What is the “Bridge”?
The Bridge is an amazing overall body exercise that targets the gluteal and hamstring muscles at the back of your hips and legs. These muscles are important in supporting and stabilizing our body/trunk, pelvis, and legs in optimal alignment with movement. They also need to be strong to propel our bodies forward when walking, running, hiking, going up hills and/or stairs, and with sports activities.
If one focuses on its technique a bit further, as it is taught in the Pilates method, it can also be an amazing abdominal and core strength exercise. As well as targeting the areas described above, it also generally strengthens the legs, and if you have tight muscles in the front of your hips, such as the hip flexors, or iliopsoas, and the quadriceps, and/or tight chest (pectoral) muscles, it can also gently and actively stretch and open up these areas with time.
How to Perform a Bridge
One starts laying on their back on a mat, their knees will be bent and their feet are placed flat on the mat a comfortable distance from the person’s body. The feet should be between 5- 6” to shoulder-width apart. The position should be comfortable and the arms are laying at the body’s side.
To perform, the person will engage their gluteals (“butt muscles”) and hamstrings at the back of the legs to push their pelvis and trunk upward. Generally, the body will form a long line from the person’s shoulder region to their knees. One should not push up too high and the position should be comfortable. If there is significant muscular tightness, a person may have to keep their hips a bit lower.
There will be more tips and details below on how to fine-tune and optimize this exercise.
“Bridging” in Pilates
In the contemporary method of Pilates I was trained and certified in, STOTT PILATES, there are two versions of this exercise, ultimately ending in a similar “pose” at the top of the exercise. You will also incorporate core abdominal stability in these exercises. At the top of the exercise pose, your feet will continue to be on the mat, your knees bent, and your pelvis and trunk are up off the mat, and your head, shoulders, and arms continue to touch the mat. Your body should almost form a triangle with the mat. See the above photo for reference.
The two versions of this exercise in STOTT PILATES are called “Hip Lift” and “Hip Roll”. These two exercises both target the muscles described above, but the technique, their focus, and the part of the purpose of these exercises and actions vary.
I will describe these versions below.
Emphasis is on keeping a neutral spine throughout the exercise. As mentioned prior, it is important to engage your deep abdominals with bridging exercises in order to make the most of the exercise, get a better workout, and get an extra-abdominal challenge.
Neutral spine/pelvis is where the natural curvature of your lower back is in its optimal position. It is neither extended too much nor flattened out. Generally, this position is about midway between your body’s full range of movement. Once you find your neutral spine and pelvis, you must gently engage your deepest abdominal muscle, called your Transverse Abdominis. It wraps around your body like a corset and attaches to some strong stabilizing tissue in your lower back region to help stabilize your body, your lower back, and pelvis and protect them from excessive and stressful movement. This contraction of your abdominals is gentle. You will not push out or flex in any way, but gently draw it inward like you are cinching a corset. If you have not performed this before, you may need to find a licensed or certified professional to give you some tips on how to engage this muscle properly.
Next, while continuing to keep your abdominals engaged and continuing to breathe, you will gently push your pelvis and trunk up off the mat using the back of your legs pushing against the mat. You should exhale on the push upwards. When actively moving upward, you do NOT want to let your back arch or move. Your focus is stabilizing your trunk while challenging the gluteals and hamstrings at the backs of your legs. At the top of the exercise, you may feel some gentle stretching through the front of your hips and legs if you tend to be tight in these regions. You should inhale at the top of this exercise while continuing to hold the position and keeping your deep abdominal engaged.
Keeping your lower back in neutral and continuing to engage your deep abdominal, you gently lower your trunk and pelvis down to the mat, slowly controlling your descent. You should exhale on the return downward. When your body is fully supported with the mat, you can relax your muscles and inhale, if you need a break.
The focus in this exercise (versus the Hip Roll described below) is on trunk stability and maintaining a neutral spine throughout the exercise, while you are also strengthening your gluteals and hamstrings of the legs. This version of the exercise is useful as a challenge if a person needs more strength and stability in the trunk and abdominals while strengthening the backs of the hips and legs.
The Hip Roll incorporates a lot of the same concepts as the Hip Lift described above, but adds a few more parts. The difference between the two versions is that when you engage your transverse abdominis, you will be allowing segmental spinal and pelvis movement as you push up through the backs of your legs in this version.
After engaging your deep abdominal muscle, you actively allow your pelvis to tip backward slowly, gently flattening your lower back and rolling up through your spine from your tailbone. You want to try to roll through each vertebrae segment. You should exhale on the way upward. You will end the exercise in the exact same position at the top as the Hip Lift, in neutral spine. You should inhale at the top of this exercise while continuing to hold the position and keeping your deep abdominal engaged.
