I’m pretty sure there are more core and torso exercises around than there are people in the world; some of them are excellent and some should be banished to the exercise graveyard, never to be seen again. I use a ton of different exercises for different purposes but today I want to talk about one of the most versatile core exercises: the dead bug.
Here are just some of the reasons the dead bug is so effective:
- Can be scaled to any ability
- Instant biofeedback for errors
- Can be done bilaterally and unilaterally, can increase or decease the anti-rotational component
- When proper breathing is cued, can significantly reduce tension in the lower back musculature
- Zero compressive or shearing forces on the spine – one of the few core exercises that injured athletes can do comfortably
- Can aid in the correction of pelvic tilt
- You can do them every day
First of all, how to perform the dead bug:
Lie on your back on the floor or mat, curl yourself up into fetal position and then flatten your back so that you can feel the floor touching your back all the way from the butt to the shoulder blades. Extend your limbs straight up so you look like a bug that has been flipped on its back (hence the name). Now you can start moving limbs one at a time or in any combination while maintaining full control, keeping the back and hips in full contact with the ground, then returning the limbs to starting position.
Can be scaled to any ability:
Some core exercises are incredibly difficult and although effective, are only suitable for advanced athletes. Beginners can start by holding the supported 3 months position and learning to flatten their back against the floor with their knees bent at a 90 degree angle (this position is named after the position that babies around this age tend to lie in). More advanced athletes can add fitness balls between the legs, add dumbbells to the hands, use ankle weights or bands attached to the ankles. Use your creativity and you will never run out of dead bug progressions.
Instant biofeedback for errors
The dead bug is an anti-extension anti-rotation exercise, so if your back raises off the floor, or one of your hips twists/rises, you know you’ve made a mistake or are using a progression that is too advanced for your current abilities. You automatically know when to terminate the set. As a general rule you should be able to get at least 8 reps of your current progression before moving on to the next one.
Can be done bilaterally or unilaterally. Can increase or decease the anti-rotational component
You can change the amount of oblique involvement by how much you move your limbs to the side, and challenge yourself with different patterns of activation by moving limbs in different series: same side leg and arm, opposite arm opposite leg. This can very useful for those with hip impingements related to instability, and can be progressed slowly ensuring proper motor control.
When proper breathing is cued, can reduce tension in the lower back musculature
Deep breathing into the pelvic floor helps to activate the transverse abdominus, the lower fibers of the rectus abdominus, and the muscles of the pelvic floor to assist with pelvic stability. This signals to the central nervous system that it can decrease the tension in the lower back musculature, because the system is already stable and co-contraction is inefficient.
Zero compressive or shearing forces on the spine
Ok, not zero, but drops of water in the ocean here. Because the spine is supported, alignment is maintained, and the forced contraction of the muscles surrounding the spine means that ligaments aren’t loaded to any great degree. All this adds up to a fairly comfortable core retraining method for those with injured backs or spine irritation. Of course, consult your doctor or physiotherapist before implementing this advice.
Can aid in the correction of pelvic tilt
Pelvic tilt probably deserves its own article, and will get it in the future, but for now the Coles notes version. Posture is very individual and reflexively controlled by the central nervous system, not everyone will fit into “reference posture” this mythical perfect posture position with 5-9 degrees of forward angle at the pelvis depending on gender; however, extreme anterior pelvic tilt is often produced from way too much sitting. This results in weak abdominals, weak hamstrings, and tight hip flexors and a tight lower back. If the anterior tilt is caused by muscle imbalance then dead bugs can help to alleviate the symptoms.
You can do them every day
Abdominals are fairly quick to recover, and because you can use easier and harder progressions, most people can do a variant almost every day. A high/low method works wonders here: hardest progression one day, easier progression not done to failure the next.
All this adds up to the dead bug being one hell of an exercise, and hopefully you’ll give them a shot in your own program