Today I want to talk about the bird dog exercise. What is a bird dog? How do you do a bird dog? What are the benefits of a bird dog exercise?
As a certified personal trainer I have used the bird dog exercise with many clients because of its ability to activate certain muscles. I often use the exercise as part of my own dynamic warmup, and you should too. As a dog parent I occasionally notice why the exercise is known as the bird dog.
What is a Bird Dog?
Personally, I’ve always thought “bird dog” was a stupid name for an exercise. It’s not as bad as “burpee”, but it’s definitely not great. However, the professional phrase for the exercise is contralateral raise, which is probably not user friendly enough for most people.
The exercise somehow received the name based on a typical hunting dog stance. A Pointer, for example, may raise one limb and stick its nose out while its tail points backward. Other dogs may take such a position while staring intently, which is known as bird dogging. In fact, my dog nearly gets into the position while smelling the ground during some walks.
When a human being performs the bird dog exercise something very different is going on. It’s not even relatable to the posture of a dog, but the name stuck. Sorry contralateral raise, it was not meant to be.
How to do a Bird Dog?
For most people, the bird dog exercise will be very simple to do. However, if your core (TVA), glutes, or upper back muscles are not activating properly, the exercise can be quite challenging.
Step 1 – Get into a four point position on your hands and knees. Your hands should be directly underneath your shoulders, and your head should be neutral.
Step 2 – Simultaneously extend your left leg and right arm. Lift up and out so that your fingers and toes are as far apart as possible. Bring your left knee and right hand back down to the starting position.
Step 3 – Simultaneously extend your right leg and left arm in the same manner as in the previous step.
That’s all there is to the bird dog exercise. Normally you would perform reps on each side, but some instances might require isometrically holding the position for 10 – 20 seconds.
Pro tip – Move through the exercise slowly, but with purpose. Try and make sure your extended limbs are in line with your spine. You may need to have a mirror, or another person by your side. Recognize which muscles are activating as you complete the exercise. Maintain a pattern of deep breathing and do not hold your breath. Do not allow your pelvis to tilt up or down.
Bird Dog Exercise Benefits
This exercise is primarily used to activate the muscles which stabilize the core, and protect the spine during movement. Additionally it also activates the hip extensors and upper back, while lengthening the pecs, lats, and hip flexors. To put it more plainly, the exercise activates muscles which do not get enough use these days, while stretching a few which get used quite frequently.
If the muscles of your core do not activate properly, your spine could be at risk. In fact, many people who suffer from low back pain receive little help from their core stabilizers. For this reason, it’s important to perform core stabilization exercises in order to prevent injuries, and or improve spine health. The bird dog is one of many core stabilizing exercises.
If it is too easy you could progress the exercise by performing a more challenging version. If it is too difficult you will want to regress the exercise until you are able to perform the bird dog. Stop and try a regression if the exercise causes any pain in your lower back.
Regressing the Exercise
Try a supine marching exercise if the bird dog is too difficult. Supine marching will also work the core stabilizers while keeping your lower back in a less compromising position.
Step 1 – Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Slide one hand underneath your lower back and notice the arch. Slowly exhale all of the air out of your lungs, and contract your core as your navel draws closer to your spine.
Step 2 – Slowly raise your left leg as high as possible while maintaining the core contraction. Do not hold your breath or allow your hips to tilt. Hold your left leg up in the air for at least two seconds before returning to the starting position.
Step 3 – Slowly raise your right leg as high as possible in the same manner as in the previous step.
Perform 10 slow reps on each side while alternating legs. Supine marching is an exercise which can be performed daily. However, it does not activate as many muscles as the bird dog exercise. In order to activate the same muscles you would have to perform a circuit such as:
- Supine marching
- Supine hip raises
- Prone scapular raises
Progressing the Exercise
After a certain amount of training there comes a time when increasing the challenge is necessary. Here are a few ways to challenge your body when the bird dog is just too easy for you:
- Single leg contralateral raises
- Low plank bird dog
- High plank bird dog
These exercises are much more challenging than the basic bird dog. Make sure you have mastered the bird dog, the plank, and the single leg balance before progressing to them.
The Final Cue
Exercises are an important part of daily life for humans and dogs alike. Everything comes from the core, which is much more than a six pack. Our core stabilizers should keep us safe and stable during movement.
Often times cues such as “bracing”, or “drawing in” are used when coaching core exercises, but these phrases can be misleading. Yes, you want your core to contract, but the spine should remain neutral. Tilting the hips forces the muscles on either side of the spine to contract, and or stretch, which is not the goal during core stabilization.
During the bird dog exercise your core should tighten, but your spine should remain still. The arch in your lower back should not increase as you raise your leg to align with your spine, and your back should not round as you contract your core stabilizers. If you are like me and you desire to know which muscles act to stabilize your core, they are as follows:
- Transverse abdominis
- Internal obliques
- Pelvic floor
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I wish you good fortune on the trails to come.