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Bird Dog Exercise Basics And Benefits: Strengthen Your Spine And Core Muscles

Bird Dog Exercise

The bird dog exercise helps strengthen core muscles and stabilize the spine, particularly the lumbar region that supports most of the body. It also improves posture control, aligns the spine, reduces lower back pain, and strengthens the shoulder muscles. It can be performed by most healthy individuals while several challenging variations can help athletes and active sportspeople.

If you are looking to ramp up your exercise regimen, the bird dog exercise is one set of moves you ought to consider. This classic exercise is pegged to be one of the top strengthening and stabilizing exercises to keep your core and back muscles in good shape. Sportspersons (athletes, powerlifters, bodybuilders), fitness buffs as well as active people looking to strengthen their lower back and spine – anyone in reasonably good health – can do the bird dog exercise.

The lumbar or lower back region supports most of the body but is prone to damage, either from back injuries or an inactive lifestyle, such as long periods of sitting at a desk. For athletes, especially those in contact sports (football, for instance), the strengthening and toning of the stabilizing muscles of the core and spine are of special benefit while executing rapid moves on the field. Even if you aren’t into active sports, strengthening the muscles around this vital area should be an essential part of your exercise plan to prevent debilitating lower back pain.1 2

Benefits Of Bird Dog Exercise

Besides strengthening the muscles around the spine like the latissimus dorsi and erector spinae, bird dog also impacts large muscle groups like the gluteus maximus (extending from the hip across the butt), hamstrings (back of the thighs), the quadratus lumborum (deep abdominal muscles), rectus abdominis (commonly, your “abs”), pectoralis major (large chest muscles), and shoulder girdle muscles. With regular practice, here’s how bird dog benefits these muscle groups:

  • Hones your coordination and muscle balance
  • Helps keep the spine stable
  • Stimulates nerve activity in the core muscles
  • Strengthens the abdominal muscles
  • Helps to align and develop the stabilizing muscles of the back
  • Reduces lower back pain
  • Enables better posture control
  • Strengthens and stabilizes shoulder muscles
  • Improves shoulder mobility
  • Develops and strengthens hip muscles and improves flexibility
  • Strengthens and improves motor control in the gluteus maximus
  • Enables the body to achieve the stability and supports everyday activities, whether it’s walking, running, or even carrying things3 4 5

Learn To Do The Bird Dog Exercise

The bird dog exercise can be performed alongside other floor exercises in your fitness routine.

  • Start the bird dog by going down on all fours, knees positioned under hips and palms resting on the ground just beneath the shoulders. Your shoulders, back, and butt should remain flat through the exercise.
  • Gaze downward and contract the stomach muscles to prevent sagging or your back from arching.
  • Keeping your glutes squeezed, in a single, smoothly controlled movement lift and extend your left leg and right arm up to a point where they are in line with your back. Your extended leg is now parallel to the floor. To get the arm extension right, make sure your biceps are level with your ear.
  • Hold the position for a few seconds, then smoothly lower your arm and leg back to their original position. Repeat with the other arm and leg.6

Stagger The Movements If You’re A Beginner

If you haven’t been exercising regularly or have just started, it’s a good idea to move through the bird dog exercise in a graded manner. Here’s how:

  • Start with only leg lifts.
  • When returning your leg to starting position, keep the knee lifted just off the ground and repeat the extending movement.
  • Keep your abdominal muscles braced and glutes tight. This helps to stabilize the hips and allow the glutes do the heavy lifting.
  • After 8 reps (less if you are struggling!), slowly lower the knee to the starting point.
  • Repeat extensions with the other leg.

Once you are comfortable doing leg extensions, you can progress to simultaneous and opposite arm and leg lifts.7 8

Use These Tips To Get Your Bird Dog Moves Right

  • Ideally, bird dog exercise should be done facing a mirror.
  • A lightweight bar or foam roller, placed across the hips and resting on the waistline of the pants, can help keep your hips steady without rotation and make any other postural corrections needed.
  • Keep all your muscles braced and your hips steady through the exercise.
  • When you lift your leg, your lower back may sag, so raise your leg only to the point where you can maintain your lower back parallel to the floor using your core and abs muscles. With practice, this will come easier.
  • Don’t use speed to get through the reps – focus instead on working your muscles!
  • Bird dog exercise focuses on postural alignment – that means every part of your body from your head to foot should be on the same plane. To achieve this, your feet should be straight and dorsiflexed (flexed toward your body) and your neck in a neutral position, aligned with your back and not stretched out.
  • Hold your shoulders away from your ears.
  • Don’t allow your chest to sag down. This will result in your shoulder blades bunching up – a condition called “winging.” If you cannot tell that you’re doing this right, get someone to take a photograph or give you feedback.
  • Experts recommend holding each rep for 3–7 seconds. But the counting doesn’t have to start until you’re stable. If it takes you a bit to get into position, don’t worry – align your body correctly first and start counting thereafter.
  • When beginning to practice bird dog exercise, never push your body’s capability to control lower back movement. Work toward a gradual progression.9 10 11

Challenge Your Inner Bird Dog With Variations!

