The Bird Dog Exercise Is the Core Move Your Ab Workouts Have Been Missing

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The bird dog exercise strengthens and stabilizes your entire core.
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A dog may be a human's best friend, but the bird dog exercise is your core's best friend.

The aptly named ab exercise (the position resembles a hunting dog, sometimes called a bird dog, pointing at its prey) strengthens and stabilizes the muscles along your spine and stomach.

"The bird dog is all about hip and core activation and stabilization," says Sara Nickoles, a trainer at Life Time in Gaithersburg, Maryland. "It allows the body to naturally 'right the ship,' and therefore wakes up those very necessary core stabilizers."

A more stable core not only builds a strong foundation for successful workouts, it also helps improve range of motion and can even ease back pain.

  • What is a bird dog exercise? Also called quadruped, it's an ab exercise performed on all fours by extending one arm out front and the opposite leg straight back, returning to center and repeating on the other side. It's performed slowly and with precision, focusing on activating the stabilizers in the front and back of your trunk.
  • What muscles do bird dogs target? Bird dog works your obliques, glutes, hamstrings and back, according to a November 2013 report in Sports Health.
  • Who can do bird dog? All fitness levels — in fact, everyone should do some variation of this exercise, Nickoles says.

How to Do Bird Dog

Think about extending your limbs long rather than up when you do the bird dog exercise.
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One of the greatest things about bird dog is its ease-to-benefit ratio. You need no equipment and very little room to perform this exercise, and it can be done every day on its own or before a workout. You'll just need a surface that is comfortable for your hands and knees to rest on and enough room to stretch out one arm and one leg (think: a little longer than a workout mat).

Step 1: Start on All Fours

  • In tabletop position, keep your hands directly underneath your shoulders and your knees no wider than your hips.
  • Your spine should be as straight as possible.

Step 2: Alternate Extending One Arm and One Leg

  • On an exhale, reach your right arm straight out in front of you. At the same time, kick your left leg straight back.
  • Keep your hips and shoulders steady without arching or rounding your back or tilting or rotating your hips.
  • Return your arm and leg to starting position.
  • Switch sides, reaching your left arm out in front and kicking your right leg back.
  • Return to tabletop to complete one rep.

Step 3: Prioritize Balance, Not Speed

  • Keep your movements measured and steady.
  • Breathe with the movement of your arms and legs: Inhale in tabletop position, exhale as you extend your limbs, inhale as you return to tabletop.

Tip

Imagine balancing a glass of water on your back throughout the exercise to make sure your body remains stable.

How Many Bird Dogs Should You Do?

With daily practice and proper form over a few weeks, you'll find it easier to maintain a neutral spine throughout the exercise. Start with 3 sets of 10 reps, focusing on maintaining steady control of your limbs.

Ultimately, you'll build up to holding each rep at full extension for a count of three and completing as many reps as you can in 30 seconds, without rushing. The goal is to maintain steady control throughout each step.

Tip

Between sets, remain in tabletop and do a few rounds of cat cow, alternately rounding and arching your back, and rotate your hips in circles. Sit your hips back into Child’s pose and extend your arms in front of you, or rest them along your sides to stretch the muscles you just worked.

What Is the Bird Dog Exercise Good For?

The bird dog is a stabilization exercise, so don't expect to burn too many calories doing them. (You'll probably only burn 13 calories in five minutes of work, according to LIVESTRONG.com's MyPlate app.) Burpees or mountain climbers burn more, but Nickoles says mastering the bird dog is key to ensuring these and other cardio workouts, including running, swimming and tennis, are done efficiently and effectively.

Waking Up Your Muscles

Nickoles uses bird dog at the beginning of workouts to help awaken supporting muscles for the exercises she'll do later on. When back muscles aren't warmed up properly, for example, they are harder to activate during a workout. The result: Your body works around those muscles instead, leading to improper form, inefficient workouts and potential injury.

Strengthening Your Back and Abs

Bird dog primarily works the back muscles called the erector spinae that are responsible for rounding and arching your back. You'll also feel it — and see results — in your abs and glutes. Performing exercises like bird dog that stretch and strengthen at the same time helps relieve back pain and improve posture over time.

Improving Range of Motion in Your Arms and Legs

Bird dog stabilizes the low back to support movement of your arms and legs, according to the American Council on Exercise. Incorporating two to three rounds of bird dog into your warm-up can help activate these stabilizers, as well as the muscles you use to flex and extend your arms and legs. That primes you to move through a full range of motion and thereby improve your overall performance within each sweat session.

Focus on Your Form

The biggest bird dog mistakes are letting your hips move, your shoulders dip or your back arch or sag. Make sure you keep your trunk as still as possible, Nickoles says, “even if that means you do not raise your leg or arm very high off of the ground. The smaller the ‘tilt’ the more you activate your core.”

Bird Dog Modifications

If you find the standard bird dog exercise too difficult, work up to the full movement with these modifications first.

One-Legged Donkey Kicks

For this modification, you'll keep your arms in place and move only one leg at a time.

  1. Begin in a tabletop position.
  2. Keeping your hips steady and still, kick one leg straight back in a slow, fluid movement.
  3. When your leg is extended parallel to the floor, bend your knee and bring it back down to tabletop.
  4. Switch legs, keeping your shoulders and hips steady.

Arms-Only Bird Dog

Practice keeping your legs steady and moving only your arms before you put everything together.

  1. Begin in a tabletop position.
  2. Extend one arm, reaching out in front of you until it is parallel to the floor.
  3. Return to starting position, then repeat with the opposite arm.
  4. Make sure your hips and shoulders do not move throughout the entire exercise.

Tip

Add one-pound hand weights if arms-only feels too easy but you aren’t ready to add your legs to the mix just yet.

Bird Dog Progressions

When you can complete 3 sets of 10 repetitions while keeping your back, hips and shoulders straight, up the intensity with these bird dog exercise variations.

Weighted Bird Dog

Perform bird dog as usual and add ankle weights and/or hold free weights.

Bird-Dog Crunch

  1. Extend one arm and the opposite leg as in standard bird dog, but instead of returning to tabletop, round your back and engage your core to touch your elbow to your knee for an abdominal crunch.
  2. Repeat 10 times on one side, then switch sides.

BOSU Ball Bird Dog

  1. Place one knee in the center of a BOSU ball.
  2. Extend your other leg and opposite arm straight out and hold for 20 seconds, then switch sides.

Plank Bird Dog

  1. Instead of starting in tabletop position, begin in a high plank.
  2. Perform the standard bird dog from this position, extending one arm and the opposite leg, returning to center, then switching sides.

Half Plank Bird Dog

If the above variation is just a little too challenging, extend one extremity at a time.

  1. In plank position, extend your left arm, then place it back on the floor.
  2. Repeat with your right arm, then your left leg and finally your right leg to complete one rep.
  3. When you can complete 3 sets of 10, move up to the plank bird dog.

Should You Do Bird Dog or Superman?

For years, trainers have been using the bird dog exercise and the superman exercise relatively interchangeably for strengthening the back, but for efficiency and safety, bird dog wins out, Nickoles says. Not only is the bird dog more of a total-body movement, but superman arches the spine and is easier to perform incorrectly, which could lead to injury.

Incorporate Bird Dog Into Your Workout

You can do bird dog on its own, as part of a warm-up or within a lengthier workout. Here are some of our favorite ways to do just that:

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