Dead Bug Exercises: The Why and How

A strong and stable core is important in injury prevention and and performance. An effective core helps protect the spine and effectively express the strength we work so hard to achieve. The only problem is traditional “ab exercises” don’t do the trick and can actually place the spine in a precarious position.

In 2 Tips To Safer Six-Pack Abs, I go into what the function of the core is. To summarize, the primary function of the core musculature is to STOP motion and transfer energy. Because the core musculature is meant to stop motion and not create it, it is time to re-evaluate exercises like the crunch. The repetitive flexion of the spine places unhealthy load on the soft tissue structures (ligaments and intervertebral discs). Instead of risking the health of your spine through dozens and dozens of crunches, it’s time to replace them with dead bug progressions.

Why the Dead Bug?

The Dead Bug is a great place to start in learning and training for core stabilization and especially anterior core strength. The Dead Bug places us in a developmental position to work on resisting lumbar extension or the anti-extension mechanism of the anterior core. Learning to control lumbar extension can be effective in postural correction of those with anterior pelvic tilt.

Think back to when you were a baby (I know, you probably don’t remember but play along) and how did you spend most of your time? Laying on your back right? In the supine position we learned so much about the world and we learned how our body worked. This is a perfect opportunity to throw an old video in here of my little girl when she was a couple months old.

The goal when performing the Dead Bug is to turn on the superficial and deep core musculature while you perform movements in the limbs. The crossover into everyday life is a stable spine during movements like walking up the stairs, swinging a golf club, or picking up your children. If you have athletic aspirations and strong stable core will allow you to change direction and apply force much more efficiently through your limbs. The Dead Bug allows you to build the foundation to strong and efficient movement.

Performing the Dead Bug

  1. Start with hip and knees at 90 degrees of flexion and hands straight out in front of you while lying on your back.
  2. Fully inhale through your nose followed by a forceful exhale. During inhalation you should feel as if you’re breathing into your sides and back, expanding in a 360 degree fashion. During first exhale, ribs should be pulled down and in. Anterior core and glutes should be activated. Low back should feel as if it is pinned into the ground.
  3. Extremities can be brought down during the inhale and up during the exhale. Movement needs to be slow.
  4. Watch for extension of the lumbar spine. Gapping between the low back and ground should not be seen. Rigidity of the trunk should maintain complete rigidity throughout the movement. Movement should only appear to occur in the extremities.
  5. To progress to a more difficult variation, you must have the ability to do 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 on each side.

Progressing the Dead Bug

The Dead Bug can be progressed through a number of ways. Here is a list of the ways that the Dead Bug can progressed:

  • Adding movement of the legs
  • Adding movement of the arms
  • Combining movement of arms and legs, opposite arm and leg.
  • Increasing the lever arm (straightening of knees during leg movements).
  • External load through bands and kettlebells/dumbbells

Dead Bug Progression

In this article I will only show the basics and how to build a foundation. Variations will be for another day because most people need to spend time on mastering the early progressions. Master the full dead bug variation before trying to increase the stimulus of the exercise.

1. Dead Bug Heel Taps: First progression of the Dead bug is performed with only the legs being in motion. The knees will remain bent and one heel will tap the ground at a time. Arms are held straight out above for the whole exercise

2. Dead Bug Full Taps: By adding movement of the arms to the previous exercise you increase the stabilization need required. The knees still remain bent during this exercise.

3. Dead Bugs: This is the standard Dead Bug exercise that you will often see in most gyms. To create further stabilization requirement you are now fully extending the knee. Hold for a second while fully extended and return to position. Important as always to maintain neutral spine and full contact of the low back to the floor.

For questions on the dead bug exercise and it’s variations please feel free to contact me below. Interested in having a personalize workout plan based on your needs? Contact me for more information.