Back Bridge, or Wheel Pose as it is called in yoga, is a beautiful foundational element of the back bender’s practice. There are so many benefits to this position in strengthening the entire back of the body while opening the hips, chest, and shoulders.
I also love Back Bridge because it requires your body to reconfigure itself and learn some new skills. So much of what you need to do to have a comfortable Back Bridge feels counter-intuitive.
We are so used to a forward-facing orientation with our body. We push with the front of our body and pull with the back of our body. In Back Bridge we have to push with the back of our body, which is where so many new back-benders get stuck. If you try to push up into Back Bridge with the front of your body, it will feel pretty much impossible.
Here are two preparatory exercises that you can do, before you are upside down and bent over backwards, so that your body has some idea of where to engage and how to behave in Back Bridge. These are both isometric holds, which are very useful for re-training your nervous system to create new patterns of muscular contractions. I recommend holding each of these for about 30-60 seconds for 3 sets if you are new to Back Bridge or feeling stuck, prior to pushing up into Back Bridge.
For the visual learners, please check out the video at the end of this post.
Lower Back Bend Isometric Hold
This hold will look very familiar to most of you. It is a simple shoulder bridge, focused on the muscle groups that you will need in Back Bridge. Both knees are bent, hip width apart with feet parallel, and the heels are close to the butt (exact distance will vary but find something comfortable for you).
They key components of this hold are:
- Start by pulling your heels and butt towards each other to fire the muscles in the backs of your legs
- Extend your hip flexors by using the lower glutes to lift just the tailbone up off the floor, keeping the rest of the back flat
- Make sure that the hip flexors stay in the lengthened position as you lift higher off he floor (for more info on why it’s important to lengthen the hip flexors to protect your lower back see this blog post on back pain in backbends)
- For bonus points extend the arms up overhead and press them gently down into the floor while keeping the chest opened
Hold for 30-60 seconds, repeat 2-3 times
Upper Back Bend Isometric Hold
The upper body hold is often less familiar to the body, which makes it especially important. This hold does require a certain amount of wrist flexion, so if your wrists are tight I definitely recommend a good wrist warm-up and the addition of yoga blocks under your hands to help mitigate the pressure on your wrists (see the video at the end for a visual, the blocks come in at 4:03).
The key components of this hold are:
- Place your palms flat on the floor or on the yoga blocks just above your shoulders, spread out your fingers to engage your wrist muscles, and make sure your fingers are pointing towards your shoulders not out to the sides
- Forearms are parallel to each other, not opening out to the side like little wings, while the elbows reach back past the ends to upwardly rotate the shoulders and decrease pressure on the wrists
- Keep your head and hips resting on the floor while just your upper back lifts, opening the chest towards the ceiling
- The dream is to feel the engagement in your upper back, not your neck, chest, or shoulders. If you are not feeling your back muscles, keep your upper back on the floor and just work on pressing your hands down until you get acquainted with those back muscles
Hold for 30-60 seconds, repeat 2-3 times
Pushing Up Into Back Bridge
After doing these isometrics, you are ready to attempt pushing up into your Back Bridge! The push up happens in three stages.
- First, start your lower body isometric hold.
- Second, start your upper body isometric hold but this time continue to push up until your head starts to lift, pausing with the top of the head gently resting on the floor (make sure that most of your weight is in your hands, not pushing down into your delicate neck vertebrae).
- Align your arms so that your forearms are parallel and re-engage those same back muscles you felt in your isometrics, then use them to push your arms straight.
Ideally, this should feel like a lot of work on the back side of your body while the front side of your body gets to open up. If it doesn’t feel that way, it’s ok! Keep working on your isometrics and the muscles will start to learn their new jobs.
Check out the video below for a visual guide to walk through the exercises, and happy Back Bendings!