January 13, 2022 8 min read
Bird dogs are a great core stability exercise you can use to warm up or cool down at either end of an exercise routine. It might look easy enough, but this exercise requires intention and focus to do properly.
There’s no better exercise than the bird dog to illustrate the proper way to use instability training as part of a wider fitness program.
Read this exercise guide to find out how to do bird dogs the right way, the best way to use them in your routine, and a few variations to keep your workout interesting and effective.
The bird dog is a straightforward bodyweight exercise that primarily tests the body’s rotational stability while also activating lower body and back muscles. In this move, you’re going to extend an arm and a leg on opposite sides of the body to get a full-body stretch. Its name comes from the pose you’re in at the top of the move, which resembles a bird dog who has caught the scent of its quarry. Just like bird dogs are honed in on the hunt, you need to be focused to perform this exercise.
You don’t need anything to do bird dogs. An exercise mat will be helpful if you’re going to be running through your reps on a hard surface. When you’re first starting, a personal trainer or colleague can use a rod or dowel to ensure your upper body is in the proper form.
Follow these steps to execute a flawless bird dog exercise:
Running down either side of the spinal column, the erector spinae is a muscle group that contributes to rib cage movement, rotation of the spine, flexion (forward movement) of the neck, and maintaining a healthy posture by bending the spine backward. Parts of the erector spinae, particularly the multifidus, are stabilizers for the spine while the entire group of them together provide the force needed for lifting.
If you’re interested in deadlifts, squats, and other mass-building exercises, using simple bodyweight exercises like the bird dog to build strength in the erector spinae is a wise move.
The largest muscle in the glute muscle group comes into play when you lift that rear leg in the bird dog exercise. Holding it up for several seconds activates the gluteus maximus even more, as does keeping the lower back in place and preventing the hips from rotating or sliding.
Similarly, the deltoid on the top of your shoulder and the trapezius muscle on the back of your neck and shoulders work to extend that arm and keep it aloft during the bird dog exercise. The trapezius also helps maintain posture, so it’s working double time during this exercise.
Your delts are partly responsible for keeping your arm in its socket at the shoulder joint, a very important task for those of us who lift weights. The deltoid moves the arm out to the side (abduction) and in front of the body (extension).
More commonly known as the abs or the “six-pack muscle,” the rectus abdominis helps during any motion that brings the hips and the rib cage together, which is why crunches and leg raises are often used in bodyweight ab workouts. In the case of the bird dog, the rectus abdominis is stabilizing the lumbar spine. It won’t give you ripped abs, but the bird dog does induce moderate activity levels in the rectus abdominis.
The obliques are another abdominal muscle found on either side of the rectus abdominis. When they have a more direct role, the obliques produce side-bending and rotation of the torso as well as pull the chest down. However, they have more of a stabilizing function in the bird dog exercise.
Other muscles that come into play as stabilizers during the bird dog include the hamstrings, the rest of the glutes, triceps, and the pectoral muscles.
We don’t need to go into much detail about these muscles here since they should be familiar to lifters already and only play a minor role. Nonetheless, their ability to balance and hold the body in a given position is improved by bird dogs.
For such a straightforward exercise, the bird dog is a bit deceptive. It works out a ton of different muscles throughout your whole body, although not in a strength-building way. The bird dog focuses on putting stabilizer muscles to work.
While research shows that greater instability decreases muscle activation, that doesn’t mean there is no benefit to targeting stabilizer muscles. Bird dogs and other instability training exercises won’t get you ripped, but they will increase your functional ability, including your proprioception and kinesthesia, which is your sense and perception of the position of your body.
One of the most popular reasons people include bird dogs in their warm-ups and routines is because they do a great job relieving low back pain. In fact, together with curl-ups and side bridges, bird dogs make up a triumvirate of therapeutic moves called the McGill stabilization exercises.
Research shows these three exercises reduce pain in people with chronic non-specific lower back pain. Besides that, though, bird dogs are a great way to build functional strength in your core muscles. Athletes commonly use them.
Functional strength vs. muscle mass or lifting power is a regular debate between members of the fitness community, but you can’t deny that some degree of athletic prowess is desirable and useful in any case.
Because it involves so many muscles throughout the body, the bird dog is a perfect exercise for warming up or cooling down. It’s a good interval-filler in bodyweight HIIT routines. You can use it anytime you need a good stretch outside your regular workout, too.
Since the bird dog exercise is mainly used for warming up and for therapeutic purposes, it should be as accessible as possible. Here are some variations you can use to include this core exercise in your workouts no matter what.
For people who have a knee injury or can’t get down into the forward plank position for some other reason, the stability ball bird dog is much easier. All you have to do is get a stability ball and then lie your abdomen on top of it while supporting your lower body with your toes and your upper body with your palms on the ground. From that position, you can get into the move by flexing your core and extending one arm and the opposite leg simultaneously.
Engage your glutes, hold the stretch for 5 - 10 seconds, and then lower both limbs to return to the starting position. Make sure to keep your neck in a neutral position throughout the exercise. Repeat another repetition on the other side of your body or run through all your reps on one side before switching to the other.
If you want to make the bird dog more challenging, bring your elbow to meet the knee of the opposite leg underneath your torso rather than holding the stretched position for 5 - 10 seconds as we described in our earlier step-by-step. You can continue this knee-to-elbow motion repeatedly for 10 - 15 repetitions and then switch sides. Just remember to do the same number of reps on each side for uniform strength building.
Another way to up the ante with the bird dog exercise is to raise an arm and leg on the same side of your body rather than an opposite arm and leg. It’s an even bigger test of your body’s balancing ability and it also helps suss out any strength imbalances between the right and left sides.
As you can see from the video above, you execute this single-side bird dog the same way you would the conventional bird dog. In this case, completing all the repetitions on one side might keep you from getting in your reps on the other side, so alternating between reps is the best approach.
There are a couple of different ways to do this banded bird dog variation.
You can use a loop band, therapy band, or tube band with an attached handle. In both versions, you should start on your knees and wrap one end of the resistance band around the foot you’re going to extend. The first way to do this exercise is to hold the other end of the resistance band with the arm on the same side of your body. Then you continue to do the bird dog exercise like we’ve already discussed. You could also hold the band with the opposite arm. The difference is that in this case, your shoulder will get an increased workout just like your hip and legs are getting from the addition of the resistance band.
If you don’t have resistance bands or prefer to use weights in your workout, you can hold a dumbbell in each hand while you do bird dogs. Your hips won’t get a harder challenge like they do in the banded version, but your arms and shoulders will.
Blend bird dog stretches into your back day routine for some serious gains and an additional balance challenge. This variation can be performed on a flat bench or an exercise mat. Rather than holding a dumbbell in each hand like we did in the last variation, we’re going to take a larger weight and keep it within reach under our torso in the quadruped position.
Do a bird dog with only the leg extension first.
Then pick up the dumbbell and hold it with your arm fully extended. The reason some people prefer to do this exercise on a flat bench is so they can get a fuller range of motion on this row phase.
Pull the dumbbell straight up until your elbow is fully flexed. Then move it back to complete one rep. Complete 10 reps on one side before moving to the other one. Be warned: this is an expert variation of the bird dog exercise.
For the minimal effort required to learn this exercise and perform it with good form and intention, your returns in terms of stabilizing strength in your core, glutes, arms, and legs will be well worth it. Mix and match with some of the variations we mentioned and you’ll never get bored.
While it isn’t going to get you a chiseled 6-pack, the bird dog is still a great exercise that will help prime your core and erector spinae for the bigger lifts in your routine.