Muscle Activation In Yoga

Muscle Activation During Yoga Poses: Are There Sex Differences?

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Are men and women using muscles differently during yoga?

Research Study At A Glance

The Research Question Asked

Are there differences in muscle activation between the sexes when doing yoga postures?

Type of Study

Clinical research study

Study Participants (Sample)

Sample size: 30 total participants

  • 15 men and 15 women
  • Between ages 18-40
  • No yoga experience
  • Healthy, no injuries
Methods

The researchers compared muscle activation in four muscles in four different yoga poses between one group of men and one group of women.

Results
  • Abdominal oblique muscles were more active than rectus abdominis for both sexes when doing plank pose.
  • Both rectus abdominis and the abdominal obliques were more active during plank pose for both sexes than they were in chair pose, upward dog, or warrior 1.
  • Women on average experience greater activity of both rectus abdominis and the abdominal obliques in plank pose than men.
Conclusion

There were, as a group, some differences in muscle activation of trunk muscles between the sexes.

Muscle Activation In YogaBackground

Yoga teachers often emphasize the importance of stabilizing the muscles of the trunk, sometimes referred to as the core, in order to protect the low back. And while, as yoga practitioners, we may be able to feel that something is happening when we are maintaining stability of the trunk, it was unknown specifically which muscles were active. Additionally, while there may be some debate about exactly how long people have been doing yoga asana practices, it is true that it is fairly recent that so many women have taken up the practice, so it was also uncertain whether there were any sex-specific differences in muscle activation during trunk stabilization. The research team, on the project summarized here, analyzed muscle activation in four yoga postures in a group of each sex to try to answer those questions.

Research question

Are there differences in muscle activation between the sexes when doing yoga postures?

Research methods

The researchers compared muscle activation in four muscles in four different yoga poses between a group of 15 men and a group of 15 women. Study participants were healthy, had no yoga experience, and were between the ages of 18-40 years old. Researchers evaluated muscle activation of the following four muscles: rectus abdominis, abdominal obliques, lumbar extensors, gluteus maximus. Activity of all four muscles was measured using surface electromyography (EMG) techniques in the following four yoga postures: high plank, dominant side warrior 1, chair pose, and upward facing dog.

During the study, participants performed each yoga posture three times, resting for 1 minute in between each repetition. Each repetition of each posture was held for 20 seconds. The order of poses was randomly assigned to each participant to avoid bias as a result of the order in which the postures were performed. A mixed model type of statistical analysis was run to evaluate differences in muscle activation among postures and between sexes.

Results

  • Abdominal oblique muscles were most active, of the four muscles evaluated, for both sexes in plank pose.
  • Rectus abdominis was more active in plank pose for both sexes than in any of the other poses evaluated.
  • Greater activity from the abdominal obliques was reported in both sexes in upward dog when compared to chair or warrior 1.
  • Gluteus maximus activity was generally low for both sexes in all four postures evaluated.
  • Women experienced 2.2 times the amount of muscle activity in rectus abdominis in plank pose and 1.9 times the amount of muscle activity in rectus abdominis in warrior 1 compared to men.
  • Women experienced 1.8 times the amount of muscle activity in the abdominal obliques in plank pose compared to men.
  • Gluteus maximus muscle activity was 1.9 times greater in women in plank pose than for men.

Why is this relevant to yoga practitioners?

Yoga practitioners come in lots of different bodies. It’s important to remember that, as we talk about what is happening, anatomically, in yoga postures. While certain muscles may generally be active for everyone in a given posture, this research reminds us that there is still variation from person to person. This is relevant when we make decisions about which yoga postures are appropriate for individual practitioners, as well as how many repetitions to do, and/or how long to hold individual postures without over-doing it.

Conclusion

This research indicates that, for those people without previous yoga experience, as a group there is some difference in muscle activation between the sexes. It makes sense then that there would also be considerable individual variation in muscle activation in yoga postures from person to person. This reminds us that it’s always important to listen to our own body when doing our practice.

Reference citation

Bolgla, L.A., L. Amodio, K. Archer, J. Estes, R. Leung, K. Magoni, A. Mullikin, D. Roberts, M. Weems, D. Beazley. 2018. Trunk and hip muscle activation during yoga poses: Do sex-differences exist? Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 31:256-261.

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