How to Do the Bird-Dog Exercise: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

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The bird-dog is a bodyweight exercise that strengthens the core—more specifically, the abdominal muscles, lower back, butt, and thighs. Since it requires no equipment other than a mat, it can easily be integrated into almost any core strength training routine.

Also Known As: Quadruped

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

Equipment Needed: Exercise mat or other cushioned surface

Level: Intermediate

How to Do the Bird-Dog Exercise

Bird-Dog Exercise
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Find a spot with enough space to extend an arm and leg at the same time. Kneel on an exercise mat or other cushioned surface with your knees hip-width apart and hands firmly on the ground, about shoulder-width apart. Brace your abdominals.

  1. Point one arm out straight in front and extend the opposite leg behind you, forming a straight line from your extended hand to the extended foot. Keep your hips squared to the ground. If your low back begins to sag, raise your leg only as high as you can while keeping the back straight.
  2. Hold for a few seconds, then return to your hands and knees. Keep your abs engaged throughout the entire exercise and work to minimize any extra motion in your hips during the weight shift.
  3. Switch to the other side.

If you struggle with good form, practice this move first by lifting the hand and opposite knee just an inch or two off the floor while balancing on the other hand and knee and keeping your weight centered. When you feel steady, you are ready to move on to a full range of motion.

Benefits of the Bird-Dog Exercise

The main target of the bird-dog is the erector spinae muscle. This long back 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.

Two abdominal muscles work as antagonists to the erector spinae: the rectus abdominis and the obliques. This move also involves the gluteus maximus muscle of the buttocks (when raising the leg) and the trapezius muscles of the upper back and deltoids of the shoulder (when raising the arm).

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
  • The triceps of the upper arm

Both athletic trainers and physical therapists use the bird-dog exercise with their clients. It is good 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 can help when engaged in everyday tasks that involve bending and twisting.

Other Variations of the Bird-Dog

You can perform the bird-dog exercise in different ways based on your fitness level and goals.

No Arm Extension

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

Zipper

Rather than returning the hand and knee to the ground between each rep, bend your elbow and bring your opposing knee forward until they touch under the body. This mid-exercise touch increases the tension placed on your core as you work to keep your balance.

Bird-Dog on a Bench

You can use a weightlifting bench to add a further challenge. Kneel on the bench with your feet hanging free off its end, eliminating your lower leg's contribution to your stability.

Bird-Dog on an 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. That makes this variation even more of a stability challenge.

Bird-Dog From Push-Up Position

Rather than having your knees on the ground, get into a push-up position and balance on the toes of your feet and your hands. This is similar to doing bird-dogs on the exercise ball but 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 exercise. To do it, you extend the arm and leg on the same side of the body at the same time.

Common Mistakes

Avoid these mistakes to keep proper form and reduce injury risk.

Chest Sag

Watch your upper body when doing the bird-dog exercise or any of its variations. If your chest sags down, your shoulders will be too close to your ears.

Excessive Spinal Curve

It's just as important that your back does not curve excessively during the movement. Instead, aim to keep your torso straight and your spine in a neutral position.

To test whether you have proper form, have someone place an empty plastic cup on your lower back. If it falls off, continue to work on extending one leg or one arm at a time.

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. Stop doing it if you experience pain in your shoulders, back, or hips.

Aim to complete 5 reps on each side or 10 reps total. Add additional sets of 10 exercises for a maximum of 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.

Try It Out

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

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6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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