Targets: Core muscles, especially the transverse abdominis and spinal erectors
When you think about core or abdominal exercises, you probably think about exercises like sit-ups, crunches, reverse crunches, or even Russian twists—exercises that involve flexion or rotation of the abdomen as you move through a range of motion.
The popular argument is that these exercises "carve" the core and give you the six-pack look you're going for. And while, certainly, they can help with strengthening the rectus abdominis and obliques—more of the "show me" muscles of the stomach—it's every bit as important (if not more so) to strengthen the deep muscles of your core, including the spinal erectors and transverse abdominis. You can do this by adding stabilization exercises like the dead bug to your regular strength training routine.
Here's the thing: the "dead bug" sounds like a gross or weird exercise. It's really not. It's a straightforward movement you do while lying on your back. As you keep your torso still and your core tight, you extend and retract opposing extremities, preventing your low back from arching off the floor or your hips or shoulders from rocking back-and-forth. And as a beginner exercise, you need next to nothing to get started. It's a bodyweight movement that uses nothing more than a yoga mat. Simply add it to your typical core-training routine, or after a cardio exercise session.
When you think of abdominal work, you probably think of working your abs for the purpose of looking good in a swimsuit. But your abs are a key component of your total core musculature, which actually includes all the muscle groups spanning between your hips and your shoulders. These muscles work together to transfer movement between your upper and lower body, and they help stabilize the spine, preventing your spine from moving in ways it shouldn't. As a result, a strong, stable core helps to promote coordinated, athletic movement while simultaneously protecting your lower back from injury.
The dead bug is an excellent exercise for promoting total core stability while improving contra-lateral limb engagement. This basically means the exercise helps teach you to effectively move opposing limbs in tandem while keeping your core stable and your back protected.
Think for a second about sports like tennis or basketball—how athletes need to extend opposing limbs as they jump, stretch, or reach for the ball. A strong, stable core makes these types of movements possible. But it's not just athletes who need this type of back-protecting core stabilization. Anyone who's ever accidentally tripped on a rough sidewalk or been knocked off-balance after knocking into a misplaced chair knows that it doesn't take much to lose control of your core.
The dead bug is a beginner-friendly movement that helps you grow accustomed to contra-lateral limb extension while keeping your core stable and protected. Performed correctly, the dead bug encourages the deep, stabilizing muscles of your low back, abdominals, and hips to engage, preventing your back from twisting or arching during the exercise. You'll end up improving side-to-side coordination that can effectively transfer to athletic performance, while also improving deep core strength that can reduce the risk of low-back injury.
The dead bug is also an excellent option for individuals who aren't quite ready for the more well-known plank exercise. Both movements are designed to help promote core stabilization, but the plank can be challenging for individuals without much core strength, or those who have low back pain. The dead bug can help improve the core stabilization necessary to do the plank while simultaneously adding the challenge of contra-lateral limb movement to the mix.
The dead bug exercise is performed on the ground, so you need roughly the same amount of space as a yoga mat. And, you probably want to use a yoga mat or another type of exercise mat for comfort.
- Lie on the mat with your arms extended straight over your chest so they form a perpendicular angle with your torso. Bend your hips and knees 90-degrees, lifting your feet from the ground. Your torso and thighs should form a right angle, as should your thighs and shins. This is the starting position
- Engage your core, maintaining contact between your lower back and the mat. You want to make sure your spine maintains this steady and neutral position throughout the exercise.
- Keep your right arm and left leg exactly where they are, then slowly reach your left arm backward, over your head and toward the floor as you simultaneously extend your right knee and hip, reaching your right heel toward the floor. Move slowly and steadily, breathing in as you perform the extensions, avoiding any twisting or movement of your hips and abs. Stop the movement just before your arm and leg touch the ground.
- Reverse the movement and return your left arm and right leg to their starting positions. Move slowly and steadily, exhaling as you go.
- Perform the same movements to the opposite sides, this time keeping your left arm and right leg steady as you extend your right arm and left leg.
- Do the same number of repetitions on each side. When you complete a full set, simply return your feet to the ground and sit up.
We've tried, tested, and reviewedthe best yoga mats. If you're in the market for yoga mats, explore which option may be best for you.
Moving Too Fast
Hands down, the most common mistake with the dead bug exercise is when people confuse it with a bicycle crunch and try to use speed and momentum to power themselves through. A hallmark of this mistake is if you notice all of your extremities moving at the same time—like you haven't come to a complete stop at the top of the movement before starting the movement to the opposite side.
