The bird dog is a well-known abs exercise. No, it will not give you six-pack abs, but will provide other benefits in your daily life. This movement is often performed incorrectly. Those who do not use proper form and purpose will not be taking advantage of its benefits. This bird dog guide will answer the following questions, and teach you some progressions and regressions for the exercise.
What is the bird dog?
How do you do a bird dog?
What are the benefits of the bird dog exercise?
The bird dog abs exercise can benefit construction workers, athletes, doctors, weight lifters, those with desk jobs, and many others. As a certified personal trainer I have used the bird dog with many clients because of its ability to activate certain muscles. I also use the exercise as part of my own dynamic warmup, and you should too. As a dog parent, I occasionally notice why the exercise received its peculiar name.
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The Bird Dog is a Core Stabilizing Exercise
Personally, I’ve always thought “bird dog” was a dumb name for an exercise. It’s definitely not as bad as “burpee”, but it’s not great. However, the professional phrase for the exercise is contralateral raise, which is probably not user-friendly enough for most people. How did the bird dog exercise get its name?
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 after sniffing the ground during hikes.
When a human being performs the movement something very different is happening. In the basic position, the bird dog exercise allows you to work many of the muscles which stabilize the spine. You can make the exercise easier, or more challenging, with different variations. It’s not very relatable to the posture of a dog, but the name stuck. Sorry contralateral raise, it was not meant to be.
How to Do the Bird Dog Exercise
For most people, the bird dog will be a very simple exercise to perform. However, if your core (TVA), glutes, or upper back muscles are not activating properly, the exercise can be far more challenging. Furthermore, tight hip flexors and lats can limit your range of motion during the bird dog movement.
Bird dog exercise steps
The bird dog exercise appears very easy, but there should be a lot going on as you move with purpose. You are not simply tossing limbs into the air. Feel the muscles working as you do the bird dog. Be in control of your body from the inside.
Is your pelvis tilting forward as you raise your leg? You may be hyperextending your lower back. Feel the glutes contracting as you raise your leg, and do not try to lift your heel as high as possible. Notice my hand and foot are stretching apart in the image below. The goal should not be getting them as close to the ceiling as possible.
How Do You Do a Bird Dog?
Normally you would perform reps on each side, but some instances might require isometrically holding the position for 10 – 20 seconds. If you aren’t familiar with isometrics, just hold the position shown below. Your muscles will do the work to maintain this position, and eventually become fatigued.
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 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 improve spine health. The bird dog is one of the best core stabilizing exercises, but there are more than a few.
If it is too easy you can progress the exercise by performing a more challenging version. However, be sure you are activating and “feeling” the correct muscles. If not, the benefits of the bird dog progressions will be lacking. If it is too difficult you will want to regress the exercise until you are able to perform the bird dog from the four-point position. Stop, and try a regression if the exercise causes any pain in your lower back.
Bird Dog Variations
Thankfully, there are always modifications for most exercises. Modifications allow us to make exercises easier, or more challenging depending on the fitness level of an individual. The first modification here is a regression which will make the bird dog easier to perform. The rest will enable you to progress the exercise, making it much more challenging.
Regressing the Exercise
Try a supine marching exercise if the bird dog is too difficult. This modified bird dog exercise will also work the core stabilizers while keeping your lower back in a less compromising position.
Supine bird dog regression
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
Pro tip – Once you are activating your core stabilizers, you can add movement of the arms. Using the above photo as an example, I would raise my right arm along with my left leg. They would slowly move closer together and away from each other. This is known as a “Dead Bug” exercise in many circles. I know, the imagination of health and fitness professionals is a wonder to behold.
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 image below shows the standing bird dog. It may also be called a “table top”, as well as other names. To do this movement properly you must have stability, mobility and flexibility.
Coaching the Correct Abs During the Bird Dog
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, at all times.
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.
Your core should tighten, but your spine should remain still as you move through the bird dog ab exercise. 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. Pelvic tilting has different benefits and a different purpose.
Muscles Used During Core Stabilization
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
Use plank variations to make the bird dog advanced. You can use a low plank, high plank, or add a push-up to increase the difficulty of the bird dog movement. These harder variations will require more stability, and you will need to be strong enough to do the exercise properly.
If you enjoyed these bird dog benefits, please let us know and share this guide with someone else who might find it useful. Exercises can be incredibly beneficial to our health, especially when resistance is involved. Read our article about the benefits of strength training to learn a few more indisputable reasons to lift weights.
If you have an inquiry for a certified personal trainer, jump over to my Personal Training Page and let me know. How do you use the bird dog in your training program?