Bridges – How to spare the back…

A couple of weeks ago, a reader asked me to drop some comments on bridges.  It was asked something along the lines of why do coaches insist that gymnasts straighten their legs and keep their feet together when bridging?

I don’t know.

As I noted in my last post, repeated bouts of lumbar flexion are believed to be a potential risk factor lumbar spine disorders such as a herniated disk.  Just the same, the lumbar spine really is not made to excessively arch or hyperextend as is seen when gymnasts perform skills such as bridges, backbends, and back walkovers.  Aside from these skills, when does a gymnast actually assume this type of a position?

Quite honestly, I cannot think of any other skills in which a gymnast assumes this position with so much lumbar hyperextension.  Some may argue that this type of bridge development is necessary for a successful performance of a back handspring.  Or, that’s an argument that I’ve heard a few times over the years.  Is it really?  Below, are three screenshots taken from Shawn Johnson’s first tumbling pass at 2008 National Championships.  Notice that she never gets into the position that we see above and if she did, she wouldn’t be very successful.

Beginning of the BHS After the RO

Flight Phase of BHS - Just Before Hand Contact

During Hand Contact of BHS

Does any gymnast ever assume the position (as shown in the bridge picture above) in a back handspring or any other skill except for bridges, back/front walkovers, etc. ?  The important factor in bridge development is shoulder flexion or often – hyper-flexion.  In other words, we want the arms to be able to be lifted up by the ears or even past without the chest/ribs poking out.

As I discussed in an earlier blog posting, there are other factors that we must consider when a gymnast has “tight shoulders.”  Maybe the issue is not flexibility at all.  Maybe the issue is too much rounding of the upper back that which places the scapula in a poor position.  Maybe it’s a matter of poor scapular stabilization or an imbalance of the scapula musculature.  The key muscles that would limit shoulder hyperflexion are the latissimus dorsi and the pec major/minor.  There are other stretches specific to these muscles that do not stress the low back.

With that said, here is a better way to perform a bridge.  I first came across this suggestion from David Adlard in an old USAIGC publication called STEPing UP.  To minimize the excessive hyperextension of the low back, elevate the feet to above shoulder height and put the emphasis of the stretch on the shoulders.

In the picture below, a trainer colleague, Becky (who used to cheer and tumble in high school) demonstrates.  Thanks Becky!  She’s a little tight in the shoulders, but now this position can better emphasize the muscles that need to be stretched without putting the low back at as much risk.  Afterwards, she even commented something to the effect of – “Wow, that really stretched my upper back…it felt good…”

Feet Elevated Bridge

Explore posts in the same categories: Anatomy, Biomechanics, Conditioning, Floor Exercise, Physiology, Strength Training, Training

Tags: , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

11 Comments on “Bridges – How to spare the back…”

  1. 5centz Says:

    I like your elevated bridge suggestion. It coincides with the information USAG and Beth Gardner have been saying about preschoolers and bridging. Since their spines are still not fully developed until they’re 5, it’s recommended that they not do free standing bridges until then. The alternatives are to do a bridge as you suggested or to put a barrel under the back to reduce pressure on the developing spine. I’ve also noticed that female gymnasts hyperflex their backs more than males and that we have more back issues. Coincidence? Wit a stress on walkovers and limbers before learning handsprings, I think that this trend will continue.

  2. wordsmith Says:

    I like the feet elevation kinds of bridges..a favorite variation being to hook one’s toes on the rungs of a stall bar ladder and stretch the shoulders.

    And speaking of tumbling, Brian Ginsberg is another one who comes to mind: Very springy tumbler but could not do a bridge on the floor. I mean, really bad bridge.

    It coincides with the information USAG and Beth Gardner have been saying about preschoolers and bridging.

    Speaking of which, I had a bit of dialogue going on with her on her Gymnastics Minute video, “Safe bridging”:

    (Re: Conversation between fightflipnfold and dayzbeth)

    Tammy Biggs also is not an advocate of legs together straight bridging. She sees it as being harmful to flysprings, and would rather place emphasis on feet under the hips to stretch the hip flexors.

    The only reason I can think of for the legs straight-together is because we’ve led ourselves to believe it is aesthetically pleasing. Not sure why, since I don’t even see the need to hit that position in the level 4 compulsory (although if you look at the conditioning pages, you see that “perfect bridge” position listed on back flexibility 3E…perhaps it should be updated taken out?).

  3. Just Another Opinion Says:

    Chris, given the importance of shoulder flex, what do you think is a good length of time to hold a bridge, and, what is a safe number of bridges to hold per day? (Imagine a girl with extremely tight shoulders, for which I know you’ll say there could be a number of reasons why they’re tight, but generally speaking, if she were to stretch at home, how many bridges could she do and hold for a given time before too much is too much?)

  4. Nicole Says:

    Great article. This subject needs to be continuously addressed and communicated to all coaches!

  5. Bringing up an old article here.

    Chris, what do you think of using the cat stretch (and variants thereof) as a substitute for bridges? For example, a gymnast kneels facing a low beam (say 16-24 inches), puts her hands on the beam, and pushes her armpits towards the floor.

    It seems to me this would address the shoulders without putting as much stress on the back.


  6. Alicia Says:

    I’m learning this stuff as well right now in advanced gymastics, and I completely agree with keeping your feet together as you arch back. Not only does ot save your back and allow you to do gymnastics a little longer into your life, but it also feels more comfortable 😛

  7. Shani Says:

    Interestingly we just had a coaches workshop middle of last year on bridges. Something that was new to me, was understand a bridge isn’t just shoulder flexibility, but also through the hips. The hips are important to work on to prevent/allevieate pressure through the lumbar. I have also always been taught to start a bridge feet elevated, and then decreasing the height as the gymnast progresses. We use the same technique with tictocs. The other important thing is to rock out the back afterwards. I like using the cat stretch and partner shoulder flex exercises (i.e. lie on stomach, pull shoulders back past ears, keeping rest of bod on the ground) before introducing the bridge, it always worries me when coaches don’t bother with the stretches and just do bridges and then teach walkovers, when really, the gymnast doesn’t have the flexibility to perform one safely!
    BTW – I just found this blog, and am thoroughly enjoying it, at a gym with no one senior above me in terms of experience, still at a young age, I am constantly looking for new places to learn. So thankyou for all the advice, drills, etc. 🙂

  8. […] That was linked by Coaching Gymnastics in the New Millennium. […]

  9. Hello to all, it’s really a good for me to pay a quick visit this web page, it includes
    useful Information.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: