The Hidden Powers of Short Bridges and Shoulder Stand Squats

by Adrienne Harvey on September 29, 2015

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Shoulder Bridge

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting a little experiment. Due to an intense work schedule, combined with not getting enough sleep, I found myself in a condition that was not optimal for intense workouts. So, I decided to revisit a few of the early steps of Coach Wade’s “Big Six.”

In Convict Conditioning, as well as at the PCC, the warm up for the work sets of our training can come from practicing earlier steps of the movements. For example, if our work sets consist of knocking out reps of full bridges, we would warm up for them with a few meaningful sets of short bridges or straight bridges (the first and second steps of the progression in Convict Conditioning).

The first step of the Convict Conditioning squat sequence is the shoulder stand squat. This step is outlined in the original Convict Conditioning book, but explained in a little more detail in the Convict Conditioning Ultimate Bodyweight Squat Course DVD and Manual. This move is controversial because for many beginners (especially those who are overweight), getting down on the floor, and essentially getting upside down, will present a big obstacle right away. Then, if they’ve managed to get into the shoulder stand, it can be difficult for some larger people to get into the end position simply because they may be in their own way. This can be a major obstacle and it really doesn’t take that much extra weight to cause either of these issues. So at the PCC, we teach some other beginner drills which are more easily applicable to people of all shapes, sizes, ages, and fitness levels.

However, I’d recently managed to mildly annoy—but not injure—my left knee. In general, I tend to err on the side of caution and will make no apologies for stopping an exercise or movement if I feel a certain type of discomfort. Over the years I think this attitude this has helped me remain uninjured even while doing a fair amount of intense training and advanced drills. Exercise should make us stronger, not screw us up!

Shoulder Stand Squat Sequence

Though accidents happen, avoiding injury during training should be a top priority. While we are all continually encouraged to “get outside our comfort zone,” part of our own individual fitness journeys should include learning to carefully monitor our physical selves. This of course will be different for everyone, and will change as we age. I’m not saying that we should be afraid of what we’re doing in the gym or in life, only that it’s a good idea to start paying attention to, and learning to understand the subtle signals from our bodies.

So I wondered what kind of benefits my annoyed left knee could gain from the shoulder stand squat—and if the unweighted movement might give me the chance to analyze what might have happened in the first place, or at the least identify some trouble spots. I also started to consider what some of the other beginner steps could bring to my other challenges and goals.

The following is what I did, at a reasonably slow speed, which took a lot of control:

Two rounds:

  • Short bridges – 25 reps
  • Shoulder stand squats – 25 reps
  • Bar Hang – 1 minute
  • Full bridge
  • Plow stretch

The rep range in my example above was chosen since those were the Convict Conditioning “intermediate standards” for the short bridges and shoulder stand squats. This wasn’t meant to be an especially taxing workout, but I did find parts of it surprisingly challenging, in a way that indicated I might be working with my nervous system as much as my muscles. The above rep ranges are not necessarily appropriate for everyone, and will take some experimentation. When in doubt, do less on the first round to figure out where you stand (and where you stand on that particular day).

Adrienne Timed Bar Hangs

Intrigued by the CNS response of the above example, on a day following a very challenging kettlebell workout in the same week, I decided to make a different version but with the same general ideas:

First round :

  • Short bridges – 25 reps
  • Shoulder stand squats – 25 reps
  • Crow stand – 1 minute
  • Full bridge
  • Plow stretch

Adrienne Crow Stand

Second round:

  • Short bridges – 25 reps
  • Shoulder stand squats – 25 reps
  • Wall handstand – 1 minute
  • Full bridge
  • Plow stretch

I ended with Coach Wade’s “Trifecta” and some deep squats. Everything felt easier and better executed.

Going back to the more advanced drills the next day, I had a new confidence, and could tell that progress was made that week, just from the two small sessions with the earlier steps. Since then, I’ve made it a point to have more sessions like these during a typical week.

I encourage you to revisit earlier steps you have learned from Convict Conditioning and/or the PCC Workshop. Even if you feel like you’ve long-since outgrown them, they still hold their own challenges and can teach you a lot (especially if you go purposefully slow). For those of us who are instructors, they also help us stay sharp and empathize with our clients when explaining and working through those beginning progressions. Never underestimate the power of those early steps!

***

Adrienne Harvey, Senior PCC Instructor, RKC-II, CK-FMS, has been RKC Certified since 2010, and RKC Level 2 certified since 2011. Kettlebell and bodyweight training have been crucial in Adrienne’s personal quest for fitness.  A core member of the PCC team, Adrienne loves sharing her knowledge with small groups and individuals. She also loves to develop recipes and workout programs to further support performance, body composition, and of course—FUN. Go to http://www.giryagirl.com for more information about Adrienne.

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  • martymonster

    Hi Adrienne,
    Sorry to hear about the left knee. I share your pain at the moment. So any advice on injury management is well worth listening too. I’d actually stopped doing my closing bridge work as it strains the knee way too much. But after reading this I may just pick up some straight bridges again.

