THE GYMNASTIC BRIDGE
The Bridge is our go to goal when it comes to conditioning the spine, in particular mobilising and strengthening the often blocked thoracic. It is also a wonderful movement for opening and strengthening the shoulders through flexion. Both extension of the thoracic and flexion of the shoulder are key when it comes to achieving the handstand. Additional to the functional benefits, the gymnastic bridge offers numerous progressions and opportunities to rebalance the shoulder and is particularly useful when it comes to countering Upper Cross Syndrome (see our post: “Joining The Dots”.)
In this post you will find a collection of movements, that when performed consistently, will help to counter potential shoulder issues and progress you on to the goal displayed in the final drill: The Elevated Bridge. All exercises in this series should be performed as actively as possible, looking for connection and engagement throughout. We also recommend performing hanging drills prior to beginning the session, hanging should already be part of your daily routine (aim for 5-7mins daily) but in this instance try and accumulate 2-3 rounds of 60s hangs before you begin the routine. It is also important that we properly prepare the wrists. There is some basic wrist prep in our Handstand post, but really the options to prepare the wrists are endless. Whilst we build our own wrist prep resource we suggest going on youtube and searching for “handstand wrist prep” which will have you covered.
Note that we suggest general rep ranges on each movement but not set structure. Training structure will vary from individual to individual so adjust the volume and intensity according to your ability or how you’re feeling that session. If you are new to this process we would recommend starting with 2 sets of each drill working through the exercises start to finish (With the exception of the elevated bridge). If you find one drill particularly beneficial then spend more time on it, but please don’t avoid the difficult ones. They’re difficult because they need work! Work up from 2 to 3 sets as you progress.
If you want to further your understanding of the movement, then our new Bridge and Backbend class takes place online on Fridays at 12:00 through Lift: Online. All classes are suitable for beginner and intermediate students and can be booked here.
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Body Placement: Kneeling on all fours with hands shoulder width. Active legs with toes pointed, ‘connecting’ with the floor.
Hand Placement: Shoulder width with middle finger pointing between 12 and 2 O’clock.
Shoulder and Spine: Explore how externally rotating your elbows and drawing in your belly button activates the trunk, creating a feeling of stability in the shoulder and facilitates a better connection to the ground.
The Movement: Begin with your scapular in retraction and your head up. Lightly brace your abdominals with arms and shoulders active driving into the floor. Beginning at the head, dropping the chin and slowly articulating the spine, vertebrae after vertebrae into protraction. Finish off the movement by engaging the glutes and posteriorly tilting the pelvis. Note the connection to the floor and transfer of energy through the posterior train.
To return to the start position, begin at the pelvis, tilting from a posterior into an anterior tilt. Begin slowly moving the spine from flexion to extension one vertebrae at a time until the chin rises once again. Perform as many reps as needed.
Body Placement: Kneeling on all fours with elbows on an elevated surface and hands gripping a dowel (If you do not have a stick, the drill can be performed with hands clasped together). Keep the legs active with toes pointed or tucked under ensuring ‘connection’ with the floor.
Elbow/Hand Placement: Elbows should be placed at shoulder width, with hands at the same width or just inside. You can reduce the angle of the grip to control the intensity of the drill.
Shoulder and Spine: Draw in your belly button and brace your trunk in order to stabilise the spine and increase the intensity on the shoulder and thoracic. The goal here is to avoid the lumbar spine compensating for poor thoracic extension and shoulder flexion. Look up thoracic vertebrae T4-T7 on google – mobilising this area is the goal for many. Try and feel the exercise in this area of the back to increase your spinal awareness of this often ‘sleepy’ zone.
The Movement: Begin with a braced trunk, with shoulders active and in slight protraction. At this point you should already feel the shoulders begin to be challenged. Don’t push so far it hurts but do start to find some comfort in the discomfort, see how adjustments you make in the trunk affect the shoulders.
Begin actively extending the spine from the middle of your back. Remember to watch out for your lower back compensating and apply a principle of “move less and feel more”. Increase your spinal extension whilst maintaining an active shoulder as it moves through flexion. The chin should be the last thing to rise. To reverse the movement, begin by dropping the chin articulating the spine through protraction and return to the start position.
Body Placement: Kneeling on all fours with hands elevated above the head and actively pressing on a box, chair or similar (You can also use a wall pressing the hands flat against it). Active legs with toes pointed or tucked under connecting you to the floor.
Hand Placement: Hands should be placed at shoulder width or just outside and placed firmly on the box.
Shoulder and Spine: Draw in your belly button and brace your trunk, stabilise the spine to increase the intensity on the shoulder and thoracic. As with exercise 3 the goal is to avoid the lumbar spine compensating for poor thoracic extension and shoulder flexion. Explore how externally rotating the elbows effects the tension throughout movement and helps to activate the shoulder.
The Movement: Begin with a braced trunk and active shoulders in slight protraction. At this point you should already feel the shoulders. Don’t push it so far it hurts but start to find some comfort in the discomfort and strive for the connection.
Maintaining engagement through the trunk, begin actively extending the spine from the middle of your back. Remember to watch out for your lower back compensating and apply a principle of “move less and feel more”. Increase your extension whilst maintain an active shoulder as the shoulder passes through flexion. The chin should be the last thing to rise. To reverse the movement, begin by dropping the chin articulating the spine through protraction and return to the start position.
