Yoga vs Weightlifting

by Kathleen on July 22, 2010

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

Think about this quote for a second and ask yourself, does this quote apply to the way you treat your body?

I get several questions from people asking if they can replace lifitng weights with yoga.
Before I give my thoughts on the subject, I like to ask people two important questions:

  1. Do you enjoy lifting weights?
  2. Does weight lifting give your body the shape you desire?

If the answer is an enthusiastic “no,” to both questions, which is usually the case for many people at this point in their lives, then I love liberating people from pressing metal plates, by saying, “JUST DO YOGA!”

Before I was introduced to yoga, I lifted weights three times a week for fifteen years. My body was toned, but my muscles looked bulky, not lean, which had been my natural body type growing up. I was frustrated because it seemed the more I lifted weights, the bigger my muscles appeared, I just looked and felt thick, not good.

It didn’t help that I was also doing an hour of intense cardiovascular exercise every day, which sent my appetite through the roof, so my eating habits ended up countering all my hard work spent at the gym. Two hours at the gym, equaled three hours of eating the house down when I got home at night-ugh!

However, when I got the opportunity to open my first yoga studio in 1999, I decided to do a pilot study with myself: I quit lifting weights and just practiced ashtanga yoga, 6 days a week. I had been a personal trainer for the last six years, so it was a big deal for me to let go of something that had not only been a part of my personal life for so long, but had also been my professional life. I had been educating people on the benefits of lifting weights for years and now I was going to JUST do YOGA?! My personal trainer friends thought I was nuts! One guy said to me, “Shouldn’t you supplement your triceps with some tricep curls?” I said, I’m not sure, but I’m going to find out …

I want to make it clear, that I chose to do this study with myself, because I was very bored with lifting weights and loved my yoga practice way more than my gym routine. I did not switch to yoga, because I wanted to change the shape of my body. I switched to doing just yoga, because I wanted to do a practice that would fulfill me on all levels, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. If I was going to work out 1-2 hours a day, I wanted to do something I loved, and not something that my mind and society told me that I needed to do to stay in “shape.”

After one month of just doing ashtanga yoga daily, I felt stronger and leaner than I ever had in my life. I have never lifted a weight since that liberating day over tens years ago! Over the tens year of doing just yoga, I have become vegan, quit drinking alcohol and caffeine and have lost ten pounds.

Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Power Yoga are all forms of weight bearing exercise. There is nothing more weight bearing than being able to press your own body weight!

When I started yoga after lifting weights half of my life, I thought it was very interesting that I couldn’t do one chaturunga (tricep yoga push-up) to save my life! This really made me question my old workouts: “Why hadn’t the weights prepared me to press my entire body weight?” Well, if you think about it, most weight lifting exercises are isolated to individual muscle groups in the upper body, such as triceps, shoulders, lats, biceps, etc. They do not focus on pressing the body as a whole, which is the way yoga works the body.

When people tell me they are going to start lifting weights, in order to get stronger for yoga, I just tell them if they want to get stronger for yoga, DO YOGA! Every form of exercise is sport specific, meaning tennis prepares one for tennis, and not for golf. If you want to improve in a certain style of yoga, practice that particular style of yoga, because even yoga can be “sport specific.” My ashtanga practice doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to be good at a Bikram yoga practice, make sense?

If you enjoy your weight lifting routine and it is still fulfilling and giving you the results you desire, keep it up. However for those of you who are ready to make the transition from weights to yoga, here are my suggestions:

Yoga Homework

  1. For four weeks, do Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga, 3-6 times a week, without lifting a single weight.
  2. I encourage you to walk briskly 30 minutes outside on your days off from yoga, if you are wanting to lose weight.
  3. REMEMBER: Food is everything, so be conscious of what you are eating, why you are eating and how much you are eating. Eating a vegan diet, no animal-products, meat dairy, eggs or fish, is VERY effective for weight loss.

VegSource Video

Kathleen Kastner
Exercise Physiologist M.S.
Maya Yoga
Kansas City, MO

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

ashley1126 July 14, 2010 at 3:57 pm

While this is a small victory, it proves (to me at least) that your article on yoga vs. weight lifting is spot on!

Right after I completed my personal training sessions after our wedding, I did a body composition test at my gym on the tanita body composition analyzer. I just completed another one yesterday and while my weight was the same, my other measurements were much better – specifically my ARMS! I completely replaced weight lifting with yoga (2-3 times a week) and got great results!

In December, the percentage fat on my right arm was 33.4%, my left was 34.8%. Yesterday, those numbers were 32.6% and 31%! My trunk was also down from 35% to 31%. Legs were exactly the same, but I sort of expected that. To get the numbers on the scale to move down, I’m going to incorporate more cardio. Since its been so hot, I’ve been a pansy and not been outside running or walking the dogs as much.

Anyway – I just thought I’d share! Its almost comical (or ridiculous) to me how all of those heavy weightlifting sessions did nothing for my arms! Now I get to do something I actually ENJOY and see results! Thanks so much for steering me to your article and for freeing me from heavy lifting! :)

Kathleen July 22, 2010 at 6:41 pm

wow, well thank you for the great news about your body fat comp test, good for you! i have been out of the ex phys world for so long and haven’t heard of the Tanita analyzer, so you will have to tell me more about it at class.

I can totally tell you are losing inches, which is amazing, i’m so happy you have been liberated from weight lifting, oh the joy! (don’t tell your trainer, they are threatened by yoga, but i know what you mean about lifting heavy weights and not shrinking, what a waste of time and energy, ugh.)

I really don’t think you need to run, but power walking is wonderful and will help you lose weight and elongate your quads.

