Strength-Building Drills and Holds for Your Core, Arms, and Back


In my previous article, which explores strength-building as both a physical and spiritual pursuit, I focused on the lower body with an emphasis on harnessing the inner strength that a reflective asana practice can help us cultivate.

Here, I’d like to offer a sequence that focuses on a few basic poses that target the upper back, abdominal, and arm muscles through drills with short holds and repetitions along with some longer-held variations.

As you practice, tap into your breath as the mighty force that empowers you to be strong and steady in spirit and life. Consider how your breathing can reflect these three facets of inner strength:

The breath is powerful: Yoga teaches us that the breath is our most immediate and constant connection to spirit. The breath is the vehicle for prana, the vital life force that, according to yoga-related philosophy, is our animating power and infuses the cosmos. It could be said that breathing with this awareness allows us, as individuals, to tap into the power of the universe. That’s a pretty potent thought, isn’t it?

The breath is stable: You can turn to your breath anytime to bring your awareness back to the present moment, to yourself, and to the core of inner steadiness and strength that is always within you.

The breath is constant: It’s always there, as long as you’re alive, to support and sustain you. You can trust it, rely on it, and turn to it. Developing awareness of the constancy of your breath’s rhythm moving in and out can bring comfort, especially in challenging moments.

Begin with the preparatory pose below to warm up. Then practice the drills, punctuated with a resting pose of your choice, such as thunderbolt (vajrasana) or a gentle seated or supine twist. Conclude with the finishing poses.

Props needed:

  • 1 block

  • 1 blanket 

  • Small amount of wall space

The Sequence

Preparatory poses

1. Supine child’s pose (supta balasana)

Draw your knees in toward you. Roll and gently move in whatever way feels good to warm up your spine and back. Stay for 30 to 60 seconds.

2. Knee to chest pose (apanasana)

Hold for 20 to 30 seconds and then change sides. Place both feet flat on the floor, knees bent, when you finish. 

3. Abdominal resistance

Flatten your back to the floor by drawing your navel toward your spine. Lift your legs so the calves are parallel with the floor. Keep your knees bent and hug your legs together. Maintain this alignment while pressing your hands into your thighs and your thighs into your hands. Bring your feet back to the floor and return to a neutral spine and relax for a few breaths. Repeat.

Drill 1:

A. Upward stretched legs pose (urdhva prasarita padasana)——alternating legs or both together.

Extend your legs up to the ceiling so that they’re perpendicular to the floor.

Keep your back flat on the floor and your navel drawing in toward your spine. Exhale and lower one or both legs to a few inches off the floor if possible, stopping before your lower back arches away from the floor.

Inhale to bring one or both legs back up to their starting point. Repeat, alternating each leg twice or moving both legs together four times.


B. Revolved abdomen pose (jathara parivartanasana)—knees bent or legs straight.

Draw your knees into your chest for the bent-leg version, or extend your legs up to a 90-degree angle (perpendicular to the floor) for the straight-leg version. 

Extend your arms out to your sides at shoulder level, palms turned up.

On an exhale, lower your knees to the right and up toward your right elbow (for the bent-leg version) or your toes toward your right palm (for the straight-leg version).

In both cases, keep your legs hovering a few inches from the floor. Reach through your left arm and draw your left shoulder blade toward the floor to counterbalance the twisting action.

On an inhale, bring your legs back to center. Switch sides.

Repeat two times each side.


Drill 2: Downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) to plank pose (phalakasana) to upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana) to plank to downward facing dog. 

Hold each pose for three to four breaths.

On an exhale from downward-facing dog, move into plank pose. On an inhale, move into upward-facing dog, exhale back to plank, then inhale to return to downward-facing dog. Do the full sequence three to four times.

Drill 3: Dolphin pose (ardha pincha mayurasana) to forearm plank (phalakasana

Begin in dolphin pose with your fingers interlaced and your forearms on the floor. On an inhale, lower your hips and bring your shoulders forward into forearm plank. On an exhale, raise your hips up and stretch back into dolphin.

