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June 29, 2021 10 min read
A name like “dead bug” doesn’t instill much confidence in the efficacy of an exercise, especially when we can instead opt for workouts that promise us a superhero physique.
But the dead bug pulls its weight when it comes to excellent abdominal workouts. Rather than emphasizing the flashy six-pack muscles that many other core exercises flex, the dead bug helps us engage and strengthen the deeper core muscles that provide the bedrock for a stable body.
Doing the dead bug properly means getting the most out of it, and that means gaining a host of other benefits that range from injury prevention to athletic performance.
The dead bug promises a lot in a small package. For one, it’s a bodyweight exercise, so there’s no need for any equipment (other than an exercise mat for comfort). Secondly, it’s a relatively simple movement, which makes it a great exercise to modify for different experience levels. These two things combined make the dead bug a great abdominal exercise for beginners and experts alike.
The dead bug is also much easier on your lower back than many other abs exercises, such as Russian twists and planks. This is because your back is meant to be stabilized on the ground, maintaining contact throughout the whole movement. This means that there’s less room for making errors that can potentially injure us, or make it more difficult to work past prior injuries.
But what the dead bug really excels at is in developing contra-lateral limb extension. This a fancy way of saying that opposite limbs can work in tandem without placing unnecessary stress on your back and keeping your core stable. This is most obviously seen in sports, where multiple different actions have to be performed at the same time.
For example, jumping and shooting, running and passing, kicking and jumping. Deep abdominals that are strong allow for a strong foundation that is resistant to injury. This strong foundation is able to efficiently transfer power from your upper body and lower body, allowing you to move different parts of your body more efficiently. Even regular old running can benefit from training contra-lateral limb extension.
The dead bug is also a great way to introduce beginners to the plank. Since the plank is more difficult and harder on the lower back, dead bugs are a good way to develop the same muscles while also training limb extension. The key is core stabilization, which has plenty of carry-over benefits to weightlifting, athletics, and functional fitness.
Like we mentioned above, dead bugs are a great way to work the deeper core muscles.
Sit-ups, for example, mainly target the flashy muscles that make up the six-pack. This is also important for health, but the deeper core muscles often get ignored because of their relative un-sexiness.
Dead bugs effectively train core muscles such as the pelvic floor, erector spinae muscle group, and the transverse abdominis. And if that’s not enough for you, there are plenty of ways you can spice things up with some variations, adding more difficulty and more potential gains in the process.
It’s never not a good idea to warm up before starting any exercise. While an abdominal exercise like the dead bug doesn’t need much specific warming up, it’s a good idea to do a few minutes of cardio to get the blood pumping and muscles primed for work.
And since this movement also deals with the back, it’s important to keep in mind any back pain (or history of back pain). The dead bug can help prevent future back pain, but going into this exercise without considering injuries can be a recipe for disaster.
Since this is a bodyweight exercise, you can do anywhere you have enough space to lie down on your back. But for comfort, it’s recommended that you find a yoga mat or some other exercise mat. This will make things a lot comfier and help you get more out of the exercise.
Once you have your mat or another soft surface, lie down on it on your back. Your arms should lie across your chest, at a perpendicular angle to your torso. With your arms crossed like this, lift up your hips, knees, and feet. You should have two 90-degree angles in your legs—between your torso and thighs, and between your thighs and shins.
That means your shins should be parallel to the floor. As you get into this position, activate your core muscles and ensure that your lower back is touching the floor—you want to maintain this position throughout the entirety of the movement.
To initiate the movement, first, make sure that your right arm and left leg are locked into the above position. Then, take your left arm and slowly extend it up and over your head, reaching towards the floor behind you.
As you do this, extend your right leg out—bringing the hip down to the ground as your knee extends out until your heel is almost touching the floor. At the top of the movement, your right knee should be locked out, without your heel touching the floor. Your left arm should also be reaching out straight behind you towards the floor, but without touching it.
As you perform this motion, you’ll want to go slowly as you breathe in. The key to getting the most out of this exercise is to make sure that your torso and your hips are as steady as possible, avoiding any twisting.
Once you’ve paused at the top of the movement for a few seconds, slowly reverse the motion, returning to the starting position. As you come back to this position, exhale. This is one repetition on one side.
Back at the starting position, you’ll want to continue the exercise, but this time with the opposite side—your right arm and left leg. Continue the same way as you did before and complete the same number of repetitions with your opposite arm and opposite leg. After you’ve completed a set (anywhere from 5 to 12 reps, usually), sit back up and take a break before you continue the next set.
Although this movement seems simple, there are many things that can go wrong if you don’t pay attention to proper form. And while you might be able to get away with improper form for a while, in the long run it won’t get you the same benefits as doing perfect dead bugs. Not to mention that you’ll increase your odds of getting injured, setting your progress back by a lot.
This is especially important if you have a low back injury or a history of them. While the dead bug can strengthen this part of your body, protecting you from future injuries, pushing things too far too fast will only set you back.
While muscle soreness is a given (and a good thing), any jabbing pains are cause to see a physical therapist or medical professional.
Saying that, one of the keys to avoiding injury is by keeping your back in contact with the floor at all times. This can be difficult, especially if your transverse abdominis and spinal erectors don’t get much engagement, but it’s better to modify the form to make it easier than to end up twisting your back off the floor.
The easiest way to fix this is by reducing the range of motion. If your limbs don’t have to go as far down towards the floor, it will be easier to maintain a strict position with your back and torso. Another trick is to hold something between your arms and legs in the starting position.
Foam rollers and stability balls are good options, since you need at least two limbs to keep them from falling away. You’re forced to keep it in place with a knee and a hand, as your opposite limbs extend. This helps to bring emphasis to proper form, and also helps you slow down.
This brings us to the next most common mistake: going too fast. Speed is a common issue not only with dead bugs but with most other exercises as well. It takes away from form, reduces the amount of time your muscles spend under tension and helps you cheat by using momentum.
All of these things make it seem as if you’re progressing nicely in the moment, making it seem as if you can do more reps and sets. However, over the long term, they’re all bad for your gains and development. Not to mention that your chances of injury are also increased the faster you go.
Going too fast also results in your torso shifting and moving more than it should. In fact, the slower you go, the better (to an extent). The steadier and more purposeful your movements, the more you’ll be getting out of the exercise. It’s better to commit to doing reps with less range of motion, than to try to get “perfect” reps while sacrificing other important aspects of form.
Like with the other common problem, a good way to remedy this issue is by holding onto an object while you perform the exercise, trying to keep it from falling.
If you’re looking to up the ante with the dead bug, the easiest way is just to increase the number of sets and reps you’re doing. Depending on your fitness level, you should begin by doing anywhere from 1 to 3 sets with 5 to 12 reps each time.
Taking that as a baseline, increasing either the sets or the rep count is sure to give you an added challenge. However, since the dead bug is so easily modifiable, there are plenty of variations to make things even more challenging.
For example, even adding ankle weights or holding onto dumbbells is a simple and effective way to do this. But before we go into making things more difficult, let’s see how we can modify the dead bug to make things a bit easier.
While the dead bug is a good introductory move for working the abdominals, it can still be too difficult for some since these muscles are rarely engaged. And if things are too difficult, our form suffers, and then we increase the odds of getting injured: something we want to avoid at all costs.
But because the dead bug is such a fundamental movement, there’s a lot of things we can do to make things easier for ourselves. The simplest is just decreasing the number of reps we do, but we also don’t want to go too low or we won’t get anything from the exercise.
The next easiest way is by simply changing the number of limbs you lower. Things get much easier the fewer limbs you lower each rep. For example, one arm would be the easiest while both arms and legs would be the most difficult. In order of difficulty from easiest to most difficult, this is how you can change the difficulty of the dead bug by controlling your limbs:
These variations can be further modified to make things easier by changing the range of motion. For example, if you don’t go as far down with your limbs each time, it’ll be easier to continue for more reps. This is particularly useful for those who struggle with their torsos shifting or lower back arching throughout the movement.
By limiting the range of motion of your limbs, it’s easier to control the exercise. And while this might seem limiting at the start, before you know it, you’ll be advancing onto the more difficult variations.
Like we’ve outlined above, probably the simplest way of progressing is through the number of reps and the number of limbs you use at any one time. If you really want to feel the burn in your core, lower both your legs and arms at the same time, and then hold that position for a few seconds.
Another easy and effective way of increasing difficulty is by adding some sort of weight to the exercise. This can either involve dumbbells or kettlebells held in your hands, or even weights strapped to your ankles. The added weight is sure to develop your core muscles even further, while also giving your arms and legs an added challenge.
A simple head lift can also increase the efficacy of the dead bug. This places an emphasis on your neck flexors, which are important for overall neck stability and health. But the head lift also has the added benefit of forcing your core to work that much harder, than if your head was resting on the ground. All you have to do is tuck your chin while your limbs are out.
Lastly, you can try adding an anti-rotation element to the exercise. This involves attaching a resistance band to something at floor level and then holding onto it with one of your hands. Not only does your core have to struggle against the movement of opposing limbs, but you’re also going to be challenged by the tension placed on one side of your body.
As we’ve seen above, the dead bug promises a lot of benefits. It’s a great way to get into training your core, working your way up to more difficult movements. But even on its own and for experienced gym-goers, it still promises to engage your deeper abdominal muscles in an efficient and effective manner. Not to mention the contra-lateral limb extension training that will make you better at most sports, running, and other activities.
On top of this, the dead bug can help you build the washboard abs that are so difficult to get. But dead bugging your way to a more aesthetic midsection isn’t going to work out well if you don’t cover your other bases. For one, you don’t want to over-train your abdominals.
If you’re doing other resistance exercises on a regular basis, chances are that you’re utilizing your core to pull off proper form. Even something like the bench press takes core and glute strength. But diet is by far the most important factor if you’re trying to get the chiseled abs of a Greek statue.
This doesn’t mean avoiding an entire food group, but rather, eating it in moderation and healthy sources of it. Fats and carbs are often seen in a negative light, but they’re both important for a well-functioning body.
The key, as always, is to use sources from whole foods, not overly processed, and without (too much) added sugar. And if you need an extra boost in your ab-shredding needs, consider using a high-quality fat burner that’s guaranteed to help sculpt abs and develop muscle.