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.
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…”