January 5, 2016

Why Bridge Pose is NOT the Best Prep for Deep Backbends

Bridge pose, a.k.a. setu bandasana or setu bandha sarvangasana, can be used in a physical asana practice for a number of distinct purposes.

For example, a physical therapist or personal trainer might use it to strengthen gluteal muscles, quads, hamstrings or lower back muscles, just to name a few possible targets (with small tweaks to the exercise to more meaningfully engage each).

Bridge pose is often incorporated into group yoga classes as a preparation (often the main preparation) for deep backbending (urdvha danurasana or upward facing bow pose) or as an alternative to the same.

We propose that it’s a much more distant cousin than many yoga teachers would like to believe. As an alternative to full upward facing bow pose, bridge has a very different effect on the body. As far as preparing the body for full backbending, it barely scrapes the surface of what’s needed. Here’s why, and what you can do about it.

Break it down for me

If you break down the components of a deep, full backbend like upward facing dog – urdhvha mukha svanasana, camel pose – ustrasana, and especially upward facing bow (sometimes called “wheel”) – urdvha mukha danurasana, many of the physical requirements are not even touched upon with bridge.

Urdvha dhanurasana, the pose that bridge pose is often intended to prepare us for, requires:

  • Intense thoracic spine extension,
    • but in bridge pose the thoracic spine is flexed (unless there is weight going into the neck, which would predispose the practitioner to injury).
  • Full shoulder flexion, and good shoulder stability at that range.
    • In bridge pose, the arms are extended – the opposite position.
  • Powerful engagement of the lower fibers of the gluteus maximus coupled with stabilization from the hip internal rotators (so that the thighs don’t externally rotate), with the position of full hip extension.
    • If you look around a room of yogis practicing bridge pose, you’ll see that most often the hips are in a neutral position, possibly even somewhat flexed, and that often only the lumbar spine is extending (one reason many people get back pain in bridge pose).

lats and back musculatureThe lower part of the spine, the lumbar spine, does get fairly good preparation for deeper backbending in bridge pose. However, the upper body is not at all prepared, and it likely needs even more prep than the lower body.

Before attempting urdvha dhanurasana, we recommend warming up and lengthening the latissimus dorsi (“the lats”), and creating good range of motion into thoracic extension with the arms overhead and elbows straight. 

How to use Bridge as a bridge for Backbends

Bridge may be best used as a preparation for deeper backbends (coupled with other preparations) like this:

Use bridge to learn the different nuanced lower body actions, particularly to create the action of a posterior pelvic tilt. The upper muscle that will be working hard to make this happen is rectus abdominus, the famous six pack muscle. It will feel like intense core work. the lower muscles will be the lower fibers of the gluteals, both of which will help in full wheel.

This work will develop your proprioception, your ability to know and control where your pelvis is in space, even when the typical input of gravity and legs is not present. By learning control of the pelvis in bridge, you’ll be able to decrease the typical lumbar hinge point in full wheel pose.

Your back will thank you.

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Do you want to learn more deep, and nuanced yoga anatomy to enhance your practice or teaching?

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To your health!

9 Comments on “Why Bridge Pose is NOT the Best Prep for Deep Backbends

[…] Why Bridge Pose is NOT the Best Prep for Deep Backbends […]

Holly Richard
August 16, 2016 at 10:45 am

As a physical therapist, I have been wondering why bridge pose is categorized as a backbend when I usually think of it as strengthening the glutes through hip extension (like you mention in your article). I have watched people do it more thoracic extension (probably why some teachers cue to keep your chin by your chest,,,which still is not a clear cue for thoracic extension). Side note: I would love to come see you teach at the Yoga Expo and meet you! Thank you for offering free tickets!

