Whether you’re glancing around the weight room or scrolling Instagram for cool core exercises, you may gravitate to complex moves. But really, simple exercises will do just fine. When it comes to core stability, it’s easy to overlook basic moves like the bird dog and its variations.
If you’re skimping on your bird dogs, you’ll be missing out on a whole host of benefits. Think improved core stability, hip extension, and better balance. What’s more, Professor Emeritus of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo Dr. Stuart McGill has included it in his big three exercises to reduce back pain.
Whether you’re training for improved performance, general fitness, or to get stronger, the bird dog is as close to a non-negotiable core exercise as there is. Here, we’ll go into seven variations of the bird dog, the muscles trained and the form you need to use, and programming suggestions.
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Best Bird Dog Variations
- Stability Ball Bird Dog
- Resistance Band Bird Dog
- Quadruped Bird Dog On Bench
- Close Base Bird Dog On Bench
- Isometric Bird Dog
- Elbow-to-Knee Bird Dog
- Push-Up Bird Dog
The stability ball provides inherent instability and fewer points of contact with the ground. That immediately makes you hyper-aware of your body and focused on good technique — otherwise, you risk face planting.
Being unstable slows your movements down to prevent tipping over. This results in more time under tension for your working muscles. Try to go too fast, and you might fall off the ball — you definitely don’t want that.
Benefits of the Stability Ball Bird Dog
- Having fewer points of contact with the ground increases instability and helps you focus on good form.
- Increased time under tension for your lower back, glutes, and shoulders is for better muscle endurance.
- The stability ball bird dog is a way to increase the intensity of the regular bird dog.
How to Do the Stability Ball Bird Dog
Get on all fours and roll the stability ball to your stomach. Get your hands underneath your shoulders and thighs against the ball. Slowly raise your opposite arm and opposite leg while maintaining balance on the ball. Repeat on the opposite side for an even amount of reps on each side.
Performing the resistance band bird dog increases rotational forces and the demand for core stability while adding resistance to the movement. This increase in resistance makes it much more difficult to keep your spine neutral and increases 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.
Benefits of the Resistance Band Bird Dog
- This move improves your anti-rotational core strength and overall core stability.
- You’ll further strengthen your lower back muscles.
- The resistance band provides increased upper back engagement.
How to Do the Resistance Band Bird Dog
Get into a tabletop position on all fours. Hook a light looped resistance band around your left hand and right foot. Make sure it is secured. Extend your left hand and right leg while keeping your midsection steady. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
The quadrupled bird dog on a bench has you narrowing your base of support. You’ll be combining that challenge with the instability of balancing on a weight bench. This increases the difficulty compared to the regular bird dog.
Here, you will receive instant feedback because any hip rotation or hyperextension of your lower back will result in a loss of balance. You’re forced to perform the bird dog slowly in these conditions, which results in more time under tension for your lower back, hamstrings, shoulders, and glutes.
Benefits of the Quadruped Bird Dog on Bench
- The weight bench and the narrow base of support force you to slow down the movement to give you more time under tension.
- More instability and a narrow base of support encourage you to focus on good form.
- This bird dog variation improves your balance.
How to Do the Quadruped Bird Dog on Bench
Get on all fours on a weight bench with your knees under your hips and your hands underneath your shoulders. Slowly extend your left hand and right leg while maintaining your stability on the bench. Return to the starting position. Do all your reps on one side. Repeat on the other.
The close base bird dog on a bench is a progression of the quadruped bird dog on the bench because of the even narrower base of support. That’s because you’re changing your position on the bench.
You’ll be working harder to resist increased instability and rotational forces. Consequently, you’ll need to focus more on core stability than ever before.
Benefits of the Close Base Bird Dog on Bench
- The narrower base of support increases your core strength.
- This move forces more focus on the correct technique.
- You can use this variation to progress the bird dog without adding resistance.
How to Do the Close Base Bird Dog on Bench
Place your hands and knees width-wise on the bench instead of length-wise. Grip the bench with both hands. Extend your left arm in front of you and your right leg behind you. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat. Do all your reps on one side before doing the other.
Reducing your base of support with only one hand and knee on the ground improves your ability to resist rotational forces and gives you a little glute burn. If front planks have grown stale, this is a solid alternative.
Benefits of the Isometric Bird Dog
- You’ll get a better understanding of what the lockout of the bird dog should feel like.
- The isometric hold increases the time under tension for your lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and shoulders.
- This is a solid front plank variation, as well.
