The back bridge is one of the most important exercises you can do. Regular back bridging improves posture, counteracts chronic sitting and makes you a better human being overall (OK, I may have exaggerated on one of these points). However, it’s one of the most neglected moves because it looks more like yoga than a true feat of strength.
But that’s a big misconception in the world of strength training: In order to be able to move yourself or another heavy object through space, you need to be stronger than you are inflexible. Most people think yoga is just a fancy way to stretch, but it’s really a back and forth between contracting and lengthening your muscles while increasing body awareness.
The back bridge is a perfect example of this. You need to have considerable strength in your lower back muscles, hamstrings, shoulders and triceps. But your hip flexors, abdomen, shoulders and your spine need to have above average flexibility to get into this position. If either one of those things is missing, strength and/or flexibility, you won’t be able to hold a clean, deep back bridge.
Having this balance of strength and flexibility let’s you move with more ease at everything you do. Therefore, back bridging is also a really good overall therapy for your posterior chain. While I don’t like generalized attributes like “most important”, I think this is a must-have in your arsenal.
Get ready, drop your head back and lemme ‘splain the progressions to a full bridge and tricks to clean it up.
To develop the baseline of strength needed for the back bridge, I suggest starting with the straight bridge. A straight bridge is basically a plank turned 180 degrees (it’s sometimes called reverse plank for that reason).
Sit on the floor, legs straight and touching each other, while sitting upright. Place your hands shoulder-width apart and just slightly behind you on the ground. Optionally, let your fingers point behind you. This gives you an additional stretch in your wrists which can be useful for the full bridge. But if that’s too much at first, just place your hands in a way that feels most comfortable.
From there, lift your hips up and get your body in a straight line. Tense up your hamstrings, lock your arms out and focus on bringing your chest up.
Try holding this position for time. When you can manage to hold it for 1 minute (like, really hold it, not sagging down for the last 20 seconds), it’s time to level up.
If you lack the strength to perform a straight bridge from the ground, start out by elevating your hands (see picture above). This change of leverage makes it much easier.
You can also work the muscles of your posterior chain by doing hip thrusts or (a bit harder) single-leg hip thrusts. I call them Candle Raises. Our neat model Steffi does them like a pro:
The neck bridge resembles more the feeling of the full bridge. It gives you the stretch in the hip flexors and spine, but you will be resting on your head instead of pushing up with your arms.
Lie on the ground, knees bent and your hands next to your head. Lift up your hips as high as you can, while flexing your hamstrings and using some arm strength for assistance to get your head into position. Your feet should stay flat on the ground and the top of your head touches the ground (use a pillow or towel if this feels uncomfortable).
Use your hands for assistance first. After some practice sessions, try to take your hands off the ground, so your weight is only supported by your head and your feet.
If you can hold this for a minute, you should be ready to work on transitioning to the full bridge. But don’t get too hung up on numbers here. I know it sounds fuzzy, but listen to your body. If you feel comfortable doing a movement, do it. Stop when it hurts. Any sharp pain in your spine or joints is a sure sign that you’re not ready for the move, yet. Slow progression is key.
Full Back Bridge
Get into the same starting position as for the neck bridge. This time, don’t place your head on the ground, but instead push through with your arms and try to lock them at the elbows. The goal is to get into a bridge where both sides look symmetrical, meaning the arch that your legs are forming look very similar to the other half that your upper body forms.
My current bridge is far from perfect. You can see that my arms are not in line with my upper body and my waist could be a bit higher. Hands could be placed nearer to the feet. Currently, I’m simply not strong enough to counteract the inflexibility in my shoulders, hip flexors and spine (or I’m not flexible enough, it’s always both).
For a perfectly clean bridge, have a look at this strong chic:
Here you see Grace Menendez, leading ninja from DieselGrace.com, kicking some serious butt. As a personal trainer from New York City with a yoga and calisthenics background, she can pull off a really deep back bridge. Look how her arms are beautifully in line with her torso and notice the symmetry of her bridge.
If you’re not one of the gifted people who are naturally very flexible, your first full bridge won’t be that pretty.
This is the beauty of the back bridge: It uncovers the weak links in your posterior chain. I, for instance, have pretty tight shoulders, like most men do. So I need to work on that. There are other hurdles that you might have to overcome.
In the following, I have some suggestions on how to work on your form and fix the weak links.