Body Placement: Position yourself face down with toes pointed, glutes active and hands behind the head.
Hand Placement: Hands should be placed behind the head whilst maintaining ‘wide’ elbows. We want the upper back to work but we don’t want the shoulder blades retracting without control and bunching at the traps. This cue will help to maintain the correct scapular position throughout the arch up and help you to improve your thoracic activation.
The Movement: Brace the abdominals picturing tension around you like a cylinder. Simultaneously lift the feet and the chest off of the floor and into a controlled and extended arch. Pause at the top position and take note of the connection. Return slowly to the start position and repeat.
Body Placement: Position yourself face down in the prone position with toes pointed and glutes active. Arms should be raised above the head and remain locked out.
Shoulder Placement: To keep the shoulders engaged we recommend externally rotating the elbows with fully extended arms whilst aim to be as ‘long’ as possible – think like you’re being stretched. A good cue is to rotate your hands so that your thumbs point up at 60 degrees. Search for those ‘sleepy’ areas in the posterior chain.
The Movement: Brace the abdominals, picturing tension around you like a cylinder. Simultaneously lift the feet and the chest off of the floor and into a controlled and extended arch keeping the arms extended. Pause in the top position and take note of the connection. This exercise can be performed for reps or as a static hold. A suggestion would be to work both reps and holds. See how 10 reps feels compared to a 30s hold and apply both to your training.
Body Placement: Position yourself in a kneeling lunge and ensure that the rear foot is pointed and pressed flat into the ground directly behind the knee. At this stage aim to find your neutral active hip position. Place the opposite hand on the shoulder of the lead leg. Left leg forward, therefore right hand on left shoulder.
Hip and Glutes: Squeeze the glutes and draw in the belly button, bracing the trunk. This will create more activation in the hip and help to mitigate compensation elsewhere. The phrase “move less feel for” at this stage comes into play once again. Squeeze the rear glute hard.
The Movement: Brace the abdominals and maintain active hips, rotate through the trunk and move the free hand towards the heel of the rear foot aiming to eventually make contact. Look to minimise movement outside of the rear lean and rotation. Fluid hips are important, however the goal of the drill in this form is to help you understand your hips and receive as much internal feedback as possible. Once you find connection at the end of the movement, actively pull yourself back to centre, reset and repeat for 10 reps each side.
Body Placement: Position yourself on your knees, with the legs shoulder width apart. Point the toes directly behind you and look to connect with the floor. Keep your hands out in front of you with your should blades retracted and depressed. Explore how activating the arms and externally rotating the elbow increases tension throughout the body.
Hip and Glutes: Engage the glutes and draw in the belly button, bracing the abdominals. This will create more tension in the hip and help to mitigate compensation elsewhere.
The Movement: Brace the trunk and maintain your hip tension, begin to lean back without compromising the lumbar spine. The purpose of this drill is lengthen and strengthen the quads and hip flexors under load, not to extend the spine at this stage. If you are slightly further along in your training, we suggest looking at variations that involve controlled extension of the spine in this same position. Aim to get lower every rep, actively pulling yourself back to the neutral start position by extending the knee.
Body Placement: Lie on your back with your legs bent and hands flat to the sides.
Hip and Glutes: Engage the glutes and draw in the belly button. Our aim here is to maintain a neutral pelvis and to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings. This is a great exercise when paired with hip flexor release and aids to rebalance the hips (Take a look at Lower Cross Syndrome in our post “Joining The Dots”).
The Movement: Engage the abdominals and maintain stable hips whilst bridging onto the shoulders. Keep your arms extended and pressing into the floor whilst retracting the scapular. You can push for more hip extension but maintain in control of the pelvis. Hold at the top of the movement and note the engagement/feedback. Return to the start position in a controlled negative and repeat. Look at performing 10-20 reps,
Exercise 9 - Project Goal
If you train with Lift then one of your mobility goals should be a fully extended (elevated) bridge. When developing this pattern we elevate the feet to prevent compensation in the lumbar and reduce the risk of injury.
If the exercises in this post have been performed regularly (and to a high standard) the body will be prepared to move onto this challenge. The higher you place your feet, the less pressure is placed on the spine. However that trade off is that greater shoulder strength will be required. Therefore spend some time to find the setup that feels most comfortable for you and remember in any new position, always use a spotter. In this case have them aid you up and guide you down, supporting your spine as you move into and out of the bridge. This will help reinforce the correct movement pattern for when you attempt things on your own.
Body Placement: Lie on you back with your legs elevated and positioned at around 90 degrees to the hip. Bend the arms and raise the elbows, positioning the hands behind you on the floor. Your fingers should be pointing towards your shoulders.
Hip and Glutes: Engage the glutes and abdominals. It is a combination of your glute and shoulder strength that is required to competently enter the position. Remember to drive up and out.
The Movement: Begin by driveing the hips into extension. As pressure transfers to the back of the shoulder drive up and out with the arms, directing energy upwards. It is important to not forget about the the hamstrings in order to maintain adequate tension (If it is your first attempt it is essential to have a spotter until you fully understand the movement pattern). To return from the bridge position, you must maintain active shoulders by keeping the elbows in and not allowing them to splay. This will allow you to lower in a controlled manner and position the hips back on the ground.