    • I TRY (it’s not always possible) to notice when anything is a little “off” or “annoyed” as in the post. (If its an actual injury injury definitely get a doc to look at it asap!) But if it’s a “this is a little weird” what I like to do is a funny sounding approach –
      1. If I have two of them, I make sure both of them are moving the same way, habitually. I’ll video the movement and see what’s up.
      2. Have I done anything silly recently (different shoes, new activity, etc. I once had a strange feeling in my achilles and figured out I’d been setting my slackline too high of the ground – I took a break from slacklining then came back setting the line lower… no problems.)
      3. Figuring out a simple, lightweight exercise that encourages the correct movement pattern (like the shoulderstand squats) and work with it, being sure to note any unusual sensations etc.

      At the very least if those don’t fix it, I have a lot of info to share with a pro who can!

      Sounds like taking some steps back on the bridge progression is probably a very good idea — closing bridges are pretty extreme! 🙂

  • Swiss_Olympic

    Hey Adrienne, quality article as usual!

    I’ve found the earlier steps to also be a gold mine in terms of progress when they’re done unilaterally. For instance straight bridges on one leg work the hamstrings extremely well in concert with glutes.

    Hope you recover quickly from your injury, or annoyance, as you eloquently put it. 🙂

    • Thanks! And those are great examples of even more ways to get EVEN MORE value from those early steps! 🙂

      Knee is already back to it’s previously non-annoyed state 🙂

  • Gerri Lee Schafer

    yeah, I’ve got to get back to working on bridges, my back mobility is no-existent, but hope to make it better one day

  • buffoonish

    That chick is very hot. I want to work out with her.

  • Matt Schifferle

    Yo Adrienne! I am always inspired when elite practitioners, like yourself, practice the earlier steps. It helps me understand there is always value to the basic.

    I’ve found the crow stands to have great carry over to squats. I think it has a lot to do with the muscles involved with “tucking” the body tight which is key to deep squats. I like to rock back and forth between crow stands and deep squats. It seems somehow meditative to me.

    • OH wow, Matt! That’s a really interesting carryover observation, makes total sense!! 🙂

  • David

    Awesome article Adrienne! I’ve regressed to shoulderstand squats due to knee problem, it’s a quite hard exercise to with proper form, especially when I move beyond 20-25 reps. This observation teaches me that I’ve must have progressed through this step with bad form. Like Matt says below, it’s inspiring when elite athletes like yourself shed some light on the earlier steps, keeps us newbies motivated and focused 🙂

    • Almost seems like the shoulderstand squats could merit their own place for all levels. There’s a lot involved with doing those shoulderstand squats too – not the least of which is balance too! 🙂 Glad you like the post! 🙂

  • Mohammed

    Great article. Thanks!

    Hope you get over the knee problems. I can empathise very much.

    Regarding injuries and annoyances (more for annoyances), I have found that slowing down reps really helps. You don’t even have to go back to much earlier steps. Sometimes, just going one step back and cutting down reps per set while doing each rep really slowly helps.

    Example: I have had achilles heel/tendon problems over the last half year. I was on step 6 and half of squats. So, I just dropped down to step 6, and instead of doing 2 x 20 reps, I do 5 x 5 at 5 sec up, 5 sec down tempo. I aim to slowly build up to 8 x 5. This way, I preserve my strength (I believe so) without having to push too hard and aggravating my problems.

    Quick questions:

    1) When you talk about CNS response over muscular response, and how you found the workout a challenge, do you refer to the side of the body which rebels when I am too tired to work out and makes me feel lethargic?

    2) When doing short bridges, is it better to keep your arms on floor or crossed on your belly? What (if any) difference does it make?

    Thanks!

    • Nearly back to normal 🙂 Thanks for the concern, and sorry to hear about your achilles/heel issues, that area seems difficult because of lower blood flow and such, sounds like you’re being very smart. As for the questions, I’m going to try and explain this in the least “weird” sounding way possibly, but fair warning, it might get strange! 🙂

      1. It’ll be different for everyone, but for me at least, I know I’m starting to approach more CNS than muscle, when I may experience an overall warmness, or maybe more of an all over slight sweat from something that would otherwise not seem like much exertion at all. For example, if I stay in crow for a while, the strain of it seems less muscular and more mental, and if I stay in that position for a while, it seems to cycle between difficult and not difficult. One of the biggest and more dramatic clues I’ve ever gotten with more mental/CNS work was when I started working on the step towards the human flag known as the “chamber press” When I first was able to do it and STAY up there for a significant time, I would later realize that I had no memory of what I would see while I was up there. This was extremely evident when I would demo it for someone and not really be able to process their facial reactions to what I was doing, while I was there, or I would not be able to recall it. I was talking to Jack Arnow about this phenomenon and he describes it as being “inside the muscle”. A little further research has led me to believe that the brain is using as much of its power as possible on the more necessary portions of the exercise and so the visual processing power is shunted or just a secondary consideration. But to sum up, I pay close attention to how i feel when working on CNS heavy items — or I take note of when these kinds of reactions occur, it usually means there’s a movement pattern that needs work or that I need to “rewire” into my mind/body/nerves. It’s fascinating stuff!