If you struggle to lock out your arms in the full bridge, you lack shoulder and triceps strength as well as flexibility in your shoulders and maybe your hips and spine, too.
To work on the strength part, bridge push-ups are a viable option. Get into a neck bridge. From there, try to push up into a full bridge. Attempt a full lock out of your arms. If that’s not possible right now, try to get as far as possible. With time, you’ll get better at this. Lower down until your head slightly touches the floor and push up again. 20 consecutive reps can be a good goal.
Use External Resistance
This tip I got from Al Kavadlo himself! I attended one of his free Calisthenics Boot Camps at Tompkins Square Park (TSP) while I visited New York City. That was awesome, by the way. Anyway, because the bridge is something I struggle with myself, I asked him to take a look at it and to give me a tip. Here is what he told me:
Put your feet and your hands against something stable and get into a full bridge. Push yourself up from both sides to deepen the stretch all over your body. Really try to leverage yourself against the two objects. Al kindly provided me with a picture of him demonstrating the move:
At TSP, there is a set of benches which have just the right distance from each other to do this. You might have to improvise on this. Alternatively, get to a wall and put either your hands or your feet against it, whatever is more beneficial to work on your weak link. You can also grab vertical poles with your hands if you find some with the right distance.
Push from either side of the bridge. Bring your feet closer to your hands or vice versa. Stretch and try to push beyond any uncomfortable feeling (as long as it’s not sharp pain!).
If you have a workout buddy, this is one of the best ways to improve your bridge. Make sure your partner knows what a good bridge looks like. Then get into your bridge and let him or her help you fix your form.
Because of the inverted position you’re in when doing bridges, it can be difficult to “feel” if your form is OK or not (taking photos or videos of yourself is also helpful if a partner is not an option).
Here are some things your partner can actively do: He/she can lift you up by pulling at your back, gently. Therefore, you need less strength to get into a deeper bridge and get more of a stretch and also a better impression on how the correct form feels like. Your partner can also correct asymmetry in your bridge. Lets say because of your tight shoulders, you struggle to get your arms in line with your upper body. Your spotter can lift you up gently by pulling at your lats, while you grab his ankles as vertical poles (oh and be prepared for awkward moments 😉 ).
Next, your partner can actively push against your hips. Your job is to work against this push and keep your arc. When your partner lifts his/her hands off of you, you should be able to extend your hips even further upwards.
Perform a full bridge, but with your legs elevated. This way, locking out your arms should be easier. From here, you can work at giving your shoulders a deeper stretch. As an added bonus, triceps and shoulders are engaged more due to the uneven weight distribution.
It also works the other way around: Put your hands on an elevated surface. This will deepen the stretch in your hips and belly.
Because the bridge is a real flexibility challenge, I suggest supplementing your bridge work with various stretches. Specifically work on increasing the areas that you identified as your weak links. Use the following stretches as a warm-up before getting into full bridges.
This is important. Always warm up your spine before any serious bridging. Once you’re warmed up properly and are working on your bridge, do some of these stretches during your rest between two bridge holds to specifically open up tight areas.
This stretch can help open up your shoulders. Think of this pose as a downward dog, but your hands press flat against a wall or an elevated surface. Your arms and torso are one straight line and form a 90 degree angle with your legs.
Now push against the wall with your hands while engaging your abdominal muscles. By doing this, try to force your upper body down to the ground and slightly away from the wall. By placing your hands progressively higher, you can deepen the stretch in your shoulders and chest. You can also do this in a kneeling position. Just make sure you engage your abs to actively stretch your pectorals (chest muscles).
The cobra pose or updog stretches your hip flexors, wrists and spine, so it’s a perfect stretch to prepare yourself for the full bridge.
Get into push-up position and bring your waist down and forward to your hands. Actively contract your lower back, glutes and hamstrings to push your hips forward. Bring your chest out and keep a tall chin.
This pose looks very similar to the bridge, but requires less strength and cancels out the shoulder mobility limitations. You can use this as a warm-up for your spine before attempting full bridges. It stretches your abdominals, hip flexors and spine.
Get down on your knees, legs shoulder width apart. Grab your ankles or your feet, arms locked out at the elbows. Lean back, drop your head back, actively bring your hips forward and your chest up.