Move with your breath and repeat three to four times.

Drill 4: Forearm balance (pincha mayurasana) prep to forearm plank pose. 

From hands and knees, position your forearms on your mat so they are parallel, with your elbows under your shoulders. Hold a block at its widest setting between your palms. 

Soften the area of your spine between your shoulder blades toward the floor, press the backs of your thighs up toward the ceiling, and reach your chest back toward your legs to move into forearm balance prep. (Adjust your feet if needed.)

On an inhale, come forward and down into forearm plank. Take a breath here, if you wish, before stretching back into forearm balance prep.

Take a breath here before moving back into forearm plank on an inhale and repeating the drill three to four times.

Drill 5: Downward facing dog to forearm balance prep.

From downward facing dog, on an exhale, bend your elbows and lower your forearms all the way down to your mat if possible, or as close to the mat as you can, keeping them parallel to each other. 

On an inhale, lift back up to downward facing dog (pulling your elbows toward each other can help to lift them away from the floor). Take a breath. On your next exhalation, lower your forearms again, and on an inhale, lift back up to downward facing dog. Repeat two to three more times.

Long hold sequence 1: Inversion preps at the wall.

Do each variation two times, holding each one for four to eight breaths.

Half Handstand

Half forearm balance with hands clasped

Half forearm balance holding block

Drill 6: Dynamic dolphin pose (pikes) 

In this core-strengthening exercise, the blanket slides along a bare floor as you raise and lower your hips while the mat holds your upper body stable. 

From forearm plank with your forearms on the mat in dolphin pose arms and your feet off the mat with a blanket underneath them, on an exhale drag the blanket forward toward your arms, raising your hips up and bringing your feet as close to you as possible into dolphin pose. On an inhale, slide the blanket back to return to forearm plank. Repeat three to seven more times. 

Drill 7: Sphinx pose to locust pose (shalabhasana) to cobra pose (bhujangasana) to upward facing dog. 

Do the full sequence four times, holding each pose for three to four breaths.

Long hold sequence 2: Strengthening backbends

Practice each pose once, holding for 6 to 12 breaths. Then repeat both poses a second time, holding for the same length of time, or slightly shorter as needed.

Sphinx pose

Locust pose 

Finishing Poses

1. Supported knee to chest pose with sacrum on a block 

Begin on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Raise your hips and slide a block underneath your sacrum at whichever height you wish. Draw your right knee in toward your chest and extend your left leg, reaching through the heel. Emphasize the internal rotation of your left leg by staying on the center of your left heel (not letting the leg or foot turn out too much). 

Hold for 6 to 12 breaths, adjusting the position of your right knee as needed to deepen or ease the stretch. You might wish to take the knee farther to the right, for example, or draw it closer toward you as you hold. Keep extending out through your left heel.

To change sides, release your right leg, bend both knees, and place your feet on the floor. Draw your left knee in toward your chest and extend the right leg.

2. Windshield wipers

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, slightly wider than your hips.

If it’s comfortable for you, take your arms overhead and place the backs of your hands on the floor. If this is uncomfortable or your hands don’t touch the floor, you can support them with blankets or a bolster or place them down along your sides.

Lower one knee toward the opposite inner ankle. Move from side to side at whatever pace you’d like, either moving with the breath, exhaling the knee down and inhaling up to center, or holding for a few breaths on each side.

Repeat three to five times on each side.

3. Corpse pose (savasana

Stay for three to five minutes, or longer if you wish.

As you conclude, take a moment to sit with the effects of this sequence. Consider the experience you had overall, especially of the breath as it supported your efforts in these strengthening practices. Did it connect you to something deeper, perhaps to the strength of your spirit? And how might the awareness of your breathing as the ever-present power of life itself support you to feel strong and steady today, and in the whole of your life?

Photography: Andrea Killam

About the Teacher

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Barrie Risman
Barrie Risman is the best-selling author of Evolving Your Yoga: Ten Principles for Enlightened Practice.... Read more