The Thoracic Bridge

Posted on Friday, 25 November 2016 by Rob Manlove

The Thoracic Bridge

As I sit hunched over my computer, shoulders rolled forwards, contemplating how to begin this post I am suddenly struck by the irony of the situation. Spending too much time in this very position is one of the many reasons I am practising the thoracic bridge in the first place. Other culprits responsible for eroding our thoracic extension and shoulder flexion ROM (range of motion) include spending extended periods of time driving or sitting on our smartphones. I understand that driving and desk work are necessary for many people to earn a living but I want people to understand the consequences so they can minimise and reverse the damage to the functionality of their bodies so they will be ready for playtime!

Functional range-of-motion in the hands, wrists, t-spine, and shoulders is essential to performance and reducing the risk of injury when practising handstand-balancing, weightlifting, and hanging/kipping movements and probably in many other disciplines. The thoracic bridge ticks several boxes when it comes to driving adaptations that will facilitate strong efficient positions in the three disciplines I just mentioned. I was first alerted to the power of the bridge to enhance my performance under the barbell when I included some bridge holds in my warm-up for a split-jerk session. Until this session I was always pressing out my jerk when the bar got heavy but on this day my lock-out felt solid all the way through. I also noticed how much more comfortable my rack position was, perhaps due to the finger, hand, wrist and forearm mobility I'd gained during my new bridging warm-up.

Why we're not all Ninjas

Next let's think about the positions your body is in when you drive, use your smartphone, or work at a desk. If you're anything like me your fingers are flexed, elbows are bent, shoulders are somewhere in the middle (far away from end range flexion & extension), and you're getting gradually more hunched over (thoracic kyphosis) with every passing minute. This position is a recipe for how to suck at hand-balancing, weightlifting, & gymnastics. So, before we move on to bridge variations, let's recognise the need to tackle the problem at it's root. Firstly, try to avoid doing any of the activities I mentioned for prolonged periods of time. Yes, this will require varying degrees of change depending on your lifestyle, but it is essential if you want significant progression. News Flash! If you're reading this post then you are alive! Living tissues (our bodies) adapt to the stresses we put them through, so if your posture is terrible for multiple hours each day don't expect to suddenly be ninja when it's time to train. Here are some suggestions to reduce your time in adverse positions.

1. Take regular breaks when working at a desk or on the computer.

2. Build a standing desk or work with a laptop sitting on the floor or in a squat.

3. Ride a bike when possible instead of driving.

  • 4. Delete Facebook and Email applications from your phone.

These are just my suggestions but you need to take responsibility and make suitable changes if you want your tissues to adapt favourably.

A breakdown by bodypart of why the bridge is great.

The thoracic bridge will develop strength, flexibility and stability in all the areas listed below:

Wrists and hands - wrist dorsi-flexion and finger extension are both critical for a pain free front-rack-position and handstand hold.

Elbows - stability at full elbow lock-out is essential for efficient hand-balancing and avoiding press-outs on jerks and snatches.

Shoulders - adequate shoulder flexion is required to hold a static handstand, to lock-out a barbell overhead and to kip on a bar or swing on the rings. An optimal surplus of ROM to guard against injury would include some degree of hyper-flexion.

Thoracic spine - adequate extension through the thoracic vertebrae means we demand less of the shoulder in terms of mobility leaving it in a stronger position. Lack of thoracic puts the shoulder in a weaker and relatively more vulnerable position. If you lack thoracic extension you are also at higher risk of pushing your lumbar-spine into hyper-extension. 

Scapulae & rotator cuffs - these are the link between the t-spine and the upper arm.

That's a lot of bang for your buck from one movement! There are also many effective and relevant drills to develop each of the areas above in isolation but let's leave that can of worms for another post.

If you hadn't noticed already, the thoracic bridge is taking your body into exactly the opposite position at each joint than when you are on desk-partol, smart-phoning, or driving. The following table will break it down for you.   

          Joint          

      Desk Patrol etc.     

     The Thoracic Bridge     
Wrists Plantar-Flexion Dorsi-Flexion
Fingers Flexion Extension
Glenohumeral Relative Extension Relative Flexion
Scapulae Protraction Retraction
T-spine Kyphosis Extension
Elbows Flexed Extended 

If you want to incorporate some bridging work in to your training to improve performance in areas I have mentioned, that's great, but remember that remodelling your connective tissue takes time. It's important to be patient and remember that the journey is more important than crossing the finish line. I certainly think developing your bridge is a worthwhile. It may take some of your years to master all of the drills outlined below but the ability to express yourself through movement gives us freedom and it feels good. So, whether you're looking to take your Olympic lifting to the next level or just embrace a more holistic approach to your physical development, learning the thoracic bridge might be a great place to start.

A good coach will be able to identify which specific joints are restricting your movement and prescribe progressions that are suitable for your ability level.

Here are some progressions I have been using. With all these drills if you feel it in your lower back rather than your shoulders and upper-back you need to focus on maintaining a bit more posterior pelvic tilt (tuck your tail). If you still feel it in your lower back then adjust the progression or try an easier progression.

Lying thoracic shoulder bridge. This takes glenohumeral-flexion out of the equation and just focuses on the t-spine.


Sofa or Bench Assisted Bridge. This variation is great for people who don't have the strength to push up into the bridge with feet elevated. One of the reasons I love going on holiday is that it takes me away from the gym and leaves me without all the kit and props I am used to training with. This often leads to discovering new ways of training using things that can be found every where like a sofa. Next time you are sitting on the sofa remember that moving your body is an infinitely more rewarding source of entertainment than the TV.


Feet Elevated Bridge - as above but with out the bench assistance.


Handstand Bridge -  difficulty increases as you move your hands further from the wall and your feet are lower on the wall. This variation is also great for those who are confident upside down but lack the strength to press themselves up into the bridge.


Thoracic Bridge. Jen had to work for two whole days to achieve this position, please send her hate mail ;-)


Bridge Rotation. I got this movement from Ido Portal. This one involves moving in and out of a low or high bridge position. The low-bridge makes bridging on the ground more accessible to beginners because it allows for bent elbows and consequently requires relatively less spinal & shoulder mobility than the versions above. 

    

Here's Ido doing it properly: 

In Conclusion

I'd love to tell you that the t-bridge is a panacea for all your mobility woes but it's not the only piece to the puzzle. Every individual is unique. There is no one size fits all approach to building a strong capable body that adapts easily to a wide array of demands and disciplines, nor is there a single drill that will reverse all the adverse effects of an inactive lifestyle.

Perhaps “Be a good student” is the closest we can come to a one size fits all prescription for developing physicality. A good student must choose his teachers wisely and take responsibility for his own progress. A great student must also look inwardly to be aware of his own body and the way it feels and moves. The teachings that continue to inspire and guide my bridge development come from Ido Portal and Christopher Sommer. Coach Sommer's method is oriented around gymnastics and while Ido's is a movement approach.

Here’s a link to a sample session from Ido for developing the bridge rotation.  The session includes a scaled version as well as more advanced versions. http://idoportal.blogspot.co.uk/2009/08/basic-training.html

I couldn’t find the link but another idea I got from Ido that I have applied in my bridging sessions is the concept of balancing the bridging work (spinal extension) with jefferson-curls (spinal flexion). This makes sense and feels great too. 

Here are some other great pieces from of Ido to check-out:

Also, check out the Stretch Series and other training programmes from GymnasticBodies.com for Coach Sommer’s approach. This is a paid service but the programmes are great and suitable for all ability levels.