Witness what this amazing yoga-with-a-twist method does for your upper body, and it will immediately become your regular mat routine
The beauty of yoga is that you can go with your typical flow (that is, vinyasa) for a full-body workout or you can cherry-pick from its repertoire of poses to turn up the toning spotlight on any body part. Mix the right postures—and add in some not-so-traditional tweaks—and, voilà, your mat routine can work extra-strength sculpting magic on your upper body, carving defined shoulders, sleek arms, and washboard abs, says instructor Kelli James Precourt, the owner of Balance Health Studio in Seagrove Beach, Florida. The former Olympian (she played field hockey) is known for her "spicy" but spiritual yoga classes that incorporate arm balances, inversions, and many, many ab exercises. "I'll kick your ass in a mindful way," she says.
We asked James Precourt to create a surprising yoga routine that will leave you feeling pretty Zen about your gorgeous and strong upper body. "Rather than targeting different muscle groups, the 11 postures form a steady flow of challenging poses to build the most strength and muscle definition in your arms and abs," she says. During every yoga pose—whether on the floor or standing— you must do what instructors call root to rise, James Precourt says. "It's the contrast of pushing into the floor and lengthening toward the ceiling or walls [to keep you balanced and stable] that turns most of your muscles on." (Here: more yoga poses that with tone your guns.)
The session you're about to do includes three arm balances and one inversion (this workout is all about the arms and abs, after all). Don't panic. Beginners, you should attempt these, even if it's just the built-in baby steps. "Each balance has a prep pose," James Precourt says. "Start there and be patient as your body begins to build strength and muscle memory." Take Crow pose: Assume the grounded position, and slowly rock into the balance, lifting one foot and then the other. If you're new to it, don't try to hold it. Slowly rock out of it. Repeat that a few times. "The slow, mindful progression of getting up into a balance or an inversion will teach you exactly how to safely get out of it if you need to bail," James Precourt says. "Keep your internal dialogue inspiring and supportive, and you'll likely surprise yourself here."
PSA: You may have a tendency to hold your breath during a difficult or intimidating posture. Stop that. Instead, breathe slowly from your diaphragm, inhaling and exhaling fluidly through your nose as you lightly constrict the back of your throat to create a whispering sound, and each movement will feel easier, yoga instructor Kelli James Precourt says. (That's what yogis call ujjayi breath. Try that and these other breathing techniques for a better workout.)
How it works: Spend about 5 minutes warming up with cat-cow pose (where you alternate between rounding the spine and dropping your belly in tabletop position), moving between child's pose and upward-facing dog, stretching your shoulders by clasping hands behind your back, and doing standing forward folds into overhead reaches. Then do the moves as indicated below. Repeat the routine 3 times. Do this workout 3 or 4 days a week on alternate days.
Total Time: up to 45 minutes
1. Crescent Twist
Stand with feet together and arms by sides. Step right foot as far back as you can; staying on ball of foot, bend left leg 90 degrees and place hands on hips. Rotate torso toward left and extend arms out to sides at shoulder height with palms facing forward. Hold for 1 minute. Switch sides; repeat.
2. Donkey Kick
Stand with feet together and arms by sides. Fold forward and walk hands out until body forms a narrow upside-down V (this is a shortened downward dog; heels may or may not be flat on the floor).
Bend legs deeply, and roll onto the balls of your feet to start.
Rock your body forward, so shoulders come over wrists, shifting weight into hands and lifting feet to come into a modified handstand (try to get hips, shoulders, and palms in a straight line) with legs bent. Hang in air as long as you can; land softly in start.
Stand with feet together and arms by sides. Fold forward, then shift weight into right foot as you walk both hands forward about 1 foot. Lift left leg, place left hand on hip, and rise onto right fingertips. Rotate torso toward the right as you extend left hand up. Hold for 1 minute. Switch sides; repeat.
4. Side Plank with Top Toe Grab
Start on floor in side plank on left palm with feet stacked. Lift right leg, grabbing right big toe with right hand. Hold for 20 seconds. Lower right leg, rotate toward floor into plank on palms. Then come into a side plank on right palm with feet stacked. Repeat on right side .
5. Knee to Shoulder In Elbow Plank
Start on floor in plank on forearms. Lift right leg to hover above floor to start.
Bend leg, pulling right knee up toward right shoulder. Return to start. That's 1 rep. Do 10 reps. Switch sides; repeat. That's 1 set.
6. Scissor Legs Hold
Lie faceup on floor with legs long and arms by sides. Lift right leg up at a 45-degree angle, and lift left leg to hover above floor. Curl torso off floor and press palms together, reaching hands to outside of right thigh. Hold for 5 seconds. Without lowering to floor, switch sides; repeat.
7. Spicy Boat
Sit on floor with legs long and arms by sides. Lean torso back 45 degrees and lift straight legs 45 degrees, coming to balance on tailbone, reaching arms forward so body forms a V, to start. Hold for 5 seconds.
Slowly lower legs and torso to hover above floor. Hold for 5 seconds.
Return to start, and rotate torso toward right. Hold for 5 seconds. Rotate toward left and hold for 5 seconds. That's 1 rep. Do 3 reps. That's 1 set. (If you need to modify, bend legs 90 degrees.)
8. Booty Lift
Sit on floor with ankles crossed, hands on floor next to hips and below shoulders, with fingertips facing forward. Press into palms to straighten arms, bringing knees toward chest and lifting butt to hover above floor. Hold for 20 seconds (or as long as you can). Lower.
9. Reverse Plank Dip
Sit on floor with legs long and hands on floor behind hips and below shoulders, with fingertips facing forward. Lift hips so body forms a straight line from shoulders to heels to start.
Slowly bend arms back, lowering straight body to hover above floor. Straighten arms to return to start.
Stand with feet hip-width apart and arms by sides. Crouch and plant hands on floor. Shift your weight into hands as you rise onto tiptoes, bringing knees to rest on triceps, soft elbows; gaze forward. Slowly rock forward to lift feet one at a time to balance on your hands. Hold for 15 seconds (or as long as you can). Lower 1 foot at a time.
11. 8-Angle Pose
Sit on floor with knees bent and feet flat, arms by sides. Pick up right leg and slide right shoulder under right knee. Squeeze right shoulder with right leg (as if you are clamping your shoulder or upper arm with the back of your knee or calf). Plant hands on floor outside hips. Cross right ankle over left and bend arms back as you lift body off floor, leaning torso forward to counter-balance. Extend legs toward left. Hold for 15 seconds (or as long as you can). Switch sides; repeat. That's 1 set.