When you start training Calisthenics, one question naturally arises, especially if you have at least some previous experience with other training methods, like powerlifting or bodybuilding. How does one train the lower back without weights? We’ve already gone through two progressions which work your upper back – Pull Ups and Handstand Push Ups, but that’s not enough.
I’ll tell you right away that there is no bodyweight alternative to the deadlift, the number one lower back exercise preferred by powerlifters, modern strongmen, bodybuilders and most personal trainers. But is it actually a disadvantage?
Strongman Robert Oberst mentioned in a podcast, that if you don’t want to train deadlifts for the sake of deadlifting, you shouldn’t be doing them. What you gt out of them is not worth the risk. For the risk of injuring your spine is pretty high.
Another popular exercise are good mornings. Bruce Lee injured his lower back one day when he put his bodyweight on the bar and did a few good mornings without warming up much (always warm up, kids!). He’d been told he wouldn’t be ble to train martial arts ever again, which he as we all know did, and ended suffering with back pains until his early death in 1972.
What is the alternative then? Hyperextensions are a possibility, but one can get only as far before adding external weights. Anything more challenging? And more beneficial to one’s health? Yes, Back Bridges. Sometimes referred to as the crab or Urdhva Dhanurasana in yoga. A very underrated exercise I’ve barely ever seen being used by personal trainers, certainly not by any male PTs. What are the benefits then?
– Most people leading a sedentary lifestyle or pumping iron tend to arch their backs, leaning forwards staring into screens, but almost never arch their backs the other way, which creates lots of imbalances. A flexible spine is very important for your overall health – yogis say that you are as old as your spine is flexible.
– You will strengthen every single muscle around your spine.
– Depending on the progression, you will engage hundreds of muscles at the same time, it is pretty much a full body workout.
– Mastering the following progressions will help you get better control over your body.
Here are all ten steps to master the Back Bridge, form absolute beginner to maniac, starting with:
level 1: shoulder bridge
This will help you get some initial strength and mobility. It is advice to practice the cobra pose, camel pose, or upward dog pose to improve the flexibility of your back, which is crucial for a full bridge.
Lie down with your hands by your sides, legs bent, heels relatively close to you buttocks and hip distance apart from each other. Lift your hips up in the air as high as you can, arching your back, whilst your shoulder blades and head remain on the floor. Lower yourself down in a controlled manner until you touch the floor, then repeat.
level 2: straight bridge
Following the previous progression we have the Straight bridge, which will strengthen your posterior chain as well as improve the mobility of your shoulders. You should also include back bends into your workouts at this point, to help you with the progressions to come.
Sit down on the ground, legs straight and feet together. Place your hands on the ground behind you, fingers pointing forwards and arms locked out in the elbows. Lift your hips up and look up, until your ankles, hips and shoulders create a straight line, then lower yourself down and repeat. You can do this exercise for reps as well as statically – hold the upper position for 10, 20 or more seconds.
level 3: table bridge
A very beneficial exercise for people that only just started working out, are older or overweight. But it’s also good for everyone else. You can find this position in Yoga and it’s also one of the 5 exercises commonly known as the 5 Tibetans. It trains your entire posterior chain and improves your shoulder mobility.
Sit down on the floor, legs extended in front of you, feet apart, back straight and your hands are next to your hips, not behind them. Push against the floor lifting yourself up a bit, bend your legs, pulling your hips forward and up, until your knees, hips and shoulders are in a horizontal line. Look Up. Your shins and arms should be perpendicular to the ground now. Then go down into the starting position.
As with the previous bridge progressions, this can be held statically or done for reps.
level 4: head bridge
If your spine is relatively flexible, but can’t lift yourself up off the floor into a full bridge, head bridges are for you.
Lie down on the floor, bend your legs so that your heels are close to your buttocks and place your palms on the floor close to your shoulders. Push against the floor with your legs and arms and lift your body up, arching your back and tilting your head back. Make sure most of your weight is on your arms, your head only supporting them, as we are not doing a wrestler’s bridge. Go down and repeat, or hold it isometrically.
level 5: angle bridge
In case you aren’t able to push up into a full bridge, this progression will help you build the strength you need in order to do so. Because your upper body is off the ground, you will be lifting less weight with your arms than with a full bridge, enabling you to lift your head up and extending your arms.
Ideally you want do this exercise using a bench stood next to a wall. Facing away from the bench place your hands on it, then push against the bench and the floor lifting yourself up into a bridge, hold it for a brief moment, then lower yourself down and repeat.
level 6: Full bridge
Here we are, now you will experience the benefits of a full back bridge – stretching out your anterior chain, improving the mobility of your shoulders and spine, strengthening every muscle around the spine and giving hundreds of muscle in your body a good workout.
Lie down on the floor, bend your legs so that your heels are close to your buttocks and place you palms on the floor close to your shoulders. Push against the ground lifting and arching your body. Hold it for a moment at the end position where your back is arched to the maximum (don’t push it too much and make sure you’re warmed up), then go down and repeat. Of course you can perform do the full bridge statically, especially at the end of your workout as part of the Trifecta.
level 7: wall walking (down)
The progression series doesn’t stop with a full bridge, it wouldn’t be on par with the other master steps of The Big Six. Some people won’t have a problem with holding a full bridge for a while. The next step is going down into a back bridge by walking down a wall. Once again it’s a great full body exercise strengthening one’s core including the lower back, legw and improving one’s flexibility.
Stand in front of a wall facing away from it. Lift your arms above your head and lean backwards towards the wall until your hands touch it. Walk slowly down the wall and if you can’t go all the way down into a bridge, just go as far as your body allows. Ideally you want to place your hands in the floor an do a full bridge, which you can hold for at least 10-15 seconds.
At this point you can incorporate into your workouts also a few other variations, like the ones shown in the photos – a one arm bridge and a bridge with feet elevated.
level 8: wall walking (down and up)
The benefit of this exercise is that it’s basically the same movement as the master step, but you are using your arms for support.
So, to perform this start exactly the same way as when you are doing the previous progression, i. e. walk down the wall ino a full bridge. You can hold it there for a few seconds, then place your hands back on the wall and start walking up until you are back in a standing position. Then repeat. Enjoy!
level 9: closing bridge
Things are getting a bit more difficult now. What I want you to do is go down into a bridge similarly as with the wall walking, but without the support of a wall. This is very challenging for most adults as it requires lots of strength, coordination, flexibility and good balance.
Stand upright, feet shoulder width apart, then start slowly bending backwards. If you shift your weight too far back, you’ll fall down and if you shift it too far forwards you won’t be able to get into the bridge, so it’s tricky. Reach out with your arms as you are descending, then gently touch down on them. Hold the bridge at least for ten seconds before you go again.
level 10: stand-to-stand bridge
The master step of this progression requires exceptional strength, stability and flexibility, but hopefully the previous step helped you build it up.
Start from standing upright and go down into a bridge without any support, slowly and controlled. Once you are in the bridge you will have to shift your weight back onto your legs and at the same time push against floor with your arms, which will give you the first impulse to get off the floor and start moving back into an upright position. The movement resembles a wave, begin with your legs, followed by your hips and upper body. Good luck nailing this MF!