Struggling With Dead Bugs? Here's What Your Body's Trying to Tell You

Dead bugs are great for building core strength, but they require a lot of coordination and stability.
Image Credit: LIVESTRONG.com Creative

No, we're not talking about needing an exterminator. We're talking about struggling with the dead bug exercise, the opposite-arm-and-leg, core-strengthening exercise that's beneficial for people of all fitness levels.

"People who have neck and shoulder injuries or who are unable to flex in their spine due to scoliosis will especially find this exercise beneficial," says Celestine Atalie, CPT, a NASM-certified personal trainer for the P.volve fitness method.

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And when done correctly, this exercise has a host of benefits: "Dead bugs can help us to get into a neutral position, improving our posture and hopefully helping to alleviate lower back pain while gaining control of our ribs/pelvis," Kristina Jennings, CPT, a certified functional strength coach for Future, a one-on-one online personal training platform. "Ultimately, they help to strengthen the core."

The set-up seems simple enough: You lie on your back, arms extended up toward the ceiling and knees and hips at 90-degree angles so that your shins are parallel to the floor. Then you lower your right arm and left leg toward the floor. Draw those limbs back, then repeat with the opposite arm and leg.

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Pretty easy, right? Not so fast. If you're not actively engaging your core or have muscle imbalances and tightness, the dead bug is, well, pretty much a dead-end, meaning you're not going to get much out of the move.

Your lower back should be anchored to the ground the entire time (imagine there's a dollar bill under your back that you don't want anyone to get), and this involves major core engagement, which isn't always easy to tap.

That's why we talked to Atalie and Jennings to help you figure out what's going on that makes this exercise so difficult, as well as stretches and exercises to help you complete the dead bug move perfectly every time.

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First, Brush Up on How to Do the Dead Bug Exercise

First, Brush Up on How to Do the Dead Bug Exercise
Image Credit: Kristina Jennings/LIVESTRONG.com
Skill Level All Levels
Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core
  1. Lie flat on your back (on the ground or any flat, stable surface) with both arms reaching straight toward the ceiling.
  2. Lift your feet off the ground so your legs are bent at a 90-degree angle.
  3. With control, lower one arm and the opposite leg away from each other and toward the floor.
  4. 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.
  5. Exhale as you return your arm and leg to the starting position with the same controlled movement.
  6. Repeat with the other arm and leg, then return to the center again.

If You: Can't Lower Both Limbs at Once

You Might: Need to Improve Your Coordination

Kind of like patting your head while rubbing your stomach, lowering your opposite arm and leg can take you a beat to get used to. After all, you're not really doing that movement pattern in real life.

"When a brand-new activity is demanded and the person hasn't done anything similar to that movement before, then they don't have the motor pattern formed for it yet," Atalie says. Basically, your brain and muscles haven't talked about how to do the move yet, so communication is a bit clunky.

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"This makes that new activity difficult because the body has not yet figured out a coordinated way of putting together the specific muscles that are needed," she says.

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Practice, practice, practice. Like learning to use chopsticks or ride a bike, you'll only get better and improve your coordination if you keep at it, Atalie says.

"One trick is to visualize doing the move perfectly and then allowing the body to follow what is mentally performed," she says.

And while you're doing the move, think to yourself “opposite arm, opposite leg," Jennings says. "To regress, just focus on your lower body first by taking your arms out of the equation and placing them up against a wall/some type of resistance [like a stability ball]," she says.

If You: Can't Keep Your Back on the Floor

You Might: Need to Build Some Foundational Core Strength

This one is kind of a catch-22: Dead bug exercises improve your core strength, but you need a certain level of core strength to be able to perform them correctly, Atalie says.

"The abdominals are lumbar flexors/posterior pelvic tilters, and when you lower your arm/leg, each of these limbs pulls the spine in the opposite direction, so the abs must work extra hard to maintain lumbar flexion," she says.

In other words, you're calling on your abdominals to do the exact opposite of what they're used to. And like coordination, that takes practice to perfect.

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To make this exercise easier, try a shortened dead bug by keeping your knees bent at all times. This will lessen the amount of force the core muscles need to generate to help you keep your back firmly against the floor throughout the move. The result: You build the core strength to gradually straighten your knees more and more.

Atalie also recommends doing standing ab exercises to help her clients build sufficient strength for dead bugs. You can also use them as part of a quick warm-up before your ab workouts.

If You: Can't Lower Your Leg All of the Way

You Might: Have Tight Hip Flexors

One of the consequences of sitting at your desk all day is tight hip flexors because they're in a shortened position. And that isn't doing your workout performance any favors.

"Hip flexor flexibility is important because you must be able to extend and flex your hip to perform the dead bug correctly," Jennings says. If they're tight, you won't be able to lower your leg all the way or your lower back will overarch to compensate. And over time, that can lead to lower back pain.

Fix It

Stretch your tight hip flexors. "The hip flexor stretch is a great one," Jennings says. "The Spiderman stretch and foam rolling hip flexor stretch are also great places to start."

Hip Flexor Stretch

  1. Kneel on the ground with one foot forward and the other behind you.
  2. Press your hips forward until you feel a stretch in the front hip crease and possibly down the front of your thigh as well.
  3. Hold for 30 seconds before repeating on the other leg.

Spiderman Stretch

  1. Take a big step forward with your right foot.
  2. Place both hands on the floor on the inside of your foot as you bend your right knee. Keep your left leg straight behind you. You should feel this stretch along the front of your back hip crease.
  3. Hold for 30 seconds before repeating on the other side.

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