The dead bug exercise is one of the best ab exercises you're probably not doing.
A small, no-crunch core movement, the dead bug requires a little extra coordination. But once you get the hang of it, you'll be on your way to a stronger foundation, which can decrease back pain, make everyday tasks like walking and lifting heavy objects easier and improve athletic performance.
"Almost anyone can benefit from the dead bug, as it teaches you to engage your core," says Caroline Freeman, assistant fitness manager at Crunch 59th Street in New York City. Not only is an engaged core required for exercises like squats and deadlifts, it's also a key component to almost all other types of exercise, from archery to Zumba and everything in between.
Performed on a regular basis, stabilization exercises like dead bug can also help alleviate chronic lower back pain, especially when paired with walking, according to a June 2019 study in the journal Medicine.
- What is a dead bug? The dead bug is an ab exercise using controlled, isolated movements. The starting position is flat on your back, with your arms pointing straight up in the air and both legs bent up at a 90-degree angle, resembling — what else? — a dead bug. Slowly and with control, you alternate lowering one arm over your head while extending the opposite leg to the ground and bringing them back up while keeping your core engaged and your lower back pressed to the floor.
- What muscles does the dead bug exercise work? The dead bug is a core-stabilizing exercise that targets the lower abs, called the transverse abdominal muscles, and the muscles that run along your spine, the erector spinae, which support your lower back.
- Who can do the dead bug? "Everyone can benefit from a dead bug," Freeman says. Beginners can use it to strengthen and stabilize the core, while more experienced athletes can progress to more advanced variations.
How Do You Do the Dead Bug?
The dead bug exercise doesn't require any equipment, so you can do it just about anywhere, at any time. "Incorporating dead bugs at the beginning of your workout program will help prime your core muscles for compound movements," Freeman says. Try adding them to your warm-up, a HIIT cardio workout or a core routine. A mat can be helpful, but it's not necessary.
Step 1: Start Lying on Your Back
- Lie flat on your back with both arms reaching straight toward the ceiling.
- Lift your feet off the ground so your legs are bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Keep your lower back in contact with the floor through the entire duration of the exercise.
Step 2: Extend One Arm and the Opposite Leg
- Slowly and with control, extend one arm and the opposite leg away from each other.
- Move from the hip and the shoulder, keeping your spine steady.
- Keep your limbs long and low to the floor, forming a diagonal line.
- Lower your limbs as far as you can while keeping the lower back on the ground. Fight the impulse to arch your back by tightening your abs, pressing your bellybutton down to anchor your lower back to the floor.
Step 3: Return to Center and Switch Sides
- Exhale as you return your arm and leg to starting position with the same slow, controlled movement.
- Repeat with the other arm and leg, then return to center again. This counts as one rep.
If your lower back begins to peel away from the floor as you stretch your limbs, don't extend your arms or legs quite as low to the ground. Keeping your back pressed into the ground is more important than reaching the floor with your hands or feet. Work up to the full range of motion over time.
How Many Dead Bugs Should You Do?
Beginners should start with 3 sets of 5 reps. In two weeks, if you can keep your lower back in contact with the floor for the full extension and duration of the exercise, increase to 4 sets of 8 reps. Work up to 5 sets of 12, and add in variations (like the ones below!) to increase the intensity.
Benefits of Dead Bugs
Starting each workout with a warm-up that includes dead bugs can send a signal to your muscles (from head to toe) that they're about to get busy.
Dead Bugs Build a Stronger and More Stable Core
A few rounds of dead bugs will activate your trunk and core through isolation and stabilization to prevent back pain and promote more fluid movement. "Commonly practiced compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, push-ups and pull-ups require the isolation and stabilization of the trunk to prevent back pain," Freeman explains.
They Improve Lower Back Pain
Core stabilizing exercises like the dead bug put the focus on the muscles of the lower abs and pelvis, according to the American Council on Exercise. Improved strength along the entire front of your core provides more support to the back, helping to decrease pain and make everyday movements easier.
Dead Bugs Improve Coordination
Moves like dead bug that involve your whole body activate the brain in a pretty remarkable way. The dead bug "requires both sides of the brain to work together, because limbs on both sides of the body have to move synchronously (called a contralateral movement pattern)," writes personal trainer Brett Klika for the American Council on Exercise.
Contralateral movement reinforces the connection between the two hemispheres of the brain to improve coordination, which makes these types of exercises a smart move for people of all fitness levels.
Dead Bug Modifications
This seemingly simple movement is harder than it looks. Dial back the intensity when you're first starting out with these tweaks.
Supported Dead Bug
The first few times you perform the exercise, use a yoga block or stability ball to keep one arm and one leg in place.
- Lying on your back, raise your hands straight up and lift your feet off the floor by bending your knees to 90 degrees.
- Place a horizontal yoga block or inflated stability ball between your left elbow and right knee.
- Keeping the yoga block or ball in place, raise and lower your right arm and left leg to the floor.
- Lift back up to the starting position. Complete 5 repetitions, then switch sides.
- After several sessions, try 5 reps on each side without the prop while keeping your back flat against the floor.
This modification also helps you keep your back from arching as you perform the exercise.
It's fairly common to experience clicking in the hips as the legs extend in dead bug, Freeman says. To troubleshoot, don't extend the knee when you lower your leg to the floor.
- Lying on your back in dead bug starting position, extend your right arm and lower your left leg, keeping the left knee bent at a 90-degree angle the entire time.
- Tap the left heel lightly on the floor.
- Return to starting position.
- Switch sides and repeat. With continued practice, you can work toward fully extending the leg, Freeman says.
Dead Bug Exercise Progressions
Once you can perform 5 sets of 12 repetitions of the basic dead bug with ease, try these variations to keep your midsection challenged. Only attempt these if you can keep your back from arching off the ground.
Straight-Leg Dead Bug
Increase the work for your core by keeping your legs straight throughout the entire exercise.
Weighted Dead Bug
You have a few different options when it comes to adding weight to the dead bug exercise. All of these increase the resistance to up the muscle gain.
- Fasten ankle weights and/or wrist weights around your limbs and perform the standard dead bug.
- Hold dumbbells or a kettlebell straight out in front of you. Lower and raise both arms at the same time, then return arms to starting position and lower and raise both legs at the same time.
Choose a weight that will allow you to perform at least 3 sets of 5 reps without lifting your back from the floor or causing pain or pulling in your extremities or core.
Stability Ball Dead Bug
Squeeze a stability ball between your knees, legs straight. Lower and raise both legs together, return the legs to starting position, then lower and raise the arms.
Resistance Band Dead Bug
This not only calls on your core even more, it also taxes the backs of your arms.
- Loop a medium resistance band around a pole or weight bench.
- Lie down on the ground with the handles of the band behind you and hold one end in each hand.
- Position yourself so that the band is taut with your hands straight up in the air.
- Keeping the band taut and your hands in place above your head, extend one leg at a time.
Incorporate the Dead Bug Into Your Workout
You can feature the dead bug in any number of different exercise plans, but if you want some ideas for ab workouts where it's a perfect fit, try: