Many years ago, the Professor Emeritus of Spine Biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, Dr. Stuart McGill, came up with three exercises to help strengthen the core, prevent lower back pain, and promote spinal stability. One of them is called the bird dog, and when done correctly, it can provide a host of benefits, including:
- Improved core stability.
- Improved shoulder stability for the side that is grounded.
- Improved shoulder mobility for the side that is moving.
- Better body awareness and coordination.
- Stronger glutes, lower back, and ab muscles.
- The ability to brace your spine while deadlifting and performing sets of back squats.
This article is going to discuss how to do the bird dog properly, expand on the benefits of it, and provide you with four variations to try when you’ve mastered the original.
How To Do The Bird Dog
The video below from Dr. Luke Sniewski’s YouTube channel walks through the correct mechanics when performing the bird dog.
Here is a step-by-step breakdown of the bird dog:
- Get on your hands and knees with your hands directly underneath your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Maintain a neutral spine. If you were to place a stick or dowel from your head to your butt, it should touch your butt, back.
- Raise your opposite arm and leg straight out while keeping your core tight and your body in a straight line from head to foot.
- Return to the starting position and repeat.
You can perform all the reps on one side or alternate sides, whichever is preferable for you.
Benefits Of The Bird Dog
The main purpose of the bird dog is to promote spinal stability. Here’s how it works: By extending your opposite arm and leg you’re targeting the erector spinae muscle, which extends from your neck to the hip and is responsible for the flexion and rotation of your spine. You’ll also engage your core, glutes, and shoulders — bolstering your stability in these muscles — and improve your coordination.
The bird dog teaches you how to stiffen the muscles around your spine to create more rigidity. And a rigid spine won’t rotate or flex while deadlifting. So, if you have a case of cat-back while pulling heavy from the floor, then the bird dog may be the move you need.
Once you have the form of a standard bird dog down pat, you can try out the following variations.
4 Variations Of The Bird Dog
Here are four bird dog variations and progressions that incorporate resistance or instability to further strengthen core stability.
Quadruped Bird Dog On Bench
Narrowing your base of support and reducing your points of contact with the floor from six to four significantly ups the difficulty factor of the bird dog. To clarify, the standard bird dog has six points of contact (your toes, knees, and hands are on the ground). This variation only has four points of contact since the toes are elevated off the floor. Any hip imbalance or hyperextension of the lower back will result in a loss of balance.
In the above video, you will notice how the man slightly wobbles during each rep when he reaches full extension. He’s experiencing a severe lack of stability. The raised narrow platform, in this case, a gym bench, compels you to engage your core beyond what is needed on a wider flat surface like the floor where balance isn’t as taxed.
Close Base Bird Dog On Bench
This is a step up from the quadruped bird dog above because the base of support is narrowed even further. To resist this increased instability and added rotational forces, you must focus must on keeping a neutral spine throughout the movement.
You’ll also notice that your hand won’t align directly underneath your shoulder. As a result, your spine will want to curve when you reach full extension. Try to resist this — you’ll only build more anti-rotational strength.
Stability Ball Bird Dog
Adding a stability ball is great for anyone who needs to isolate the faults in their form. The shifting nature of the stability ball lifts the knees off the ground. Be warned, the lack of balance due to the stability loss may result in you biting the dust. You don’t want that. To prevent falling flat on your face, you’ll have to be hyper-aware of any form deviations and correct them in order to reach full extension and maintain control.
All three of the above variations involve adding some element of instability, coercing slower motion to execute the movement with proper form. An added benefit of that slower movement is an increase of time under tension, which will further strengthen your core.
Resistance Band Bird Dog
Adding a band to the bird dog increases the rotational force and demands more core stability. It may not seem that difficult when watching the video below, but the band adds a significant amount of difficulty in maintaining a neutral spine.
[Related: 4 Great IT Band Exercises For Improving Hip Stability (Ft Jordan Shallow)]
Additionally, this variation will offer some increased upper back activation. Make sure to hook the band securely over your hand and foot because if the band gets loose, it’s going to leave a mark.
Avoid these two mistakes when performing the bird dog exercise:
Don’t shift your hips. As you extend an opposite arm and leg, your hips are naturally going to want to shift from side to side. This hip shift deactivates your core, which, when squeezed, will keep your hips locked into place.
Don’t arch your lower back. The point of this movement is to promote a rigid, neutral spine. Arching your back is the antithesis of this goal.
How to Program the Bird Dog
Here are two ways to program the bird dog into your training:
Perform them as part of your warm-up. Do two sets of six to 10 reps, per side.
Pair them with a strength movement. For example, after a set of deadlifts, do one set of six to 10 reps per side. Repeat for each set of deadlifts. This is a great way to sneak some core work into your routine while giving yourself active rest after a taxing set.
The bird dog and its variations is also an excellent movement to perform in your home gym. If you don’t have access to a stability ball, putting a small weight plate on your back can provide great feedback as well.
Sometimes, simple is best. The bird dog isn’t fancy, but it provides a bevy of benefits for your core, spine, and full-body coordination. When it comes to core stability it’s easy to overlook the bird dog but do so at your own peril.
Feature image from Dr. Luke Sniewski’s YouTube channel.