I teach workshops all over the world, usually in yoga facilities, and as soon as I start talking about upper body strength common themes always come up. In particular, I meet so many students who tell me that they have been practicing chaturanga for years and still feel like they can’t get it right. I also meet a lot of students who dream of pull-ups, and after many attempts hanging from a bar, have no idea where to go next. When trying to accomplish new movements, or learning to manipulate our body weight in different ways, here are some important factors to keep in mind.
You are lifting weights!
It might not feel like you are lifting weights in yoga, bodyweight movement, or dance, because you aren’t holding weights in your hands. In actuality, you are lifting one huge weight. If we went into the gym together and I put your body weight up on a bar then asked you to press it over your head, you would probably tell me I’m nuts. That’s because you know it’s probably way too much weight for you to lift (regardless of your actual weight). As a practitioner of strength training, I know that if I want to eventually lift my body weight over my head I need to first start with a small percentage of that weight; maybe I start with 20 lbs in each hand and progress from there. Body weight is a large weight to be lifting.
If you can’t really do a push-up, it doesn’t make sense to keep trying the same thing over and over.
Progress comes when we begin, or start anew, with small percentages of weight as opposed to trying the same heavy lift (often times with poor technique) over and over again. If the weight is too much for you to lift, unload, even in the context of yoga.
Upper Body Strength is Harder Than Lower Body Strength
Our legs are structured differently than our arms, and our lower bodies are used to carrying around our body weight all day long. Our upper bodies on the other hand are not, which means they likely aren’t well adapted to moving heavy loads. The challenge with bodyweight movement is that our body weight is not quite heavy enough for our legs, but way too heavy for our shoulders (in most people). Lifting weights, that are equal to a small percentage of your body weight, is a nice way to start progressively loading the shoulders in both pushing and pulling movements. Thinking you are going to jump up on a bar, kick into a handstand, or practice seamless push-ups without prior training isn’t realistic. It’s not that you are weak, it’s that you haven’t been working with a progressive approach.
Most of Us Are Constantly Working At 100%
If you were to ask a weightlifter how often they lift their max weight, they would probably say once a week, at the absolute most. In strength training, it is a known fact that we don’t get much stronger by regularly hitting our max. Maxing out is a feat of strength, not a daily practice.
If you can do only one push-up, you are already at your max.
Again, it doesn’t make sense to keep trying that one push-up over and over, rather you need progressive exercises that are done at a smaller percentage of your max. Thinking in terms of lifting, imagine you could lift 100 lbs for only one rep, this means that 100 lbs would be your max. If you want to improve your strength, you might practice many sets and reps of 50 lbs, 60 lbs, 70 lbs, 80 lbs and more depending on the day. These loads fluctuate over the weeks and months to challenge you, but also to aid in recovery. In addition to this variable weight strategy, you would practice accessory exercises to support the tissues around the joints. We can think about and practice this even with our bodyweight movements, like push-ups and pull-ups, finding creative ways to unload certain percentages of our body weight so that we aren’t constantly training at 100%.
Getting there: Progressive Loading
So what does progressive loading do, you ask? When we apply the right amount of load to the body it will adapt and get stronger, this is what I call the sweet spot, some might refer to it as the window of tolerance. It is such, that as loads are gradually and appropriately increased over time, we will develop the strength we are striving for. Like a ladder, you have to start at the bottom rung. Knowing when to increase load and by how much is integral to a progressive approach, as applying either too much or not enough load can result in injury or feeling weak.
Let me just repeat that, too much load or not enough load (I see the latter all the time), can stifle progress.
Load is not the only factor, we also want to apply said load to the body from different directions, at different angles, at different speeds, and in as many varieties, combinations and permutations as possible. This is usually where and when people realize they need help. Knowing how to load the body requires not only knowledge of exercises and biomechanics, but also creativity and critical thinking with regards to goals and preparation.
I remember the first time I saw someone do a pull-up in the gym and thought, ‘I’m strong and that looked pretty easy, I’m pretty sure I did them as a kid, I will jump up and try.’ Ten seconds later I jumped down, my hands cringing and my arms feeling like they might pop right out of my shoulder sockets. I started to understand that although my body was strong in some ways, I had not done any of the essential work to prepare my body for pull-ups. I’ve also come to know that learning these movements as an adult is totally different from learning them as a kid.
An important thing to remember is that the body takes time to remodel. Although the grand remodelling process is as individual as each human, on a basic level the nervous system adapts very quickly, whereas the tissues take much longer. This means that our progressive strength strategy has to be spread out over a period of time that in most cases will span months, not days and weeks.
Load is essential, but progress requires consistency. Recovery, rounds out the space inbetween.
For example, rather than a full hour of strength training once a week, visualize what it would be like to have a solid 20-minute session every other day. When you practice with consistency, it leaves more room for trying new things and not getting hung up on the details.
Learning new movements, or doing old movements in different ways, is a great way to get the body progressing in a new direction. We affect more than just our tissues when we demand something out of the ordinary. Our training or practice plans also have to take into consideration that each given day will feel different from any other. Some days are better suited to mobility and restoration, while other days might carry lots of energy for more challenging movements. In addition, working different parts of the body on different days is helpful for recovery and it gives us more movement novelty, which can help keep us engaged with our practice.
Remember: the body loves variety!
Be patient with yourself and listen to your body. Training can come and go in phases. Just as our eating habits might differ through the seasons, training during a particular month or season might be different from another. I find lifting weights and being inside the gym way more appealing in the winter, as opposed to the summer, when I want to be outside swinging from the monkey bars more often. Balance is important, as is being mindful of the bigger picture.
When I reflect back on the person I was when I walked into the gym for the first time, I am confronted again with the misconceptions I had about strength training. I thought strength training would make me stiff, push me too hard, and and make me less mindful. Six years later, I have put together a program and a personal practice that weaves together strength training, basics of tissue adaptation, bodyweight movement, and mindfulness. I know what it feels like to be the beginner in the gym who has no idea what to do, and I understand the needs of yogis and dancers who require this support.
I can support you too. My new course will undoubtedly help develop both your push-ups and pull-ups, as well as your overall knowledge of the body and its intricate, interconnected systems. Please join me, you will have lifetime access to the information included and I know you will get a lot out of it! Click here to sign up.