The dead bug is one of my favourite core exercises, but they don’t get the respect they deserve because, more often then not, they are done poorly. The person doing them has arms and legs flailing around, the low back is arched and there is no benefit at all in doing them.
So I’m going to break down the exercise a bit, and give you some pointers on getting more out of them, and some variations to play with.
Dead bugs 101
At its core, (gettit? core? haaahahahaha) the dead bug is an anti-extension exercise. That is it teaches you to train the abs to resist the separation of the hips and ribs, helping you maintain a better position during other movements both in and out of the gym. Another benefit of this type of exercise is to take some pressure off your low back by getting you out of lumbar extension and into a more normal range.
What I like about the dead bug group of exercises in particular though, is the way that they can be regressed for the beginner, and progressed for a more advanced trainee, all with the same great results in core strength and control.
Because the dead bug is done on your back, there is a great deal of stability built in, and gravity isn’t working against you quite so much, since the bulk of your bulk is in contact with the floor. But by simply adding in a band or other external loading, the exercise will challenge the strongest of people.
The set up
Setting up on your back, hips and knees at 90 degrees, shoulders away from your ears and your low back tight to the floor. If you get this position right, then you should immediately feel your abs come on. Getting your hips rolled back and your shoulders down helps you get the abs engaged straight away. It’s difficult to get your abs on if your shoulders are up at your ears, which causes your ribs to flare more. So squeeze your shoulders down and try to lock the position of your hips and ribs.
Try this: Set up in this postion, with your knees and hips at 90º. Pay attention to your abs. Now, keep your knees where they are, but let you feet drop towards your butt, feel the difference in your abs? Because your feet have gotten closer to your butt, the effective lever length has shortened making it easier to maintain and the less you need strong abs to do so. The same is true if you let your knees drop back towards your chest. Use this difference in ab engagement help you find the best set up position and get the most out of the exercise.
The leg only dead bug
Making this a leg only version takes some of the co-ordination out of the exercise, and also some of the extension forces are reduced making it easier to control.
This makes it a great entry point for a lot of people and can be further regressed by reducing the range of movement by keeping the knee bent. This has a similar effect in reducing the lever acting on your hips, trying to roll them away and lift your back off the floor. As you get stronger, you extend the moving leg further and have to resist a bigger load.
The band resisted dead bug
As you get your leg extending further, you may find it a little harder to maintain your low back in contact with the floor. Either because your hips are rolling away, or because your ribs are flaring. This band resisted version helps you by making you resist an external force trying you to lift your ribs and arch your low back. Pulling against the band, locks down your ribcage, engages your lats, and helps control your rib position more easily. Leaving you to focus on building more strength and control in your lumbo-pelvic area. Which is a fancy pants way of saying you get better at keeping your hips rolled back.
Make sure you anchor the band securely, otherwise bad things might happen. Painful, pingy things.
The full dead bug
The full version of the exercise adds in a co-ordination component as well as a cross body stretch to make the anti-extension part that bit harder.
As you reach your hand overhead and your leg out, you have to actively hold your pelvis in position. You get an extra 10% boost in ab strength just by being able to co-ordinate your movements all the way through the set.
The loaded dead bug
Once you have mastered the control of your arms and legs moving in different direction whilst maintaining your hip/rib/ low back position, you can add a load in to further challenge your strength and control.
This acts on your rib position, trying to arch your back and lift your ribs to help with the control of the load going overhead. This gives you a nice bonus of helping improve your upper back mobility (extension/ flexion) while you make strength gains in your abs. As always, remember to actively pull your pelvis back against the load of your leg moving on each rep.
Bonus: Dead bug with a cross-body reach
This variation is a twist on the loaded dead bug. Literally. As you extend the load overhead, you reach it across to the opposite direction from the extending leg, creating abigger stretch and a twisting moment to the exercise. This helps get a little more from the obliques and creates a slightly different demand on the hip/ rib control.
With all of the variations shown, make sure to master on before moving to the next hardest option. Always be active in controlling your hip and rib position, and if in doubt, get a pro to check out your technique.
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