The warrior pose is an incredible stretch for the hip flexors. Get into a forward lunge, with your front foot placed a bit further in front of you than you normally would for a forward lunge. Now, with an upright torso, actively push your pelvis forward and down. Reach up with your arms and bend your torso to the side of your front leg.
Going into a full bridge puts quite some strain on your wrists. I suggest stretching your wrists in both directions. First, to improve wrist flexibility and second to counteract the strain that the wrists experience during the bridge.
For a basic wrist stretch, get into doggy style position (there, I said it). Place your hands so that your palms touch the ground and your fingers are pointing at your knees. Lean back to deepen the stretch.
To counteract that stretch, place your hands with the fingers pointing the same way, but with your palms facing up. Again, lean back for a deeper stretch. Do not neglect this stretch, it helps keeping your wrist joints healthy and injury free.
Another nice stretch for wrists and fingers is performed as follows: Stand or sit upright. Put your hands behind your back, let your fingers touch while palms are facing down. Press your hands against each other, until both hands fully touch each other. I like to call this the Back Prayer.
This is a nice addition to your mobility work. The thoracic bridge or twist bridge works on similar links of the posterior chain but adds a little twist. It especially helped me improve some of my shoulder flexibility issues. It’s a fantastic dynamic stretch before your back bridging work.
Get on all fours in a crawl position, so hands, knees and toes touch the ground. Hands and legs are about shoulder and hip width apart. Your torso should be parallel to the ground. Arms are locked out.
Now lift both your knees from the ground, so your weight is distributed between your toes and hands. Lift one leg and the opposite hand from the ground, move the lifted leg under the supporting leg while turning your torso. At the end of the move, both of your feet are flat on the ground, in the same position as they would be in a normal bridge. The back side of your torso faces the ground.
I know, sounds confusing. Here is a video.
You can either point the inactive arm to the side (deeper thoracic stretch and rotation, this is how Max Shank recommends it) or reach up and behind you for a deeper stretch in your shoulders and pecs. Squeeze your glutes while doing this and try to keep your hips up as high as possible.
Bridging puts a lot of stress on your spine. Though this is “healthy” stress that will strengthen your posterior chain, you should counteract that stretch to relax the connective tissue of your spinal disks and your lower back muscles.
The child’s pose, as demonstrated in the picture above, helps relax your spine and gives a you gentle stretch for a bridging cool-down routine. Simply get on your knees, knees shoulder width apart, big toes touching each other. Lower your butt down and rest your chest on your thighs. Put your hands on the ground in front of you, lengthen your spine and your arms and gently press into the ground.
The grok squat is another superb stretch to gently lengthen your lower spine.
For a deeper stretch of your lower back and hamstrings, do the forward bend.
Sit on the ground, legs straight and feet touching. With an upright torso, lean forward and try to grab your feet or ankles. You can do this by first bending at the knees and then straightening out your legs by actively using your leg strength.
To deepen the stretch, pull yourself forward by utilizing your biceps strength.
Building the Bridge
With all the stretches above, you have lots of options to consider. Don’t do all of them. Instead, take a photo or video of yourself. It’s always good to evaluate the form of an exercise, but it’s even more crucial for the bridge. With the photo, assess your weak links. Where is the asymmetry? Are my arms and torso in line? Could the top of the bridge be a bit higher?
Choose the stretches or regressions that target these weak links. If you can reach your feet behind your back up to your ears, skip the warrior. Most women don’t need to do the wall dog, because their shoulder flexibility is sufficient.
Choose 2 to 3 stretches. Do those stretches for about 30 seconds each. Then get into your full bridge. Hold it as long as you can and specifically work on fixing your weak links. If you know you have tight shoulders, lean more into your hands. Fully engage your lower back muscles, hamstrings and glutes. Contract as hard as you possibly can.
Repeat this for 3 rounds and do your supplemental stretches in between.
I recommend doing bridge work as the last part of your training session. Because there is a great deal of flexibility work involved in this move, it’s best to be properly warmed up beforehand.
There you have it, lots of ways to tweak your bridge. Getting a crisp and clean bridge cannot be achieved in a linear progression. You need to go back and forth, analyze your form and make adjustments along the way. But this is actually the fun part of the bridge. Embrace the struggle and learn from it.
Thank you, Sabine, for always making me look my best. Thanks Steffi for being an awesome model and trainee. And thank you so much, Grace and Al, for letting me use your photos. You guys rock!