The bridge

The bridge (aka plank) is a very simple exercise that has managed to accomplish the feat of being both loved by many and also hated by many. Those who hate it claim that it's too simple and easy to perform and shouldn't be included in an athlete’s training program. Those who love it say that it's a phenomenal exercise that everyone should do for core stability. Having used the bridge itself and many of its variations, my views fall on both sides of the fence.

Let’s take a closer look at the bridge and how it can be both a valuable training tool and conversely a waste of time.

To all the haters

Yes, the bridge is quite simple and should be very easy for most athletes. However, this is unfortunately not the case. Try working with a 115-lb female freshman soccer player who has never touched a weight in her life until walking into her college weight room for the first time. Furthermore, it usually isn’t just one girl. Instead, it's 4–6 girls per team. And let’s not leave the guys out because they can be just as bad. Larger, out of shape athletes also struggle with these exercises. For many of these athletes, holding a bridge for 30 seconds is very difficult and, for a few, it is near impossible. We haven’t even mentioned the side bridge, which has an even greater level of difficulty.

If the 30-second bridge is easy for you, we need to increase the difficulty. Many coaches like to have the athletes hold the bridge for more time. However, I really don’t see the point to this. After all, how much muscular endurance do they really need in their abs? How many times are they going to hold a single position for an entire minute? Even 30 seconds is a stretch considering that fact. Why not try adding weight and actually making the abs stronger? After mastering their own body weight, females can start with 10 lbs and males with 25 lbs. Then increase the weight as they get stronger. Over time, most college females should be able to progress to holding 45 lbs for 30 seconds and males should be able to hold 90 lbs or more.

The front bridge with 60 kg (132 lbs) held on the low back.

Beyond adding weight, there are other ways to increase the difficulty. The alternating bridge is very difficult, and I have yet to find an athlete who already possesses good abdominal strength (male or female) who hasn't struggled with this exercise for the first two or three weeks. To perform this variation, start by assuming the standard bridge position. Then, on command from a coach, raise the right arm and left foot off the floor. After ten seconds, switch by quickly putting the right arm/left leg back on the floor and quickly lifting the left arm/right foot in the air. After ten seconds, repeat the right arm/left foot and then the left arm/right foot again for the final 10 seconds. This should all be done on command so that the athlete doesn't know the time. After several weeks of body weight, resistance can be added to this variation as well. This presents an additional challenge because if the athlete shifts his body, the weight will fall off, so coordination plays a significant role. (For a simpler version, just hold one limb off the ground at a time, each for 10 seconds.)

Alternating bridge with right arm and left foot held up and then left arm and right foot up. Also holding a 10-kg plate.

Now it’s time to discuss the side bridge. Considering those athletes who had trouble with the front bridge, there isn't any way the side bridge is going to be held for 30 seconds. The side bridge also presents a problem to larger athletes. Females over 180 lbs and males over 230 lbs really seem to struggle with the side bridge even if they could manage the front bridge. In this case, it is best to start with 15 or 20 seconds and progress to 30 seconds. This shouldn’t take long.

The side bridge can also be made more difficult without adding more time than 30 seconds. Once good posture can be maintained for 30 seconds, have the athletes hold the top leg up in the air. Once this can be achieved, it's time to add resistance. Unlike the front bridge, plates will not get the job done but chains will. Simply drape a chain over the athlete’s waist, half on each side. As they get stronger, more chains can be added.

The side bridge with 70 lbs of chains draped over the waist.

To all the lovers

No, the bridge isn't the answer to all abdominal strength issues. The abs and obliques have more functions than to contract isometrically and, therefore, should be trained to do such. In isometric exercises, there is very little transfer of strength to joint angles other than that which is being trained (Zatsiorsky), so other means of training the “core” are necessary. Both the abs and obliques are involved in flexion of the trunk, and the obliques are also utilized in both lateral flexion and rotation. None of these actions are developed utilizing the bridge position.

I also feel that once an athlete can easily hold a bridge position for 30 seconds, the exercise has minimal value. One- and two-minute bridges, in my opinion, are a waste of time. Yes, there are a few athletic activities that have intense activity lasting that amount of time (wrestling, boxing, MMA, 800 meters in track), but the bridge doesn't even come close to replicating the intensity, combination of movements, or other physiological demands imposed by those sports. Athletes who have been doing bridges for any length of time and have developed good abdominal strength won't even break into an anaerobic or lactic state during a one-minute bridge. It just isn’t intense enough. They simply stay in the same aerobic state that they were in when they walked into the weight room. So I will reiterate, what’s the point?

Take home points

  1. Increasing the intensity of the bridge will improve its effectiveness.
  2. The bridge and side bridge are not cure alls. There are other functions of the abs and obliques. Train them all.
  3. Increasing the time of the hold over 30 seconds has minimal value.