From a very similar position as the deadbug, we can easily move into a great preliminary hip strength training exercise. Effective bridging is a great precursor to a great hip hinge or deadlift we’ll discuss later, as it teaches the same necessary skill of mostly recruiting your butt muscles and thrusting the hips forward.
Think of bridging as a smaller more controlled version of the hip hinge, a 1967 truck with fewer moving parts than a 2014 model. Easier to repair and rebuild too. Needless to say, if you have difficulty bridging, then you’ll have trouble deadlifting.
You don’t have to do this in your barefeet, I just happened to be in mine. You’ll want your feet flat on the ground, about hip width apart, though you can go wider. Hip width is ideal because that will transfer to the conventional deadlift, and then at some point as you progress to jumping, the ideal place to jump from is when your feet are directly in line with your hips. You know what they say, the fastest place from point A to point B is a straight line.
Simple looking right? Drive your hips to the ceiling, keeping your ribs locked on your pelvis and clench your butt cheeks up like you’re trying to crush a quarter into a pancake between them. In pilates and yoga, I’ve seen instructors teach people to roll their spines up segment by segment, sorry but this is incorrect and encourages poor movement through the torso. The torso should remain stiff as we discussed in the joint-by-joint section of the book. We generally don’t want to encourage the low back to rotate, flex or extend much, unless there is some reason to do so, like an existing postural strain that needs some counterbalancing. Lock your spine from your neck to your glutes and push up in one fluid motion, as if you were a stiff board.
You just want to get flat from your shoulders to your knees, you don’t want to overarch through your low back or leave your hips slightly flexed. The former might be an indication that you’re using a lot of your low back musculature to execute this movement, the latter and indication than the front of your hips may be restricting your movement. Over arching your back, encourages unnecessary movement to happen in the lumbar region, while not getting through the full range means you’re not training the gluteals to the greatest of their ability. This exercise should put the greatest amount of stress on the gluteal muscles, so if you feel it in your back or your hamstrings more, you may need to hack this movement a little to get it right before you increase the difficulty. I’ll show you some other methods for training your glutes that sometimes work better for folks but I still think everyone should be able to bridge with a high degree of proficiency. That means banging off fifteen or so with relative ease and feeling mostly glute along the way before you move on to a more challenging version.
Back Elevated Glute Bridge
Once you’ve mastered the basic glute bridge, as always, we can easily play with levers to change the difficulty and challenge the muscles differently too. An easy method is to put your back against a standard 18″ bench, a chair or box. In the example above, I’ve secured the bench from sliding all over the place by securing it next to a squat rack. If I secured it against a wall, I’d whack my head against the wall, so you need some space for your noggin.
The same basic principles of the glute bridge apply, try to clench your glutes as hard as you can and thrust the hips towards the ceiling. Just be mindful that you’re not getting excessive range of motion through your low back. My jacket makes it tough to see where my spine is here and almost looks like I might be overextending, but I’m fairly confident that it’s probably in a good position, despite how this looks. You should feel your glutes even more in this position than you would in the regular glute bridge because you can reach more full hip extension here.
You can of course go lower than I’m set up here, this will be easier the lower you are, so if you want to work up to 18″ by all means, do so. Actually I find 12-14″ surface to be about ideal for most people, unless you’re fairly tall like me. The back elevated glute bridge is among my favourite bridging pattern because it keeps the load off the neck. Not that I’ve seen any problems arise from that basic position actually, but it’s more comfortable. I do like that it allows people to practice the packed neck position and keep most of the weight on the upper back. As an added bonus, according to glute expert Bret Contreras, this position also preferentially recruits the most glute out of anything he tested with an Electromyography (EMG). EMG is basically a tool that allows researchers to gauge electrical activity of certain muscles during certain movements, helping us understand better how the body recruits musculature to execute certain movements. Anecdotally, almost all of my clients also feel their glutes work the hardest in this position, particularly once you add load.
As most people in modern society are quadricep dominant, forward leaning beings, strengthening the glutes is pretty important at the gym to counterbalance the typical postural strain of sitting or even standing all day.
Feet Elevated Glute Bridge
A different challenge that is often easier than the back elevated glute bridge but preferentially trains the hamstring muscles. If you are looking for a new challenge and have successfully mastered to feel the basic glute bridge in your glutes, then the feet elevated glute bridge is a decent training option too. I would caution using it, if after using the basic bridge pattern you find your hamstrings cramping or engaging more than anything else. It’s not the perfect system for training, but learning to train by feel is the best you’ll probably get without fancy testing equipment or a coach with good assessment skills.
There are few ‘hamstring’ exercises in this book that train it in knee flexion, but this is one of them. Although the hamstrings do most of their work at the hip in everyday life (as in the deadlift pattern), you still want to do some movements that train the hamstring at the knee and this is the most basic way to do that. This movement is only marginally more difficult than the basic bridging pattern, but the variety of bringing it into your routine, especially during warm-ups can be great. Again, once you’ve mastered fifteen repetitions of the basic bridging pattern, you should be easily capable of doing this for fifteen reps shortly thereafter and revisit it from time to time to check how it’s feeling.
Back & Feet Elevated Glute Bridge
Whoa now! Now vee are gettin’ crazy, ya? If you want to make any lift harder, just increase the range of motion. That’s exactly what this exercise variation does, makes the range of motion your hips have to travel to complete the lift, unnaturally long. This increases muscular tension, but also challenges more of the neuromuscular system as a result.
