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Progressing Spinal Strength using ‘Bridging’ Exercises: Part 1 – An Introduction to Bridging

July 5, 2011

A while back I put up a post entitled “Spinal Rehab:  Time to stop babying it” in which I discussed the common practice of prematurely stopping the progression of spinal exercises in fear of causing injury.  As per my previous post “physical medical professionals have wrongly instilled a fear in patients/clients by failing to transition them from our rehabilitation protocols into conditioning of the spinal muscles.  We have been told about “spinal penalty” in research so often that we look at the spine as an incredibly delicate structure that should be handled with ‘white gloves.’  Many times I see people training hard in gyms doing bench presses, bicep curls, or calf raises with progressively heaver weights….then proceed to do the same “core” exercises prescribed by their PT or DC 5 years ago!!”  A common example would be the infamous ‘Bird-Dogs’ (as per Stuart McGill’s work).  Not to say that this, or other rehab exercises are bad mind you.  However the basic governing ‘rule’ of both rehab, and training is PROGRESSION.  Without it, the body can only reach a certain stage of improvement.  When the progression stops, so do the adaptations.  This occurs often in the gyms where people do the same routines, with the same intensity, then complain that they no longer are making any gains.  This same principle has to govern both spinal rehabilitation as well as core conditioning.

The 'Full Bridge'

One of the best exercises (and concurrently one of the most neglected exercises in recent years) for development of spinal strength (among various other things) is bridging.  A ‘Full Bride’ is a ‘simple’ technique whereby you just arch your back off the floor by pushing up with your limbs.  The term ‘simple’ refers solely to the concept of the movement…not to take away from the high level of strength, coordination, and flexibility required to perform it properly.  Most individuals will never attain the ability to perform a “Full Bridge” properly (nor should it be the goal of every indvidual)….and the performing this movement improperly can have obvious consequences and can cause serious injury.  However as with any complex movement, it can be broken down into a series of progressive steps in order to ensure that the necessary prerequisites of strength, flexibility, coordination, etc., are achieved prior to attempting the final ‘goal’ of the Full Bridge.  Thus in progressing through the steps, one can expect a significant increase in spinal strength and control, which should be the goal of any spinal rehab program and/or core-conditioning program.

Safety

Before writing this post, I did a google search on the bridge exercise.  I was not surprised to find several articles speaking of the “dangers” of it.  Therefore I think it necessary to squash this concept from the start.  The final goal of rehabilitation should never be to bring the person to their previous level of function….at least in my mind.  The goal should be to progress the patient/client to achieving a greater level of functioning in order to prevent future injury, as well as to promote higher levels of functioning and performance (especially in the athletic population).  Rehabilitation and training of the spine needs to progress to exercises with increasing intensity levels (be it strength, or endurance) just as is needed in any other area of the body.  We must train spine to be able to handle higher loads in order that the patient can function safely.  For example, even if we tell people to “lift with their legs,” there are things in the world that people will eventually have to lift that cannot be accomplished simply with their legs.  We must therefore ensure that the patient has strong enough spinal muscles for such an occasion in order to avoid a ‘blow out.’  In addition to strength, promotion of ‘flexible-strength’ is also of utmost importance for the spine, especially when working with athletes where spinal flexibility is necessary for proper technique execution.

Is the ‘Full Bridge’ exercise safe for everyone….NO!  Nor is it safe for a person in acute spinal pain to perform the Bird-dog; for a de-conditioned person to attempt a 10 Km run; or for a novice weight trainer to attempt a max deadlift.  To pick out an exercise and discuss the safety of it independent of knowing the functional capacity/ability of the person performing said exercise is impossible.  Is heavy squatting a safe exercise?  Not if the person lacks the proper flexibility, technique, and base strength needed to perform it…..but the exercise itself is not, in and of itself, ‘unsafe’ or ‘bad for you’ (see my post on Proper squatting technique)

Benefits of mastering the Bridge

–       Builds ‘Posterior line’ strength – includes the spinal erectors (ALL of them), glutes, hamstrings, shoulders, arms, and legs.

–       Promotes flexibility in the ‘Anterior line’ – Pectoralis group, intercostals, hip flexors, quadriceps, and abdominals.

–       Excellent ‘core’ workout

–       Promotes flexible-stength and agility

–       Combats the common signs of the ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ Cross postural symptoms.

Progressions

The Short Bridge: one of the early progressions of a bridge exercise sequence. This particular stage is often prescribed in low back rehab programs...but then never progressed further

Over the next few blog posts I hope to lay out the bridge progression sequence that I often prescribe to my patients/clients during the advanced stages of their rehabilitation program, or for my athletes who require ‘flexible-Steele-like’ spines.  In order to progress through the steps, the individual must demonstrate proficiency in the previous step so as to avoid injury.  To utilize the common concept ‘it is not the destination, but the journey’ ….while progressing through the steps, the individual will gain great amounts of spinal strength (as well as upper and lower body strength), flexibility, agility, and control.  How far along the progression an individual needs/wants to go should be decided upon between them, and their manual practitioner or trainer.

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