Add This to the List of Topics You’d Never Thought You’d See On This Site: Mastering the Back Bend For Greater Strength

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What’s next? Soy protein recipes?

Note from TG: Today’s guest post comes courtesy of Cincinnati based personal trainer, Collin Messer. It’s on the back bend…which, admittedly, is a topic I never would have considered putting up on this site 3-5 years ago.

Photo Credit: Christine Hewitt

I mean, if the topic didn’t revolve around deadlifts, deadlift variations, deadlift technique, or how to marry deadlifts it probably wasn’t going up on my site.

And now what? Have I gone soft posting things with a, GASP, yoga connotation!?!?!?!

To speak candidly, we as a society move like utter crap. With regards to the spine I know some trainers and coaches who avoid any spinal motion like the plague, and to be honest: their clients and athletes aren’t any better for it.

As with anything, what works and what’s a good fit for any one individual depends. For instance, the back bend probably isn’t something I’d use for the bulk of athletes I work with on a day-to-day basis who already live in extension; but I can see how it would be advantageous for the computer guy or office worker who sits in flexion all day.

[Of course, it’s hard to use a blanket statement like that. It’s ALWAYS going to be imperative to take someone through an assessment to figure out what would be an appropriate fit for them and their need and goals.]

Besides, it’s kind of hard to argue with guys like Max Shank, author of Ultimate Athleticism, who’s a proponent of lifting heavy things and yoga and gymnastics and other funky stuff. The man is a beast! And you should check out his book….;o)

Anyways I felt this was an interesting topic and something that would serve as a nice change of pace. Enjoy!

I’m not a big yoga practitioner, but if there is one exercise that I would steal from a yoga class, it’s the back bend. The back bend, or back bridge, is an impressive feat of both strength and mobility. It’s definitely not an exercise you’d see at your everyday gym, but that doesn’t mean it won’t give you an excellent training effect.

There are many benefits to being able to perform a back bend but I’ll highlight three here:

Increased Shoulder Stability/Strength

Similar to a handstand, when you’re in a back bend the majority of your body weight is placed on your shoulders. It takes a lot of effort to fully or even partially support yourself on your hands. The back bend also forces your shoulders into a full range of motion (ROM) overhead.

The combination of full ROM and loading in an unfamiliar pattern creates a big catalyst for building strength and stability. Also, if you are able to do a full back bend then you can incorporate bridge push ups and rotations for even greater strength.

Increased Mobility in the Wrists, Shoulders, Back, and Hips

Nearly everyone can do a standing toe touch to some degree. Clients never have a problem demonstrating spinal flexion. It’s when I ask them to move things the other way and go into spinal extension that things start to look ugly.

Note from TG: this, of course, is contingent on the population of clients you deal with. As I stated above the bulk of athletes I work with – baseball players – LIVE in extension, and often have extension-based back issues (Spondy, end-plate/pars fractures, etc). So for me, I have to be very careful and selective with what drills I place into their programs so that I don’t “feed the dysfunction.” Back bend drills probably wouldn’t be a good fit for them, but fine for others (like the computer guy who sits all day at work). As with anything in this industry, it depends.

The back bend is one exercise that puts the entire spine into extension. It effectively opens up the anterior chain, which can get glued down from too much sitting or bad posture. Your hips will love their newfound range of motion once you loosen up those hip flexors and anterior core muscles.

In addition to increased back and hip mobility, you’ll find an increase in wrist and shoulder mobility too.

As I previously mentioned, the advanced version of the back bend puts your shoulders into a full range of motion overhead. Better shoulder flexion and increased thoracic extension is really going have a lot of carry over into some of your main barbell lifts such as the front squat or overhead press.

Your wrists will also gain some new mobility, but fear not if it is a little too much pressure at first. One work around is to rotate your hands outward so your fingers are pointing away from your head.

It Looks Cool and Might Give You Both Gym Cred and Yoga Cred

Let’s just throw it out there, not everyone can do a back bend. So when you walk into a gym deadlift 4 plates and then drop into a full bridge, you’ll be commanding the respect of both powerlifters and yogis alike.

Warming Up

A word of caution here. The back bend isn’t for everyone. If you don’t have a healthy low back and shoulders then this would be an exercise to skip. No use aggravating or re-injuring yourself just to try a new move.

With that said, if your back and shoulders are healthy, then by all means give it a shot!

Start with some general movement just to get things loosened and warmed up. From there we’ll do some more specific warm ups for the hips and and shoulders. For the hips, I love this flow based warm up that Tony posted not too long ago.

 

For the shoulders you just want to make sure that you get them warmed up, moved through a full range of motion, and ready to receive load. It doesn’t need to be too complicated, this circuit should work well:

  • Shoulder Circles x6 each direction
  • Scapular Wall Slides x6
  • Yoga Push Ups x6
  • Band Pull Aparts x6
  • Repeat 3 times through

You should be good to go now.

If you’re able to perform the advanced version of the back bend then this is the place I would work in some of the easier variations to warm the specific movement up. If you’re still on a beginner or intermediate version then just start there.

The Back Bend Progressions

Beginner Variations

The two beginner back bend variations are the glute bridge and the table top bridge. The glute bridge will be the easiest since you don’t need to use your arms to support yourself. Once you’re comfortable with the hip extension demonstrated in the glute bridge then move on to the table top bridge. That’s where you’ll start supporting yourself with your arms.

 

Intermediate Variations

The two intermediate variations are the supported neck bridge and the low bridge.

With the supported neck bridge, the goal is to keep as much weight as possible on your hands so they get used to the load. You’re just keeping your head in contact with the ground to make it a little easier.

The low bridge will place more weight on your arms but you’ll need less hip and back mobility to pull it off. To summarize, if your shoulders are weak then choose the supported neck bridge, and if you’re missing hips/back mobility then start with the low bridge.

 

Advanced Variations

Congratulations grasshopper, you’re now ready for the full back bend. If you’re comfortable in the low bridge then it’s as simple as pushing up a little higher. Try to keep your weight evenly distributed between your feet and your hands.

Once you have the full variation down you can incorporate it into your training in a few different ways.

First, I would do isometrics, holding the back bend at the top position for 20-60 seconds. You can also do back bend pushups. This is simply pressing up to the top then lowering back down to the ground. Try to be controlled here and don’t collapse.

 

After a while, you’ll have the strength and mobility of a “Supple Leopard” and you can do my favorite, rotations into a high bridge.

For these, start in a squat and place your hand as far back as you can reach without falling. As you rotate back your hand will spin on the ground. Once you’re halfway through put your other hand down to balance and rotate out through the other side. It will take some practice to get the necessary “feel” for the exercise but hang in there.

 

There you have it, start practicing and enjoy the benefit of your hips, low back, and shoulders all getting stronger and more mobile. Oh, and don’t be surprised if you do a high rep set of back bend pushups or rotations and start breathing like you just sprinted a hill.

About the Author

Collin Messer is a Personal Trainer at MesserFit Strength and Conditioning in Lebanon, OH. He primarily works with younger athletes and weekend warriors. When he’s not crushing deadlifts or back bends he’s writing at CollinMesser.com about all things life and fitness.

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