August 16, 2016 at 11:16 am

Exactly, Holly! The kind of orthopedic, outpatient physical therapy that I practice (and think/hope most PTs do) requires skilled, subtle understanding of exercise. We are trained to closely examine the WHY from a mechanical point of view. Because of this we know you can use bridges for glutes, hamstrings, low back or perhaps upper back. It *can* be a prep for bridge, but certainly doesn’t cover all of the components. Secondly the way bridge is taught tends to have yoga students dump into lumbar extension. Most yoga teachers are not given the depth of exercise training we have as PTs, so I’m hoping to “bridge’ that gap a little.
(p.s. Your name is in the drawing!)

J.D. Gladden
August 16, 2016 at 9:00 am

Wow; good to know! I don’t think I’ve ever taken a yoga class in the 8 years I’ve been practicing that hasn’t used bridge as a “bridge” to wheel, without any other preparation. Can you elaborate on how you’d lead into it? Thanks, Ariel! I hope to see you this weekend at the Expo and would love a free ticket!

August 16, 2016 at 9:16 am

Fascinating, @J.D. I’ll be putting out some blog posts and more on sequencing soon, but for range of motion, wheel requires a LOT of thoracic extension (preps: sphinx, fish pose, cobra, etc), a lot of hip extension (up dog, lunges cuing core, etc), and shoulder range of motion (arms overhead beyond 180 degrees — major scapular upward rotation). For muscle effort, it demands significant core, arm, and glute/hamstring contraction. And that’s just off the top of my head! It’s a pretty intense and complicated pose. Bridge *may* (depending on how it’s cued) prep your body for 30% of the demands. If you come to class on Saturday, feel free to pull me aside afterward and we can brainstorm more prep ideas over smoothie samples…. Your name is totally in the “drawing” :)!

August 16, 2016 at 5:06 pm

Love this post. What do you recommend for lengthening and warming up the lats? Also, I find it super challenging to keep my arms straight (unless I am holding my teacher’s ankles) in urdvha dhanurasana. Any advice would be appreciated. Hope to take a workshop or class with you the next time you are in Richmond 🙂

August 17, 2016 at 3:03 pm

Hi Michelle, Arms-straight in wheel is tough — it demands a LOT of thoracic (upper back) backbending and of course sheer strength in a pretty weird position to be pushing with the arms. Warming up the lats… yes, that is part of executing a great wheel pose, but isn’t quite all that is needed at the shoulders. “Warming” up the lats can happen with sidebends with arms overhead and really any arms overhead work — I like anahatasana and sidebending in lunges. You might also want to explore wrist placement and mobility, and try pushing up with your hands on blocks because it might be the leverage of the height or the added strength of the grip that allows you to get up when your hands are on someone’s ankles.
P.S. I’ll be teaching a fun sequencing workshop at Project Yoga Richmond on Oct 29th — hope you can make it!

August 14, 2020 at 2:39 pm

Hi Ariel,

I was thinking about prepping for wheel today, and seeking strengthening and stretching beyond bridge… I’m so glad that I found this post! The two poses have always felt so far apart for me, and I’m feeling validated after reading this!

I captured a list of suggested prep poses from your response in 2016:
– thoracic extension prep: sphinx, fish pose, cobra, etc.
– hip extension prep: up dog, lunges cuing core, etc.
– shoulder range of motion prep: poses with arms overhead beyond 180 degrees
– muscle strengthening areas: core, arm, and glute/hamstring contraction.

I’m wondering, are there particular poses that you would recommend holding for longer periods, maybe around 3 minutes, that would help prepare for wheel, too? I’m curious about prep poses in general, but if I had to choose a specific area of prep it would be the thoracic extension. And, I have a dharma wheel if that helps with suggestions 🙂

Looking forward to learning from your insights!

Dr. Ariele Foster
August 14, 2020 at 5:35 pm

Hi Sarah, I’m so glad you found this to be helpful. There’s a lot to unpack in your question, including length of time, which poses, which body parts, etc. The complexity of what you are asking is actually quite big and i wouldn’t be able to do it service here in this comment area! These are the kind of questions that are best answered in my mentorship: and with specific students or specific needs from one’s own body in mind. Thank you for reading and enjoying this post!


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