There are several variations on the basic bird dog technique that you may want to try once you are completely at ease doing the basics. If you’re a gym buff or athlete, you will already have a good fitness level and these variations will help push yourself even more!

Bird Dog On A Bench

You will need a narrow bench to perform the exercise in this technique first developed by strength coach Nick Tumminello. Simply kneel on the bench, your body aligned with the length of the bench and get going with the bird dog as you balance yourself. What outcomes can you expect from these variations?

  • Using a bench significantly hikes up the level of difficulty. It also enhances the effectiveness of bird dog.
  • While it’s softer on the knees, it’s more unstable than a floor and therefore more challenging!
  • Kneeling on a bench a couple of feet above the floor also engages you mentally and improves your concentration as you don’t want to fall off.
  • Finally, the smaller muscles of your hands are also exercised while gripping the edge of the bench to keep your balance.

Here are some bird dog variations to challenge your strength, once you’ve mastered the essentials. You will need a qualified trainer to guide you and sometimes physically intervene in these exercises.

Bird Dog With A Partner

This variation is of particular use to athletes whose bodies must respond to unpredictable events on a playing field.

  • Get into the regular bird dog position on a bench, your knees supported on its lower half. Your flexed feet should not be resting on the bench.
  • Your trainer will now tap or push you randomly from several angles and with varying degrees of force – a technique known as “perturbation training.” Research shows that this enhances the activation of stabilizing muscles and the core as the body copes with unpredictable pushes and jolts to steady itself. Whew!

Quick Bird Dog Callout

There are two ways to perform this variation of bird dog exercise:

  • In the first version, you need to go through the bird dog movements on a bench with as much speed as you can muster, stabilizing yourself quickly.
  • In another version, your trainer will call out the side to lift, left or right.

The goal is to respond quickly to the voice signal while also raising the appropriate side correctly without pause. Since both strength and speed of response are involved, this is a physically and mentally intense workout. Bonus: besides working the core and lower back, it also helps improve focus.

Bird Dog On Narrow Base Bench

Want to take it up another notch? Kneel on the narrow width of the bench rather than its length. With your support area reduced, you will be forced to steady yourself even more and avoid rotational forces. This variation is less about speed and more about focus and stability. Not easy, we promise you!

Stretched Bird Dog

For all its awesome strength and stability enhancement, bird dog exercise, say many athletes, doesn’t quite work the core in the same way that plank and abs exercises do. That’s not the goal of this bird dog exercise but if you’d like to include additional core strengthening, try this variation:

  • Assume the bird dog position along the length of a bench, knees supported at the lower end, shins, and feet extending out from the edge of the bench.
  • Stretch yourself out in a long lever position. Your arms should be stretched out, palms down and as far forward as possible while maintaining the body parallel to the bench.
  • Keeping the neck in a neutral position, perform the basic bird opposite arm and leg extensions, hold for a few seconds, and return to starting position. Repeat with the other arm and leg.12

Who Should Not Do The Bird Dog Exercise

Shoulder pain is an indication that you should not be doing bird dog. Another contraindication for bird dog exercise is winged scapula, where the shoulder blades stick out like wings when they should normally lie flat against the back of the chest wall. This shoulder dysfunction is commonly caused by bad posture or a previous injury. Check with your therapist if you can do any stabilizing exercises before attempting bird dog.

Some experts are of the opinion that bird dog can be done even if you currently have back pain. If the pain worsens, it’s possible that you are doing the exercise incorrectly. Here, too, a therapist’s opinion is essential. If you have a history of lower back problems, consult your physician before attempting any new exercise regime involving your back. If all is clear, get going!13 14

References   [ + ]

1. Bird Dog: AlaskaCare Employee Wellness Program Exercises. State of Alaska.
2, 3, 9, 12. Benefits of the Bird Dog Exercise and 8 Challenging Variations. Stack, Blue Star Sports.
4, 7. Cressey Eric & Matt Fitzgerald. Maximum Strength: Get Your Strongest Body in 16 Weeks with the Ultimate Weight-Training Program. Hachette UK. 2008.
5, 6. Stewart, Brett. 7 Weeks to 300 Sit-Ups: Strengthen and Sculpt Your Abs, Back, Core and Obliques by Training to Do 300 Consecutive Sit-Ups. Ulysses Press. 2012.
8. Core Stability Training for Injury Prevention. NIH.
10. Bird-dog. American Council on Exercise.
11, 13. Beginning Core Exercises – The Bird-Dog Exercise Progression. Declan Murphy – Chiropractor In Brussels.
14. Winged Scapula. Sports Injury Clinic.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.