How the RAF has taken on yoga as part of its national fitness program

How the RAF has taken on yoga as part of its national fitness program

By Matt Miller

In addition to a quick response team contributing support to natural global disasters, the Royal Air Force currently has active operations in the Persian Gulf, West Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan. The RAF is always on the move, whether in combat or on peaceful missions they have to be physically ready for anything.

With a strong reputation for elite toughness in both the RAF and its Special Forces, it is no surprise that the entry requirements for physical fitness are tough and thorough. Both Officers at RAF Cranwell and Airmen/women at RAF Halton are evaluated on three key components of fitness: aerobic, muscular endurance and flexibility.

Flexibility and mobility are in fact considered a vital component of the health and physical fitness of all 33 thousand plus service personnel. Whereas most people tend to overlook or undervalue mobility and flexibility training as part of a regular training program, the RAF offers innovative programming such as Broga® fitness yoga and calisthenics as part of its regular fitness schedule. And considering yoga is now the number one most attended form of group exercise* (* according to the EMDUK 2017 industry statistics report) it is no surprise that these classes are some of the most heavily subscribed on base.

If the elite armed forces are getting flexible, why is this trend not trickling down into the local gym? The answer is rooted in typical male psychology. Though most men understand the importance of flexibility for increased performance, pain reduction and injury prevention, they are not willing to start over at something they feel they will not succeed well at. In addition, it is not seen as a strong enough workout to warrant sacrificing a valuable training day for. And that is not to mention the fear of being the only guy in a room of predominately women who will most certainly be outshining them to mere shadows. With the following exercise workout we will prove you wrong on all counts.

First off, you can be muscular and flexible at the same time. Don’t expect to be perfect right off the starting gate. Instead, you should dedicate yourself to building on correct execution and stamina as you go. Second, this routine forces you to incorporate several muscles together working synergistically in both isometric and dynamic movements. It forces joints to open up and rebuilds them within a structure of increased flexibility.

Secondly, yoga can be a great workout. Following the exercises in this workout with short rests in between sets will have your heart rate at about 130 bpm and your body drenched in sweat. But the proof will be in the resulting delayed onset muscular soreness. Although not pushing any weights, because you are being asked to support your own body with correct biomechanical form it will feel exactly as challenging as the heaviest resistance workout you can imagine. So on an empty stomach, you can count on not only as a strong workout, but a fat burning session as well.

Lastly, the fear of being the only guy in a stretch class, or a person who is not up to at least above average par, is completely valid. Instead, try this workout on your own in the gym stretch area. If you spend 15-20 minutes with a yoga workout as an active recovery day, or even as a pre-workout mobility warmup, you will become a trend setter, rather than a follower. People will likely even start to ask you how to do the exercises. Most men have a fear of being the only guy in a yoga class. But at the same time everyone wants to have more range of motion and be more flexible. In a group class environment you will find the most men participating in a hot yoga class like Bikram or a fitness yoga class like Broga® than in your standard class, so this might be a good place to dip your toes into when you are ready for more.

There is a reason weekly yoga is required training in military organisations and professional sports like the NFL and NBA. Strength and conditioning coaches know that yoga is proven to enable better movement biomechanics even when applied under heavy load , dynamic force or exhaustion. This directly results in reduced joint pain, decreased inflammation and increased performance output. Not to mention, from a purely aesthetic standard, the longer the muscle bellies are when lengthened, the larger they appear when contracted. Result.

The Workout

Dynamic Dolphin

What does this do: Stretches the muscles under the scapula, triceps and hamstrings. Lengthens the tendons of the rotator cuff. Strengthens the shoulders and abdominals.

How to perform the movement: Start in forearm plank. Hands can be clasped together to start but try to work towards palms flat and hands wide. Tuck the pelvis under to contract the abdominals. To start the movement push the pelvis up to the ceiling. Next, pressing the shoulders back towards the feet and lift one leg high in the air with both quadriceps contracted. This happens in one movement. Return back to forearm plank.

Repeat 5-10 reps on the same leg and switch to other leg without rest.
3 sets

Side Plank Raises

What does this do: Strengthens the serratus, obliques and all deltoid muscles evenly and in the correct position. Lengthens the tendons of the rotator cuff. Stretches the pectoral muscles.

How to perform the movement: In side plank ensure that the shoulder is directly located over the hand with the feet next to each other or stacked. Press the shoulder firmly down into the joint with the biceps rotating forward away from the feet. Try to reach the top arm as vertical as possible with the thumb rotating towards the ear. To begin the movement tuck the pelvis under contracting the abdominals and both quadriceps. Raise the top leg. Lower the top leg back down.

Repeat 5-10 reps on the same leg and switch to other leg without rest.
3 sets

Warrior 3 Crunch

What does this do: Strengthens all gluteal muscles and the muscles of the thoracic cage in correct alignment. Stretches the hamstrings. Builds power in the stabilizer muscles of the legs and feet.

How to perform the movement: Standing on one leg, come into a crunch. In one single movement, extend one leg laterally behind and reach the arms out forward. Try to keep the arms, back and rear extended leg as parallel to the ground as possible. The pelvis should face down to the floor. Return to the starting crunch on one leg in one movement.

Repeat 5-10 reps on the same leg and switch to other leg without rest.
3 sets

Dynamic Pigeon

What does this do: Strengthens the shoulders and muscles of the thoracic cage in proper alignment. Stretches the gluteal muscles. Lengthens the IT band and the Iliofemoral ligament.

How to perform the movement: Start seated with one knee forward and one leg extended behind. Try to place the front foot as far forward as possible and lengthen the back leg as much as possible. Balance the hips in the centre. Roll the shoulders back and down while lifting the chest. To start the movement kick the front bent leg back and up in the air while pressing the shoulders back towards the feet. The lifted leg should be as high and as long as possible by contracting both quadriceps. Return to the starting seated position by swinging the extended leg back down and sit on the knee with chest lifted.

Repeat 5-10 reps on the same leg and switch to other leg without rest.
3 sets