As you’ll discover later, I encourage you to use as full a range of motion as you can tolerate for nearly every exercise, but it’s not always appropriate to start with maximum range until you have learned how to control smaller ranges of motion over time. So for instance, as a programming example, the first month you could train the regular bridge, then the back elevated bridge in month two, then in month three mix it up and train the feet elevated bridge, before you get to this variation in month four. Then you could add load for each of those and cycle through them again or move on to the blue belt program. Suddenly you have eight months of good programming with ease.
Changing the range of motion is a programming variable you can control like reps, sets, volume, density, intensity, or load. Making lifts go through a larger range of motion is typically harder and often more beneficial. Shorter ranges of motion are typically easier but have a more specific purpose. A full depth squat, like this version of the glute bridge is significantly more challenging than a partial range squat. The glute bridge, though very similar in action, is less difficult that the deadlift because the range of motion is smaller and the number of working parts is lower. If I had trouble locking my glute bridge out though, I could use a short range of motion and just practice the top end of the movement to perfect my lock out. That’s where short ranges of motion can be useful, outside of not having the necessarily mobility to get into the proper position.
The problem with this movement is obviously equipment. You can do it with 2 benches or 2 boxes or a bench and a box. The heights don’t need to be exact, but I recommend they be close, with the foot elevation being the lower of the two if one needs to be lower. Here you’ll notice I have a box that is slightly lower than the bench I’m using. A nice variation if you have the equipment, however, you’ll still have other options if you don’t have bench or box access.
Loaded Glute Bridge
Many people don’t think of loading the glute bridge, but you can load pretty much any variation above. I especially recommend trying it with the regular glute bridge and the back elevated glute bridge. Strength Coach Bret Contreras has done a lot of push the idea of loading the glute bridge as you would any other lift, and with good result. Particularly for those who want a delightfully curvaceous behind, glute bridging goes a long way to helping you obtain just that, by preferentially training the large gluteal muscles. As a percentage of volume, the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in your lower body.
Here I’m using a Powerblock Dumbbell, but any old dumbbell or kettlebell will work. You may have to play with positioning, as not everyone is that comfortable. If you get into heavy loads, you might want some kind of padding between your hips and the heavy weight. A mat, or towel between you and the weight can help, if comfort is an issue.
Make sure you keep your hands on the weight when loading this movement, so it doesn’t slide around or potentially slide off. It is often easy for people to progress the weights with this movement fairly quickly, it’s not uncommon for people to get to 100 lbs or more in four to eight months.
While these will never eliminate the need for moving a lot of muscle via squatting and deadlifting, they really help western populations where the gluteals are often weak in relation to the quadricep muscles. Bret also theorizes that they are particularly useful for sports that require more horizontal force displacement as in running, where one must extend the hip behind the torso. Basically most power based sports, so if you play something even recreationally, consider adding these to your routine.
If the regular bridging patterns are too easy or boring you, then add load. You can add load to pretty much any variation you see above, so the limitations only exist in your mind.
There isn’t a lot of pure single leg training in this book because a smaller base of support is a progression. It’s hard enough learning how to squat well with two feet for most people, let alone learning how to squat on one leg. The most notable exception for this book is the step up and the lunge pattern. The latter of which isn’t a pure single leg situation but will adequately prepare you to deal with that when you get to it.
The glute bridge is another exception if you so choose. There aren’t as many moving parts in this lift compared to the squat or deadlift, it’s what we call an isolation exercise. This means the following exercise can be used as a great diagnostic tool for how well your posterior slings are functioning, balance and left to right stability/strength. Get to the top of your regular glute bridge and then attempt the ‘kick-out.’
Notice that my opposite hip to the leg I’m kicking outward doesn’t sag or drop. Everything else must remain the same as the two legged glute bridge.
Why is this a diagnostic tool? It’s easy to note for yourself by putting your hands on your hips, but if you’re weak on the left or right glute, when the opposite leg is kicked out straight, the hip will sag a little as the hamstring and/or low back try to pick up on some of the slack. Sometimes this is just a motor control issue, but it can require a great deal of conscious effort to teach yourself to keep your hips aligned while you place more stress on your down leg.
It might also give you an indication that your opposite erectors and/or lats are working over time, if they cramp as you lift the same side leg. The next exercise can help you work on that problem and teach your nervous system to better contract the glutes on one leg.
Cook Hip Lift
This lift is named after the physiotherapist who as far as I know popularized it, Gray Cook.
It’s actually very clever. By pulling the opposite knee in tight, you change the alignment of the pelvis. This position is actually how you can check real hip flexor length too. This restricts the range of motion slightly, but also takes a great deal of stress off the low back musculature. As you push up into the top position, almost everyone feels their glute on the working leg pretty intensely as a result to pulling that leg in nice a tight.
You’ll notice that my hip extension is somewhat limited. It should be, if you can get to full extension in this position, you’re probably not grabbing your knee tightly enough. How tightly should you pull it in? If you need more feedback than tight, take a tennis ball, put it just under your ribs on that side and pull your knee in tight enough to squash it and keep it squashed through the entire movement.
If you have gluteal amnesia on one side of the body, then this is the lift you want to put in all of your warm ups until you can single leg glute bridge with your eyes closed, tapping your belly and rubbing your head. Just kidding… If you use the cook hip lift for a phase, retry the diagnostic tool above for single leg hip strength.
If you pass, it might be willing to try all of the above versions on one leg, or simply move onto the blue belt program.