The body should be as relaxed as possible in any pose, particularly a flexibility pose. If your muscles are tense you can’t fully bend, plus you quickly expend your energy and get exhausted.
That said, obviously some muscles are working to hold you up and keep your joints supported. So which muscles should be working in your bridge pose, and which muscles should be relaxed?
The following info will vary a bit depending on your body proportions and how tight you are in your shoulders, hips, and back. But use this as a starting point adjusting as needed if something feels horrid.
Let’s work from the bottom up!
There should be a light engagement of the feet. The toes should spread out, pressing the entire sole of the foot flat on the floor. If your feet tend to turn out or roll to the edge of your foot, move your feet farther apart. It is better to start with a wide stance than to be closer together but with weird foot positioning.
The quads usually want to help in bridge. Unfortunately, they are more of a hindrance than help since engaging the quads will shorten your hips and drive more pressure into your lower back. Use the backs of your legs to help support the weight of your lower body, and the inner thighs to keep your legs and feet parallel.
The hip flexors, as an extension of the quads, tend to get overly helpful. Just like the quads, the hip flexors should be as relaxed as possible. This is especially important if you are leggy (see tips below if you have long legs compared to your torso length).
If you are new to bridges and just trying to get up there then go ahead, squeeze your butt muscles. They are big and strong and can be quite helpful in supporting your body weight.
However, as you get bendier and more comfortable in the pose you will want to make some subtle changes. Try to isolate the downstairs butt (the upper fibers of the hamstrings and the lower fibers of the gluteus maximus) and the outside butt (the stabilizer muscles including gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and the tensor fascia lata. The bulk of your gluteus maximus should be relaxed because over-contracting the glutes can push the stretch too deeply into the lower back.
Some helpful tips to find the correct gluteal muscles:
1. Think of digging your heels into the floor and slightly pulling them back towards your hands to inspire the back side line of your body to work harder. This will help you find your hamstrings and downstairs butt.
2. Try to tuck your pelvis. It feels a little weird to do this in bridge but if you practice it a lot in lunges (with square hips) it will get easier. You will start to feel your downstairs butt and pelvic floor engage and your hip flexors lengthen.
3. Tie a heavy resistance band around your thighs just above your knees. In your bridge, press your knees out into the band to inspire your outside butt to work. You will experience this as increased stability in the hips. Be sure to keep your feet and knees parallel as you do this.
4. Alternately, you can place a magic circle or squishy ball between your knees and squeeze it in your bridge. This will inspire your TFL and inner thighs to work.
Once you get into a deep backbend your rectus abdominus (the muscles we need to get a six-pack) will be deeply stretched out. You will still use them if you are moving in or out of the bridge, but once you are there you want to relax them.
The pelvic floor works to support the lower back and tuck the pelvis. The transverse abdominus (we affectionately call it the meat corset since it runs all the way around your body like a corset) will be working to stabilize your body and keep your spine happy. And the obliques are an essential part of all backbending moves. They are not just for twisting and side bending, they are back benders as well!
Lower Back Muscles
If you have a really tight, unbendable lower back you can try gently squeezing your lower back muscles to help you get a little deeper. However if you are bendy, just let those muscles relax and compress.
Shoulder/Upper Body Muscles
Just like with the lower body, the front side of the body should be relatively relaxed. That means that the ribs are splayed open, the pectorals are chill, and the neck is relaxed.
In the upper back all the muscles around the shoulder blades are working to stabilize them, especially the serratus anterior that pulls the shoulder blades apart. Finding the correct shoulder blade position is a bit challenging because you don’t want to go to the extreme in any direction.
Some helpful tips to find the correct shoulder muscles:
1. Just like with your legs, make sure your hands are parallel to each other or slightly turned out and feel like you are slightly sliding the finger tips towards your feet to inspire the backs of the shoulders to work.
2. Relax your neck so that you are looking at the floor between your hands, not at the ceiling
3. Bring the shoulders all the way up to your ears, then relax them down just a little bit to find the optimal position
4. Turn your armpits to parallel rather than letting them look out to the side. You can test if your shoulders are externally rotating by bending your elbows a little. If they are parallel, you are all good. If they open out to the side then you know you are too internally rotated.
5. Squeeze a magic circle or yoga block between your elbows with the arms slightly bent to help you externally rotate your shoulders.
6. Tie a band around your upper arms, just above the elbows, to help inspire the muscles in the outside of the shoulders.
7. Remember your goal is to have your shoulders stacked directly over your hands. The upper back muscles keep working to press your shoulders into an open position
Like the feet, the hands should be fully but gently engaged, fingers digging into the floor to help support the wrists.
Every time you push up into bridge, run through this checklist of muscles and see if you can find them, use them, and relax everyone else.
Bonus… a couple more Flexibility Hacks for your bridge
1. If you have very long legs compared to your torso, or if your shoulders are very tight, or if you have weak and cranky wrists, use yoga blocks under your shoulders. Place the blocks up against a wall to keep them from sliding and then cup the edges of the blocks with your hands. The blocks help to even out a disparity between arm/leg length while taking some pressure off the wrists and shoulders.
2. BREATHE! Seriously, this probably should be the first thing in the blog post but for all of you who have read through this whole thing, if there is only one bit you remember, it should be this. If you cannot breathe in any pose it isn’t going to feel good and it sure wont last long. Relax your chest and throat so that you can take big, healthy breaths that expand your rib cage and fill your muscles with oxygen. It is the single best thing you can do to improve your pose.
Stay safe, say nice things to your muscles, and many Happy Bendings!