On the descent, you will allow that same roll of your spine, but in the opposite direction starting from the top of your spine towards your tailbone, and then down towards the mat. You will still continue to keep your deep abdominal engaged. You should exhale on the return down. You will roll through your spine back to a neutral position with your body on the mat.
This exercise also incorporates trunk stability, but additionally, it incorporates this with segmental movement of your spine. This version of the exercise is very useful to help loosen up any stiff and/or inflexible segments you may have in your lower back.
- This exercise should always be comfortable! There should be no areas of discomfort, especially in the lower back. If you are feeling discomfort, your technique may need to be improved, or the exercise should be modified. In these cases, consulting a licensed or certified professional will help you figure out the correct course of action.
- In all forms of the bridge, one SHOULD NOT overextend their lower or upper back! If a person has significant muscular tightness in their hip flexors in the front of their hips, the person should perform the exercise at a lower height so that the lower back is not pulled on, over extended and possibly irritated. As a person continues to practice this exercise and the tight muscles release, then they may be able to gradually progress the height.
- In the Hip Lift, the person SHOULD NOT see any shortening or “dropping out” in their trunk in the area from the top of their pelvis to the lower part of the ribs as they perform the exercise. If they see movement there, the person is not stabilizing their trunk well enough with their abdominals. Sometimes it is helpful to put your thumbs on your lower ribs and your pinkies on the tops of your pelvis bones to give you feedback. There should be no movement or shortening underneath your hands.
- In the Hip Roll, you want to focus on rolling through your spine as described above. You should continue to engage your deepest abdominal throughout this movement when pushing through your legs. If a person has significant inflexibility in the muscles of their lower back or spinal stiffness, as they try to move through each section of the spine, there may be a segment that does not want to move well. This is common; care should be taken to attempt to gently move that section, while not forcing it in any way. It may take months for a stiff section to improve. Over time and with focus, many times people will see improvement in this issue. One can also use hand placement to give feedback on technique with this version as well. Put your thumbs on your lower ribs and your pinkies on the tops of your pelvis bones. As you roll through your spine, there should be a shortening underneath the hands with the movement.
Common Mistakes (Things to avoid!)
- The person pushes up too high and overextends their lower or upper back.
- The person does not activate their abdominals properly.
- When attempting at maintaining neutral spine and pelvis with the Hip Lift, the person is unable to stabilize properly.
- When attempting at rolling through the spine with the Hip Roll, the person moves too quickly and does not effectively work on attempting at targeting the tight/stiff spots of the spine.
- The person overuses the lower portion of their legs as a compensation. Cues to help think about “lifting from the hip” sometimes help activate the appropriate target muscles.
- The person has their feet either too close or too far from their body. If the movement is awkward or uncomfortable, adjusting the position of the feet sometimes helps.
- The person rolls out with their legs. Knees should stay pointing straight forward throughout the exercise.
- The person compensates with their Hamstrings to push up (very little gluteal activation).
Other Modified Versions:
- Adding a fitness band around the thighs for an additional challenge. You can maintain the leg position against the resistance of the band, or add pulses against the band at the top of the exercise pose.
- Putting a mini stability ball between your knees. It will help recruit the inner thigh muscles and help with leg alignment. You can maintain pressure on the ball or you can add pulses at the top of the exercise pose.
- Do this while keeping weight on the heels (feet flexed up) to activate the posterior chain muscles and gluteals more efficiently.
- One legged bridging. This is pretty difficult and should be done only by those who are very strong and need an extra challenge. The trunk should not drop out in any way with this exercise. If a person cannot hold their trunk in neutral with both sides even and level with each other, they may not be strong enough for this challenge.
- The Pilates Shoulder Bridge (a single leg modification).
Would you like to learn more about Dr. Magda Boulay, DPT, a physical therapist and Pilates instructor and her practice, P.ilaT.es-Physical Therapy & Pilates, in Oakland, CA to see how she can help you? Click on this link to sign up for a free 15-minute discovery phone call to see if P.ilaT.es is the right fit to address your needs!
PLEASE NOTE! This blog post is meant for educational and instructional purposes only. This exercise is a wellness exercise only, and it is not medical advice. This post is not a substitute for professional medical consult, evaluation, & or treatment. If you have a current injury or condition, please consult in person with a licensed medical professional before attempting or starting this, or any other exercise program.