Sun Salutation for Muscle Health
Updated: Oct 25, 2022
Muscle health just became a hot topic on a recent Dr. Rangan Chaterjee’s podcast (link below), with Dr. Gabrielle Lyon sharing her clinical knowledge and recommendations for maintaining muscle health throughout life. A key recommendation is engagement in exercise that harnesses functional movement and stimulates muscle tissue. Of course there are multiple ways to stimulate muscle tissue, and Sun Salutation practice could be one option for those who love yoga.
Muscle loss typically occurs from age of 30 onwards. For those of us experiencing peri-menopause or menopause muscle loss can be accelerated; and consequently we need to make meaningful effort to engage in physical exercise with consistency, to both sustain and improve our muscle strength.
Throughout Sun Salutation practice I have placed attention on connecting breath and movement, on expressing each posture (asana) safely, and on pausing to hold each asana for a microsecond before transitioning to the next with the breath. I have not really thought much about which muscles are recruited, when; though I have noticed that I feel stronger from the repeated practice (my subjective impression).
Mullerpatan and colleagues (2020) investigated the impact of Sun Salutation practice on muscle activation, with thought provoking results. They mapped the activation levels of seven major muscle groups during performance of a traditional Sun Salutation sequence, including the prime muscles of the spine, scapula and lower extremity. They found that Sun Salutation practice stimulated the range of muscles in the trunk, upper and lower extremities with:
Substantial activation of erector spinae (along length of back)
Moderate activation of lower trapezius (mid back), latissimus dorsi (back), gluteus maximus (buttock), vastus lateralis (thigh), rectus abdominis (abdominal core)
They discovered that it was the movement between asanas that stimulated the highest levels of muscle activity, compared with static postures. During transition there was isotonic muscle contraction (concentric contraction where the muscle shortens, or eccentric contraction where the muscle lengthens). The highest activation levels were seen in the following transitions:
Chaturanga to cobra or upward facing dog: lower trapezius was activated (72%)
Cobra to downward facing dog: latissimus dorsi was activated (82.3%)
Equestrian pose to forward fold/hand to foot: rectus abdominus was activated (143%)
Forward fold/hand to foot pose to raised arm pose: gluteus maximus was activated (91%)
Raised arm pose to standing pose (prayer); vastus lateralis was activated (73.2%)
Upward facing dog to downward facing dog: gastrocnemius was activated (78%)
From this we can see how the combination of movements in the Sun Salutation sequence gives us an amazing opportunity for engaging and strengthening a full range of muscles throughout the practice. Some therapeutic suggestions from the paper include:
To help stabilise the lower back, by practising in slow, rhythmic pace, with awareness, for gentle stretching of erector spinae.
To treat muscle weakness for people presenting with low back pain and trunk and shoulder girdle weakness (latissimus dorsi, lower trapezius and rectus abdominus).
To increase stability in the lower extremity through activation of antigravity muscles (gluteus maximus, gastrocnemius, quadriceps)
To enhance overall spinal stability (by activation of erector spinae and rectus abdominus, with latissimus dorsi and lower trapezius).
To increase mobility across all major joints of the body.
Sun Salutation may also be of benefit to peri-menopausal and post-meopausal women. If we are seeking a full body workout that builds strength and endurance, Sun Salutation offers engagement of a full range of muscles and, depending upon our practice, we can adjust the load. A favourite adjustment of mine is to move from high plank to child pose to cobra (skipping chaturanga), this lowers the load. Another option could be to come to the knees from plank and press to chaturanga to build that upper body strength.
One word of caution. Dr. Lyon warns that women of menopausal age may want to avoid 'explosive activities' such as box jumps, simply because of the higher risk of injury to tendons and ligaments, which once injured impact our availability for exercise. In which case, we may want to reconsider any jumping transitions which are common in advanced Sun Salutation practice; though this probably depends on the level of expertise, as I’ve seen many advanced practitioners jumping back to chaturanga with amazing control, grace and lightness!
Finally, benefit will arise from building a regular practice habit, along with increasing the load periodically, to ensure we stay in that state of challenge that initiates growth.
(Listen to the full podcast to learn about why muscle health is so important and how our food choice during peri-menopause and menopause could contribute to muscle health. Dr.Lyon also mentions the positive role HRT could play).
Mullerpatan Rajani P, Agarwal Bela M, Shetty Triveni V (2020) Exploration of muscle activity using surface electromyography while performing surya namaskar. International Journal of Yoga. Volume: 13 | Issue Number: 2 | Page: 137-143