Back Bridging: The Basics and Beyond

May 3, 2012

The back bridge is a timeless exercise that can improve your flexibility and build total-body strength along the way. Bridging works your entire posterior chain, while simultaneously stretching your hip flexors, shoulders and upper back (places where guys tend to get tight). Back bridging can also strengthen your vertebrae and increase spinal circulation. To top that off, bridging is one of the most functional and sport specific exercises that MMA fighters can do.

Unfortunately, very few people take the time to practice this ancient technique. Outside of a yoga class, I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen someone bridging in a mainstream gym. Even in the world of bodyweight strength training, bridging is one of the most overlooked exercises. It’s funny how people tend to forget the parts of the body that can’t be seen in the mirror!

Building Your Bridge

While bridging can be incorporated into a strength routine in a number of ways, I am a fan of doing bridge holds isometrically at the end of a training session. Though it can be worthwhile to occasionally devote the bulk of a days training to bridging, doing your bridge work at the end ensures that you’re warmed up nicely. As you’ll already be fatigued from your other exercises, you’ll also be less likely to muscle through into positions that your spine might not be ready to handle yet. A few short holds (start with 10-20 seconds and eventually build to one or two minutes) several times a week can make a huge difference. I have no doubt you will see and feel what I mean if you try for yourself.

Bridge the Gap

Though the full back bridge can be intimidating to newcomers, a gradual progression can be much more approachable. If you’re new to the world of back-bridging, your best bet is to start off with a partial bridge. Instead of getting your body into a full arch from your feet and your palms, you simply lie on your back with your feet flat and knees bent, then roll up onto your shoulders, puff out your chest and try to get your hips as high up as you can. It can also be helpful to wiggle your shoulder blades together and try grabbing your hands in a palm-to-palm grip to get more leverage in order to make your arch higher.

Straighten Up

Once you get the hang of the partial bridge, the straight bridge is the next step in the progression. This time you’re going to sit with your legs straight in front of you, almost like an L-sit position with your heels resting on the ground. From here, lift your hips and straighten out your body by contracting your hamstrings, glutes and other posterior musculature. Drop your head back, press your chest up and try to look behind you. You’ll wind up looking like an upside-down plank.

Next Stop: Neck Bridge

This variation starts off in the same position as the partial back bridge except your hands are placed on either side of your head, palms down with your wrists bent back behind you. From here, press yourself off your back and roll onto the top of your head. You might want to place a towel or other soft object between your head and the ground when starting out. For an added challenge, try taking your hands away and supporting your upper body with just your neck.

The Full Monty

After you’ve gotten a feel for the neck bridge, the next step is to attempt pressing into a full back bridge. Different people will require varying amounts of time to get to this point. Some people may feel confident going for it right away, others will need weeks or months of preparation before they are ready. Don’t be in a rush to get to a full back bridge, as it can put a lot of pressure on your spine. If you aren’t ready for it, you could be in trouble.

If you are ready to proceed, however, begin in the neck bridge position, then press your hands into the ground, drive your heels down and push your chest forward. That last part is particularly important for those of us with tight shoulders, as pushing forward with the chest will facilitate a deeper stretch through the thoracic region. It can also be helpful to look in between your hands to further facilitate opening your upper back and chest. Though it may take lots of practice, the eventual goal is to get the arc of your body to be symmetrical on either side of your hips.

Bridge Partners

Once you get familiar with holding a full bridge position for a minute or longer, you can experiment with weighted bridge holds. My favorite way to do this is with a partner who can provide manual resistance.

After you have pressed up into a full bridge, have your partner push down lightly on your hips. This will force you to contract your posterior chain harder in order to stay up. After 5-10 seconds of resistance, have your partner back off. You should instantly feel your bridge opening up and becoming stronger. In exercise science, this concept is known as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Basically, pushing against your partner’s resistance causes your stretch inhibitors to relax once the resistance is removed, allowing you to ease deeper into the hold.

Additionally, contracting your bridge against resistance will cause your body to adapt in the same way that adding resistance to any exercise would - you’ll get stronger. As that happens, you can have your partner gradually put more of their weight on you with each training session. Eventually you may even be able to support their entire body weight.

A Bridge Too Far

Remember to take your time with these progressions; back bridging can be fun but it’s not a game! Many people will need to stick with the earlier progressions for several weeks or longer before attempting a full bridge. Trying too much, too soon can often lead to injury. Things like partner bridges can make you hella strong (and look badass) but it takes practice and dedication to get there. Put in the work and the rest will take care of itself. With consistent training, ordinary people can do amazing things.

Watch the video for more: Back Bridging

Al Kavadlo is the author of a new book, Raising the Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics, which is available by clicking here.
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