How to Do the Isometric Bird Dog
Get on the floor on all fours with your hands underneath your shoulders and knees underneath your hips. Press your hands into the ground. Ensure you have a neutral spine. Extend your left hand and right leg to the lockout position. Hold for anywhere between 10 and 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
That thoracic mobility is key for snatches, overhead squats, and pretty much any overhead lift — especially with a barbell. This move also acts like a sit-up for your core without flexing your spine. This gives your hip flexors a little more love and attention.
Benefits of the Elbow-to-Knee Bird Dog
- This improves your thoracic mobility, which is important for overhead lifts.
- You’ll increase the balance challenge due to the increased range of motion from touching your elbow to your knee.
- This variation targets your core and hip flexors without overly flexing your lower back.
How to Do the Elbow-to-Knee Bird Dog
Start by getting down on all fours with your arms shoulder-width apart. Place your hands directly underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips. Engage your core and extend your left hand and right leg at the same time. Bring your elbow in to touch your right knee. Finish reps on one side before doing the other.
When you are looking to up your bird dog game, look no further than the push-up style bird dog. You’ll start in the push-up plank position with only four points on the ground instead of the six you have with the regular bird dog.
Taking the opposite arm and leg off the ground increases the challenge for your core automatically. You’ll also strengthen your lower back, shoulders, and glutes, which will be supporting a lot more of your bodyweight.
Benefits of the Push-Up Bird Dog
- Having four points on the ground instead of six further improves your core stability.
- This variation increases the focus on your lower back and anterior core as anti-rotators.
- The decreased stability helps pick up any technique flaws in your bird dog.
How to Do the Push-Up Bird Dog
Set up in the push-up plank position with your hands a little in front of your shoulders. Engage your glutes and get your lower back in neutral. Raise your left arm and right leg off the ground, Return to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side. Alternate back and forth for even reps.
Muscles Worked by the Bird Dog
All bird dog variations work similar muscles, but depending on the specific move, you might be targeting anything from your hip flexors and obliques (i.e., elbow-to-knee variation) to more shoulder stability (i.e., push-up bird dog). But generally, the bird dog trains the muscles below.
Your glutes are involved in extending your hips. Proper hip extension ensures that lower body extension comes from your hips and not your lower back.
Your hamstrings assist with hip extension and knee flexion. They also help stabilize your pelvis while performing all the variations above.
Your shoulders may seem like an afterthought when it comes to the bird dog. But they provide the stability to hold your position and the posterior deltoids assist in raising your arms.
Your lower back (erector spinae) is a major player in the bird dog. Its involvement in this move is why Dr. McGill included it in his big three back exercises for back pain reduction. The lower back works overtime here to keep your torso in neutral during the contralateral movement of your arm and leg.
Your upper back assists in raising your working arm by your ear. It also plays a role isometrically in keeping your upper back in good posture while raising your opposite arm and leg.
Bird Dog Form Tips
There are two common technique flaws when it comes to performing all the bird dog variations on this list. First, avoid hip rotation from side-to-side as this negates the core and rotary stability benefits. Second, try not to arch your lower back to get a hip extension as this kills the spinal stability benefits.
Some people think more motion is better than none, but unnecessary arching can hurt your lower back. Putting a small weight plate or water bottle on your back provides you with feedback if either of these two things is happening.
Programming the Bird Dog
There are a couple of ways you can program bird dogs, depending on your needs, goals, and preferences.
Sample Bird Dog Warm-Up
You can perform it as a warm-up exercise for six to 10 reps per side.
- 1A. Elbow-to-Knee Bird Dog: 10 reps per side
- 1B. Suitcase Carry: 40 yards per side
- 1C. Isometric Bird Dog: 20 seconds per side
With timed moves like the isometric bird dog, make sure you can complete the set for time evenly on both sides.
Sample Bird Dog Superset
Bird dogs also work as a superset alongside a big strength movement that requires core strength, shoulder stability, and hip mobility.
Doing the bird dog after a strength exercise like the example above strengthens the smaller muscles needed for the deadlift (lower back) for better form and reduces injury risk without cutting into your recovery. It’s a win-win.
It’s a Bird (No. It’s a Core Exercise.)
There are a ton of fancy core exercises, but few are quite as effective as the simple bird dog. The regular bird dog — and its variations — work to increase your core stability, lower back strength, and anti-rotational strength. Performing these bird dog variations in your warm-up or as a recovery drills between strength exercises can bring your lower back strength, balance, and core stability to the next level. Your lifts will meet you there.
Featured Image: fizkes / Shutterstock