Slow way, way down. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to stability. If you think you're moving too fast, try slowing down more. As soon as you start picking up speed, that's when your torso starts shifting and you stop maintaining the perfect stabilization of your core.
If you just can't seem to prevent yourself from speeding through each repetition, there's a trick: grab a stability ball or a foam roller and when you set up to start the exercise, hold the tool between your hands and knees. The goal is to keep the tool from falling—something you can't do if you release it with more than two extremities at a time. By holding it in place with one hand and one knee as your opposite extremities extend, you're forced to slow down and "reset" between each repetition before continuing the exercise to the opposite side.
Low Back Arching Away From the Floor
Weak core stabilizers (your transverse abdominis and spinal erectors, in particular) are a primary reason why your back might automatically arch up and away from the floor whenever you're doing supine abdominal exercises. Your muscles simply aren't strong enough to keep your low back fixed in place.
If you notice your back arching, first try to correct the mistake by slowing down. If slowing down doesn't work, use the trick mentioned above by holding a stability ball or foam roller steady with two extremities while the opposing extremities move through their extensions.
If you still notice that you can't keep your low back from arching off the floor, reduce the range of motion of your extensions. Only extend your leg and opposite arm as far as you can without your back beginning to arch. When you feel your low back arching, bring your arm and leg back to center before repeating to the opposite side.
Modifications and Variations
Need a Modification?
The dead bug exercise itself is a fairly beginner-friendly movement, but anyone with weak core stabilizers may find themselves struggling with proper form. If you can't seem to keep your torso steady as you do the dead bug, the best modification is to move one extremity at a time, rather than moving opposing arms and legs.
Instead of extending your right arm and left leg simultaneously, try extending your right arm by itself. After you bring it back to center, extend your left leg. After you bring your left leg back to center, do the same thing with your left arm and right leg.
When you feel you're able to successfully move each extremity independently, try the opposite arm-opposite leg challenge again, but adjust the range of motion accordingly, stopping your extensions when you feel your torso shift or your low back arch off the floor.
Up for a Challenge?
The dead bug is a good precursor to a basic plank or any number of plank variations because it targets the same stabilization muscles as the plank, but without posing as much potential strain to the low back, especially for those new to exercise or those with low back pain. This is because the dead bug is performed while lying on your back, making it easier to identify and control a low back arch than it is to do so with the plank exercise.
Go ahead and incorporate a standard forearm plank into your workout once you've mastered the dead bug, or if you feel comfortable with the basic plank, try plank extensions, where you lift and extend one or two extremities at a time (opposing extremities if you're lifting two), while maintaining perfect core stabilization through your torso.
The plank can be performed by balancing on the balls of your feet and your forearms, tightening your core, and forming a straight line with your torso from your heels to your head. Just make sure you don't let your hips sag toward the ground or your butt lift toward the ceiling.
Or, if you'd prefer to stick to supine exercises, simply add weight to the standard dead bug. Hold a lightweight dumbbell in each hand as you perform extensions, or hook a resistance band between your opposing hand and foot to add resistance as you extend your contra-lateral limbs. If using a resistance band, simply make sure you perform all repetitions to one side before switching sides.
Safety and Precautions
Overall, the dead bug is a safe exercise for most individuals. As with any strengthening movement, the primary risk of injury takes place when you sacrifice proper form in an effort to "gut out" a series of repetitions. Just remember, that's your ego talking.
If your form starts to suffer, it's likely because your muscles are tired and it's time to wrap up your set. Doing more repetitions with poor form won't help your efforts to get stronger, and may, in fact, lead to injury, particularly of the low back.
First and foremost, slow down and pay attention to form—make sure your low back isn't arching and your torso isn't rocking back and forth as you move. Second, if you have a known low-back injury, don't push yourself to perform the movement if it causes pain. Muscle soreness or fatigue is one thing, but sharp or jabbing pains, or any type of discomfort that makes you think, "I won't be able to move tomorrow," is what you want to avoid.
Talk to a trainer or physical therapist for options if the dead bug simply isn't working for you.
Try It Out
Incorporate this move into one of these popular workouts:
- Beginner Abs and Back Exercises
- Top 10 Advanced Ab Exercises
- 10 Minute Summer Ab Circuit Workout