean, toned arms — the kind you want to show off all year long.
Graceful, defined muscles are simply a byproduct of any well-rounded yoga practice, says renowned yoga master Rodney Yee, who has studied the discipline for 30 years. “Moving your body in space is lifting weights. When you load the arms with your natural body weight, you are essentially lifting weights.”
He suggests that lifting free weights, for example, to sculpt the upper body may be too specific. Practicing yoga, on the other hand, helps the arms work in coordination — and therefore look more in proportion — with the rest of the body. “What you’re talking about is the whole look: the arms in relationship with the rest of the body.”
While a holistic yoga practice is integral to helping build proportional strength and definition, there are a number of ways that you can focus additional attention on yoga poses that strengthen and tone the arms, or modify certain movements to challenge and build strength in the upper body.
How yoga can sculpt & strengthen the arms
The triceps, biceps and deltoids are the most visual muscles in the arms. Biceps run along the front of the upper arms and help you bend your elbow; triceps run along the back of the upper arms and help extend the elbow; and deltoids, the outer layer of the upper arms, allow you to lift your arms to the side, front and back, as well as rotate them inward and outward. Focusing on poses that engage these “defining” muscles will help create a more chiseled, beach-ready look.
“The benefits of yoga are very profound and efficient in toning the whole upper body,” says Glenda Twining, an Austin-based Vinyasa yoga instructor and author of Yoga Turns Back the Clock and Yoga Fights Flab. “You are incorporating the shoulder and the back as well, and therefore the results are even more accentuated, in a short time.”
For example, in a Vinyasa flow practice (where you perform Sun Salutations), you will work the full capacity of the arms. “Almost every yoga pose where you are lifting or keeping your body off the floor strengthens and shapes your arms, shoulders and back for a lean, strong and beautifully sculptured look,” says Twining.
Colleen Saidman, co-owner of the celebrity yoga studio Yoga Shanti in New York, considers Chaturanga (Pushup Pose) the quintessential move for strengthening the arms, while Downward Dog creates an ideal weight-bearing position to build upper body strength, she says.
Even standing poses, such as Warrior II, where you are resisting the pull of gravity and reaching the arms outward, firm and straight, will help with sculpting toned arms.
For those more advanced in their yoga discipline, Shoulder Stand Pose, when performed properly with the shoulders on a blanket and the head on a mat so the spine retains its curve, will engage the biceps in a dynamic way to build strength. Rodney Yee’s Advanced Yoga is one program that teaches these more challenging poses.
3 yoga poses for toned arms
Whether you are a veteran or newbie yogi, here are a few poses and sequences to help you transition peacefully to tank-top season. Hold each pose for five breaths.
1. Pushup Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)
Start in Downward Dog. Then move into Plank Pose — bring your shoulders forward so they’re directly above your hands. Keep your body in a straight line parallel to the floor, from your torso through your legs. Look forward and feel the strength of your arms, legs and core.
Bend at the elbows and lower your body down toward the floor as far as you can go without touching your body to the floor. Keep your elbows hugging to your torso and aiming straight back, not angling out to the sides. Hover here and breathe deeply for several breaths. With regular practice you’ll build up your strength in this pose very quickly. “Yes, really,” says Rodney.
To transition into Challenge Chaturanga:
- Lower your upper body by bending your elbows, tucking them in, and hugging your ribcage. Continue to keep your body firm and supported — don’t let it sag to the floor.
- Lengthen your spine and keep your thighs activated as you tighten your tummy muscles and gaze toward the floor.
2. Downward Dog to Side Plank
Starting on your hands and knees, turn your toes under and straighten your legs as you raise the hips and straighten the arms. Shift your weight to the back of your legs, pressing down on the heels.
To transition to Side Plank Pose:
- Roll to your left side, balancing on your feet, so your inner thighs are touching.
- Bring your right hand up, pointing toward the ceiling. Your lower hand should be directly under your shoulder. Look to the ceiling or in front of you.
- Your upper hip should be directly in line with your lower hip, and your heels, hips and shoulders should also be in one line.
- If your supporting arm wobbles intensely, modify the pose by bringing your knee to the floor until you build up more strength in your upper body.
3. Inclined Plane
Start this pose by sitting with your legs stretched in front of you. Place the palms of your hands on the floor on either side of your body, just behind your buttocks, fingers facing toward your toes.
Lift your body upward, raising your buttocks, pushing your hips up and making your body as straight as possible. Let your head hang back and down gently, and keep the soles of your feet flat on the ground, keeping your arms and legs as straight as possible.