There are tons of fitness terms that sound totally made up: bonking, fartlek, skullcrusher… and of course, the bird dog exercise. No, we’re not talking about an exercise that an actual bird dog would do to prepare for hunting. We’re talking about an exercise a human would do to strengthen their core.
“Unlike many core exercises, the bird dog trains the core muscles to work together,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., and Openfit’s senior manager of fitness and nutrition content. “The more coordinated those muscles are, the stronger and more stable your core will be, and the lower your risk of back pain becomes.”
Here’s how to do the bird dog exercise with perfect form, a few variations to try, and even more reasons why you should add this oddly named move to your workout routine.
How to Do the Bird Dog Exercise with Proper Form
- Get down on your hands and knees with your hands directly below your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your back flat and core braced, simultaneously extend your left leg straight behind you and your right arm straight in front of you.
- Pause, and then return to the starting position.
- Repeat with your right leg and left arm. Do equal reps on both sides.
How to Make the Bird Dog Exercise Easier or Harder
With just a few modifications, you can make this move a little bit easier or a whole lot harder.
Make it easier:
- Ease into the move by raising just one limb at a time instead of two simultaneously.
- Keep your hand and leg closer to the ground.
Make it harder:
- Do a bird dog crunch: After you extend your arm and leg, bring your elbow and knee together under you, and then re-extend them. Return to the starting position, and then repeat with your other arm and leg. Continue alternating.
- Add a resistance band: Get on your hands and knees. Place a resistance band handle around one foot and hold the other handle in your opposite hand so that the band is taut. Extend your banded arm in front of you and your banded leg behind you, keeping your core braced and back flat. Perform all of your reps, switch arms and legs, and repeat.
Bonus tip for doing the bird dog exercise:
- To help your balance and stability, imagine that the hand and foot that remain on the ground are actually trying to pull the floor apart underneath you.
Bird Dog Exercise Variations
In addition to the modifications that can make this move easier or harder, there are many other variations of the bird dog exercise.
Elevated bird dog crunch
- Assume a plank position with your forearms elevated on a bench, box, or other stable surface.
- Keeping your back flat and core braced, extend your left arm in front of you and your right leg behind you.
- Bring them in, touching your left elbow to your right knee.
- Return to the starting position, and repeat with your right arm and left leg. Continue alternating sides.
Bird dog to dog dancer
- Get on all fours with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees bent 90 degrees under your hips.
- Keeping your back flat and your core engaged, simultaneously extend your right arm ahead of you and your left leg behind you.
- Bend your left leg as you sweep your right arm to your side to reach behind you to grab your ankle.
- Hold, and then release your ankle, extend your arm in front of you and your leg behind you, and return to the starting position.
- Repeat with your left arm and right leg. Do equal reps on both sides.
Bird dog crunch push-up
- Assume a high-plank (arms straight) position, with your hands directly beneath (but slightly wider than) your shoulders. Squeeze your glutes and brace your core to help keep your body rigid and straight from head to heels. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your elbows tucked and your head in line with your spine (look down, not forward), lower your torso until your chest is within a few inches of the floor.
- Pause, and then push yourself back up to the starting position.
- Extend your right arm forward while raising your left leg off the ground, keeping both straight.
- Touch your right elbow and left knee beneath you, and then extend them once more before returning to starting position to complete one rep.
The Benefits of the Bird Dog Exercise
By strengthening the muscles of your core and teaching them to work together, the bird dog can help enhance your performance not only in the gym, but also in everyday life. It can also help reduce your risk of experiencing back pain. Between sitting at desks, sitting in cars, sitting in front of the TV, hunching over keyboards and phones, and standing in long lines in uncomfortable shoes, our daily activities can take a toll on our backs. The bird dog exercise can help mitigate the constant stress and strain by conditioning your core to do its primary job (i.e., supporting your spine) more effectively.
What Muscles Does the Bird Dog Exercise Work?
This move fires up your glutes when you extend your leg behind you, your shoulders when you reach your arm out in front, and your core the entire time to stabilize your body. Here’s a deeper look into how all of these muscle groups work within your body.
“Your core encompasses every muscle from your glutes to your traps, and its purpose goes beyond just helping you look good shirtless,” Thieme says. “Its primary job is to support and stabilize your spine.” The main muscles in your core are the rectus abdominis (the “six-pack” muscle that runs from your sternum to your pubic bone), the traverse abdominis (i.e., your body’s inner “weight belt”), the obliques, which run down either side of your torso, and the erector spinae (located along your spine), among many others.
The muscles collectively known as the glutes include the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus. The gluteus maximus is the largest of the three, and is primarily responsible for hip extension, not to mention your booty’s round shape. The gluteus medius is located on the upper, outer section of your rear. It helps stabilize the pelvis and move your leg outward. The gluteus minimus is situated just below that, and it also helps stabilize the pelvis.
Your shoulders are comprised of the deltoid muscle and the rotator cuff. The “delts” give the shoulders their defined shape, and they have three different parts (known as heads): the front (anterior), middle (lateral), and back (posterior) heads. The three heads never work individually, although certain exercises can emphasize which ones work the hardest. The rotator cuff is made up of four small muscles, the primary responsibility of which is to stabilize the shoulder.