How to Do the Bird Dog Exercise

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Pilates exercises
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Also Known As: Quadruped

Targets: Abdominals, lower back, gluteal muscles, thigh muscles

Level: Intermediate

The bird dog may sound like a dance craze, but its main claim to fame is that it's a bodyweight floor exercise that strengthens the core—more specifically, the abdominal muscles, lower back, butt, and thighs. Although it is called an isolation exercise, a lot is going on from head to thigh. As a bodyweight exercise, you need no equipment as your own body provides the resistance. It's also easy to do anywhere, as long as you have a comfortable place to rest your hands and knees and enough room to extend both an arm and a leg. To get the balance right, all you need is a little practice.

Benefits

The bird dog exercise is used by both athletic trainers and physical therapists. It is touted as a good exercise for building low back function as it engages both the core and back muscles at the same time. It may reduce low back pain and is regarded as a safe exercise during recovery from a back injury. A strong core and good spinal stability will help you in everyday tasks whenever you need to bend or twist.

The main target of the bird dog is the erector spinae muscle. This long muscle extends the length of the spine, from the skull, neck, and ribs to the vertebrae and sacrum of the hip. It is responsible for extending, flexing, and rotating the spine.

The move also involves the gluteus maximus muscle of the buttocks, which is worked when raising the leg. In raising the arm, you engage the trapezius muscles of the upper back and the deltoids of the shoulder.

Meanwhile, other muscles get involved in stabilizing the motion. These include the hamstrings on the back of the thigh, the other gluteal muscles (medius and minimus), the piriformis and obturator externus of the hip, the pectoralis and serratus muscles of the chest, and the triceps of the upper arm.

The other abdominal muscle works as antagonists to the erector spinae, and so you also involve the rectus abdominis and the obliques.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Find a soft surface to kneel on and enough space to extend both an arm and a leg at the same time. An exercise mat is a good choice of surface.

  1. Kneel with knees hip-width apart and your hands firmly placed on the ground about shoulder-width apart. Brace the abdominals.
  2. Practice lifting one hand and the opposite knee just an inch or two off the floor while balancing on the other hand and knee and keeping your weight centered. 
  3. When you feel steady and ready to move on to full range of motion, point the arm out straight in front and extend the opposite leg behind you. You should form one straight line from your hand to your foot, hips squared to the ground. However, if your low back begins to sag, raise your leg only as high as you can while keeping your back straight.
  4. Hold for a few seconds then return your hands and knees to the starting position.
  5. Keep the abs engaged throughout the entire exercise, and work to minimize any extra motion in your hips during the weight shift.

Aim to complete five strong reps on each side, 10 reps total. Add additional sets of 10 exercises, up to three sets of 10.

As a variation, you can do a set of 10 bird dogs on one side, then switch to the other side.

Common Mistakes

Watch your form. You need to keep your shoulders away from your ears, which will happen if your chest sags down.

To test how stable you are and whether you have proper form, have someone place a cup on your pelvis. If it falls off, you need to continue to work on extending one leg or one arm at a time.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

If you have difficulty with the movement, begin with just extending one leg at a time and not extending the arms. Once you are able to do this with good stability, progress to extending the opposite arm at the same time as the leg.

Up for a Challenge?

While bird dog can be difficult at first, you should see lots of improvement as long as you continue to practice. Try these advanced versions for more of a challenge:

  • Zipper: The zipper version of bird dog adds more advanced moves. You will do it with one arm/leg combo for 15 reps, then switch sides. Rather than returning the hand and knee to the ground, you bend your elbow and bring your knee forward until they touch under the body.
  • Bird Dog on the Bench: You can use a weightlifting bench to add a further challenge. You will kneel on the bench with the feet hanging free in the air off the end of the bench, eliminating your lower leg's contribution to your stability.
  • Bird Dog on the Exercise Ball: Place an exercise ball under your hips to do the bird dog. You won't be able to get your knees on the ground, so you are balancing on the toes of your foot instead. Do the regular alternate side bird dog from this position. This is even more of a stability challenge.
  • Bird Dog from Pushup Position: Rather than having your knees on the ground, you are in pushup position balanced on the toes of your feet and your hands. This is similar to doing bird dogs on the exercise ball, only even more challenging.
  • Single-Side Bird Dog: This is a next-level variation of bird dog, which you should only do if you have mastered the regular bird dog. You extend the arm and leg on the same side of the body.

Safety and Precautions

You should not do the bird dog if you have shoulder pain. If you have had a back injury, check with your doctor or physical therapist about when this exercise might be beneficial.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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