Yoga Strong: Upper Body Strength Building Drills: A Yoga Inspired How To with quick exercises to build your upper body strength to help you reach your inversion asana goals

By Jennifer Dixon MBA ERYT 500 and Authorized Ashtanga Yoga

I know you’ve seen it online—some beautifully set image of a girl that seems to be floating in the air on just her forearms (hands tutorial is coming soon!) doing these amazing feats of physical prowess.  Oh, I know you have because I’ve seen those same images. I’m not gonna lie, I used to look at them with a little bit of envy and a whole lot of “that’s not important to me” and an even bigger dose of “it’s not about the pose, it’s about the practice” self righteousness when deep down, I wanted to figure out how to make my body strong enough to do that sort of pose.  

Keep this one thing in mind.  I have TERRIBLE balance and legit biological deficiencies –no lie, something with my ears.  In the easiest terms, my ears don’t drain well so those little bones in your ear, they usually can move about freely to help create and maintain your equilibrium—well mine?  Mine move through sludge so balance in general and proprioception as a whole is a challenge –BUT definitely something I have overcome Every.single.day. (and a HUGE reason why yoga is so important to me!)

Armed with the knowledge that my brain can’t really tell me what “center” is, I have to really focus on the strength and cooperation of my muscles to help support that “space / time” continuum.

In today’s tutorial, you’ll see some of my favorite drills to increase strength in the upper body—the shoulders, triceps, upper back and even core.  All of these muscle systems MUST work together in order to properly hold you up right—upside down. (doesn’t that sound funny?!?!) The stronger these muscles are, the easier it will be to find your center when your center is inverted.  When the muscles work synergistically, ie when they are all firing / engaged then your brain doesn’t have to think as much about holding you up, and you can focus more on the inverted balance.

You may be one of those people (like my husband…GRRRRR –in the most loveable, yogi non-judgment way) that has incredible body awareness.  “good on ya” and I’m super happy, these drills will just help you along your way even faster to a life lived –at least partially—upside down.  If you’re like me, you will have to work these drills for a while. Consistent, targeted strength training to help build up the muscles and their coordination together.  

Another thing to keep in mind, for the “float” up that you may see online, it takes tremendous upper body and abdominal strength, but it is made a little “easier” –I use quotes there because nothing about floating up is easy—if you have super open hips and hamstrings.  This tutorial won’t help you open up your hips or hammies but if you check out our Youtube Channel you’ll find plenty of videos on how to do that.  

Let’s assume you’ve warmed your body up some—either through some sort of cardio or Sun Salutations.  From there, make sure you keep your stomach nice and engaged, try holding your belly button into your  spine and forcing your ribs to go out wide with each breath. If you tend to have a bit of a posterior tilt, definitely start out with the tailbone out long.  This tip may make you feel like it’s harder to get your leg up, but if you don’t start with your body properly aligned, it is SO SO SO SO much harder to do that alignment when you’re upside down trying to figure out what your body is supposed to be doing. I see students ALL THE TIME (insert sometimes I feel like a broken record) kicking up to try to “catch some air” without properly aligning the spine, which generally ends up –if the student can get their feet up and to the wall, making them look a bit more like a banana than a person standing up straight with their feet on the ceiling.  That’s called “hollow body” –don’t ask me why because I don’t see how that’s hollow—I’m told it’s from gymnastics– Hollow body is very hard to correct once you’re upside down so take the time, don’t get frustrated, but start with your tailbone lengthening down, low belly nice and engaged (and warmed up!) and then try to do these drills. When the drills become easy—with proper alignment—then you’ll find yourself floating up with the best of the social media gurus.

Before we get started, let’s make sure you have your Down Dog position set up correctly.  