I know what you mean about legs being the same, my legs were always the last place to shrink to, but i have to say through eating a vegan diet and going gluten free, they FINALLY frickin’ shrunk.

So you might try eating less or no meat, dairy and eggs and watch the gluten. ( i hope your hubby won’t hate me for this suggestion, but it works like a charm for weight loss!)

you can get gluten free breads, pastas, crackers, pizza crusts, baking flours, etc, at the health food store, all made from rice, not wheat. i truly believe the wheat and white flours make people PUFFY-EEK!

this is an awesome web site for amazing vegan recipes, have your hubby watch the Dr OZ you tubes:

so thanks for the great update, i’m really proud of you, go yoga!
love Kath

Kathleen July 22, 2010 at 6:46 pm

Here is the rest of the conversation Via eMail.
Power walking is a great idea. Would you say that doing it on a flat surface is more advantageous than walking at an incline on a treadmill?

I’ve been thinking about diet for awhile now, and you have some excellent points. I want to do some more research. Erik won’t be too upset – it just means he will have more meat to eat! Ha! :) Its so much easier for us to eat healthy in the summer – we do a local CSA (community supported agriculture) and get a giant bag of produce every week and eat a lot less meat. Who knows – maybe by the time winter rolls around I will have less trouble convincing him we need to try more gluten free products or eat vegan! :)

We’ve been using some gluten free products for awhile now (Pamela’s Pancake mix – LOVE) – but thanks so much for the website and product suggestions. I will definitely look into them.

Thanks again!

If you are walking outside, a flat surface is just fine. if you walk on a treadmill, how long do you go and what is your speed? then i can help with the incline… not too high, because it can strain the knee ligaments, i’d say below 5%.
i use to do a 10% incline in my 20′s for an hour, it was insane and abusive to my knees, ugh.

the most important thing with walking is to just do it. truly one mile a day is 7 miles by the end of the week and 28 by the end of the month, it’s all accumulative in the end, so don’t over analyze too much and just walk and enjoy it!

the problem i have seen for years with people, esp women wanting to lose weight, is that we will exercise our ASSES off for HOURS, before we will ever take a look at our diet. the reality is, if you are very conscious about what you are eating and drinking, you really don’t have to beat yourself up with tons of exercise, make sense? it’s all about balance and walking and yoga are a great balance for daily exercise.

when it comes to weight loss, diet is even MORE imp than exercise. look how hard those people on the biggest loser work out and sometimes only lose 1 lb a week, it’s because they need to be more careful with their food. Getting people to change their diet can be like taking Linus’ blanket from him, very emotional and traumatic!

So, I’m thrilled you are already are into eating a plant based diet, JOY! i know you will love the recipes from the enige2diet. Skinny Bitch in the Kitch is a great vegan cookbook too.

more veggies, rice, beans, tofu, fruit…..

love kath

joshb12 September 30, 2014 at 11:23 am

Hey Kathleen,

I’m hoping you’ll see my comment and be able to get back to me because I’m really needing an experienced yogi to help me out.

I’m a 20 year old college guy, and I’ve been slender since I was 16. I was working out, drinking protein shakes, and I did build up a nice amount of mass, but I was still slender. Fastforward to now, and I’ve had elbow injuries with tendonitis, and those injuries made me lose much of the mass I built up.
I’ve been lifting weights about twice a week, but usually pushing myself with heavier weights during those sessions. I’ve noticed that my body just hasn’t gotten bigger like I wanted it to. I would like to add protein shakes back in, but I honestly feel like they increase my acne which I’ve gotten it now to the least amount its ever been.

My biggest question is could it be possible to do yoga and pilates and get bigger or should I stick to weights even though it’s not really making me a lot bigger? And if I did switch to yoga, is there any way that I could increase my body size from being slender to at least being an average sized guy so that I stop getting comments about being really skinny?


Kathleen September 30, 2014 at 5:06 pm

Hi Josh!
Thanks for reaching out with your email and the update on your current lifestyle, very helpful.
The first thing I would do to help your skin is to get off of ALL dairy and the whey protein in the shakes. Milk causes acne and whey is a derivative of milk which can also cause acne. Casein is also a milk protein and something to stay clear of in your diet.
There are vegan protein shakes out there, if you like protein shakes. You can add almond of soy milk to them and a scoop of nut butter.
Meat with hormones can also can acne, so be aware of it as well.

As for your body type: It sounds like you have been blessed with a genetically lean frame. Some men would kill for that type of frame!
My husband, Wade, has the same build and before I met him, he weighed 25 lbs more as a police officer, than he does today, as a vegan yogi. He said no matter how much he lifted and no matter how many protein shakes he drank, he could really never get bigger.
It wasn’t in his genetic make-up. However, yoga has really given him an incredible muscular lean body, by just using his body weight instead of metal plates on his joints, which is what I would like to advocate for you too.

I’m assuming your injuries and tendonitis are from weight lifting, is that correct? Metal plates on joints can do A LOT of damage. The reason I’m such a proponent of yoga is because you will you be using your own body weight for resistance, which is better for long term health and longevity.

There are two styles of yoga I want you to look for, ASHTANGA and VINYASA, which will use your upper body more than any other styles. Yoga will also help you to accept and appreciate your body type exactly as it is, without the need to always want to be bigger. I know yoga did this for Wade. You could always supplement your yoga practice with pull-ups and dips, if that makes you feel better. You hear about some pro athletes who only use their body weight for resistance, which is awesome!

What city do you live in? I can look up some studios and try to find you one I think would be good for you.

Being lean is cool and healthy, be proud!
Peace to you,

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