      2. It’s a personal preference, though I find that I can get up higher if I leave my hands on the ground. There’s another variation where the hands are under you, and clasped together, while you try to wiggle the shoulders farther “underneath”. That presents a great challenge to me, and many other people who may struggle with the balance of shoulder mobility and pull up power…

      Hope that helps! 🙂

      • Stranger

        Amazing info about the CNS/muscular system! That taught me a lot! I’m going to experiment with that.

      • Mohammed

        Thanks for the detailed answer; had to read it twice but the examples really helped give me a picture.

        I also find it easier to get higher in a short bridge when my hands are on the ground, and my form feels more solid.

        Thanks again.

  • Nice article Adrienne. I often deload and do easier progressions if I’m feeling tired or not in the right mindset to have a high intensity workout. Find it it usually helps my recovery better than resting.

    • Thanks, and AGREED!!! 🙂 Getting moving even just a little bit can be extremely powerful for recovery!

  • RedTed

    Great post – thank you Adrienne! As I have advanced in years, I realise that not only is it beneficial to my overall health to “de-load” and have “perfect practice” sessions during my week, but it actually benefits my performance over the long haul. As you say, these are not necessarily “easy” sessions, just challenging in a different way.

    • Great points — especially for those of us who refuse to slow down too much as we get older! 🙂

  • Eoin Kenny

    Thanks for the great article! Do you mind me asking what happened to your knee exactly? I just started the trifecta myself and the twists are my favorite so far lol, feels great to “eek out” some cracks in the spine. The only problem is I can’t do it everyday… :p

    • You’re welcome! 🙂 I’m not sure exactly what I did to it, it’s a pretty slight thing, and already back to normal, but there was a little discomfort and every now and then a little click coming up the stairs. My current theory is that I stepped weird in a lunge or something like that. It’s all good now though 🙂

  • Rodolfo Oliveira

    Awesome article Adrienne! As always your approach is very practical and we can go home with lots to think and to practice! I love that! Would you mind sharing some alternatives to the shoulderstand squat? I am overweight and my belly really gets in the way of the tuck and I want to spend some more time gaining strenght before I go to step 2. Cheers!

    • Absolutely! 🙂 there’s box squats, and you can start at any height you need. You can use a partner for extra stability (along with box squats even — I’ve started a few people that way, and it can be a real confidence builder when necessary) and in the Convict Conditioning book, step #2 “Jackknife squats” is a great place to start, it’s essentially a self-assisted squat, which if you want to step it back even further, choose a stable, strong higher surface (or even a pole or something–one of my neighbors uses a support beam on our building) that has something to grab onto as you lower yourself and learn where you need to be. It’s ok to not go all the way to the ground at first too. Hope that helps! 🙂

      • Rodolfo Oliveira

        It helps a bunch Adrienne thank you so much! I will go to step 2 and do some box squats as well to keep progressing, but I will keep practicing the shoulderstand for the neurological benefits you pointed out. Keep rocking here and on Girya Girl I really love your articles!

  • A well thought out & reasoned article. I liked it a lot. I often talk about my Granddad who did bodyweight exercises until he was 94. He adapted them as he grew older & kept mobile for a long time with a good physique & level of strength. It’s made me more conscious of the future with an eye on longevity. I like doing my exercises. Which ones will I be able to continue into my 90’s? Of course it is the simple stuff – not easy – as Coach Wade says simple is not easy. So thoughts about form & the benefits of the basic movements are there in my mind. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Dan! That’s incredible about your Granddad — and what a great inspiration/example! 🙂 I certainly don’t plan ever stopping this stuff!

  • troy

    hey guys, what is paul wade doing? long time no hear…is he working on something new???

    • John Du Cane

      Paul Wade is finishing up the 400-page manual for the SCC launch in New York in November:)

      • That’s going to be an awesome event! Can’t wait to check out that manual!

      • Rodolfo Oliveira

        Can I hope that the SCC will be a continuing Cert just like the PCC? I really am eager to get my hands at any Calisthenics material…

        • From what I know, that’s the plan! 🙂

        • John Du Cane

          Yes, that is the plan, similar to our HKC for kettlebells…

          • Rodolfo Oliveira

            That is awesome John! Thank you so much for your response, I can’t wait to attend all these seminars (I have plans for the SCC, PCC, HKC and DVRT combo, RKC and RKCII)

          • John Du Cane

            I love to hear that Rodolfo!

      • troy

        ok thanks! will he continue to contribute to this page? would be great!

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