Tips for Your Best Down Dog

  1. Hands are pressing firmly into the mat.  Try to evenly distribute your weight over the entire surface area of your hands.  (I like to think I’m pressing ALL my weight into my thumb and pointer finger—this, of course won’t really happen, but if I trick my brain to sending more weight in that direction it usually helps me get and keep my whole hand grounded on the mat.
  2. Your hands are shoulder’s width distance apart
  3. Try to pull your shoulders away from your ears
  4. Your feet are hip width distance apart—sometimes, if my back is feeling crunchy, my feet will be wider.  Remember, there are no “yoga police” so hip – width cue is a suggestion
  5. Distance between hands and feet vary based on individual height, BUT a general rule of thumb is 3-5 feet.  I like to see a nice V shape. This helps you keep your belly engaged.
  6. Gaze is either at your belly button or between your legs.  When my neck is feeling off, it sometimes hurts to look at my belly button but that is the general cue.

Now that you’re properly set up, let’s try these exercises:  Remember: You can do varying reps—maybe as many reps as possible, or maybe you do 3 sets of 10 reps.  The key here, just do them!

Yoga Exercises to Improve Upper Body Strength

1) down dog pushups with elbows wide –just like the title says, you start in downward dog and then bend your elbows out wide up to 90 degrees.  These work your biceps, triceps, shoulders and upperback, and of course your abs since you’re keeping them engaged.

2) down dog pushups with elbows straight back   –this is the next progression of this exercise.  Rather than let your elbows go out wide, like to each side, you send them back, like towards your body.   This super intensifies the tricep and shoulder work, plus it forces the belly to work more since the balance is a bit trickier.  This is an awesome strength and mobility worker—especially if you have tight shoudlers

3)dolphin pushups –this is similar to the down dog push up—except it takes away the bicep/tricep work somewhat.  Since the forearms are grounded, you’ll have to use the shoulders and upper back a bit more to raise and lower your body.  These are also great at building mobility in your shoulders.

4) single leg dolphin pushups.—to “spice up the Dolphin Pushups, try to lift one leg and do your reps and sets.  The higher you lift your leg, the more weight that is in the shoulder.

Now, if you’d like to see how I do these as one quick workout, check out this video.  It’s less than 5 minutes but gives you a visual of how to get these drills done in real time versus just with pictures.  Make sure you like and subscribe to our Youtube Channel!

I recommend doing these drills basically every time you practice.  If you practice yoga 5-6 days a week you can do these quick drills in total or just a couple each time you practice.  I practice them in some variation every time I come to the mat because I am really focusing on integrating my muscle systems…Post child birth—those belly muscles don’t like to work (period) and making them work at the same time as other muscles, especially opposing muscles, that seems somewhat impossible sometime!  Therefore, I PRACTICE, and I invite you to do so as well!

What did you think of these exercises?  I’d love to hear how it went! If you loved practicing these yoga inspired strength building drills, then you’ll love the Thrive Online HIT Yogis Community!  We take the practice you love (yoga) and add some of your love to hate High Intensity Training skills to the mix and BAM you have a super awesome, low impact, amazingly effective calorie burning, strength building Flexibility making program that you can do from the comfort of your own home!  If you’re in the Chattanooga, TN area, I invite you to come and practice with us at Thrive Yoga and Wellness. We are a community of yoga lovers coming together over 40 times each week to move, breathe and experience a life that truly Thrives.

Now, if you loved this tutorial, or if you want to learn more about yoga, Thrive Yoga and Wellness has the Chattanooga area’s ONLY modular CERTIFIED 200 hr Yoga Teacher Training Program.  It’s an AMAZING program designed around YOUR busy life and includes an entire year of unlimited yoga to the studio!  You’ll learn everything you need to become an effective yoga teacher and you’ll have the support you need throughout the entire process.  Don’t let crazy long weekend training schedules hold you back from your dream of being a yoga teacher, come train with Thrive! Check it out here.

If you’re looking for something fun to do this September, we are hosting our very first Thrive Yoga Festival at Audubon Acres.  Our first festival, we will have live music, guided meditations, hiking meditations, SUP yoga, Aerial Yoga Children’s area and activity, as well as all the yoga you could ask for! RSVP now for best class selection.  Ticket prices start at $20 per child (including 2.5 hours of child watch time) and $35 per adult! I can’t wait to practice with you soon!