Whether you’re an experienced athlete or a desk-bound weekend warrior, core strength and stability are vital components of any fitness regimen. Your core serves as the center of power, dictating all other movements such as limb motion, bursts of speed, and strength exercises. On the contrary, when your core is feeble and unstable, it’s likely that back pain will ensue. A weak core also means decreased power and stability for everyday functional activities like carrying groceries, cleaning, and lifting your children or pets.
But the experts concur: One of the most effective ways to address acute low back pain and a weak core is through exercise. And dead bugs are widely acknowledged as one of the top choices for stabilizing the lumbopelvic region, which refers to your lower back and pelvis, according to the Strength and Conditioning Journal.
Below, you will find instructions on how to correctly perform dead bug exercises and videos demonstrating the movement by Sandra Gail Frayna, a physical therapist and the founder of Hudson Premiere PT. Additionally, you will discover various methods to modify or intensify the dead bug exercise.
How to Perform a Dead Bug
“This exercise begins by lying on your back with your legs in a tabletop position,” explains Frayna. “It is crucial to keep your back firmly planted on the ground and engage your core to prevent any strain on your back.” Since the dead bug exercise is done on the floor, feel free to lay down an exercise mat for added comfort, she suggests.
A. Commence in the tabletop position, where your knees are stacked over your hips and your ankles align with your knees at a 90-degree angle. Your arms extend straight overhead, in line with your shoulders. Ensure that your back remains firmly planted on the ground and your core is engaged to avoid straining your back.
B. Reach your left arm straight back over your head towards the wall behind you, while simultaneously extending your right leg forward and keeping it elevated off the floor.
C. Slowly bring your left arm and right leg back to the tabletop position simultaneously. Repeat on the other side.
For a greater challenge, you can lift your head slightly or keep it rested on the floor, depending on your fitness level, advises Frayna. Of course, it is important to obtain clearance from your doctor before attempting a new exercise. Avoid this dead bug exercise if you have a neck or back injury or if you experience any pain, which is distinct from the expected discomfort resulting from activated core muscles.
The Key Benefits of the Dead Bug Exercise
Dead bugs may seem like a simple exercise, but when done correctly, they effectively engage your abdominal and back muscles, resulting in a deep burn. Here are the advantages of incorporating dead bugs into your workout routine to improve your core strength.
Alleviates Lower Back Pain
Performing stabilizing exercises, including dead bugs, has been demonstrated to decrease recurring low back pain by 63 percent compared with those who do not perform these movements, according to a study from the Strength and Conditioning Journal. “When carrying out a dead bug, you are working to resist or prevent movement around the spine, strengthening not only your main abdominal muscles but more importantly the smaller stabilizing muscles that maintain your spine upright,” says Danyele Wilson, NASM certified trainer, HIIT master trainer, and EvolveYou coach. “Strengthening those smaller stabilizers will help you enhance your balance, coordination, and posture, and can assist in relieving lower back and hip pain,” she adds. And, unfortunately, back pain is a widespread issue with 80 percent of individuals experiencing it at some point in their lifetime, according to Medical Clinics of North America.
Since back pain is so common, incorporating exercises such as dead bugs prevents and treats back pain without aggravating it, so you can feel and perform your best. “[The dead bug is] a good, low-impact exercise unlike a plank, which works similar muscles but can cause strain on the back,” explains Frayna.
Helps Prevent Injuries
Core work is one of the most crucial aspects of fitness and injury prevention because all other movements (such as biceps curls, lunges, or even just going for a walk) originate from this connection between your upper and lower limbs. A strong core is vital for joint stability, which protects joints from injury by keeping them in place, according to the Strength and Conditioning Journal. Another key advantage of improving core stability is the ability to actively brace your core muscles under heavy loads, which stabilizes the spine, preventing buckling and injuries during lifting.
All actions, including daily activities, walking, running, and household chores, rely on your core. When your core is weak, you are more likely to get injured during these tasks, says Frayna. “With a weakened core, I often see knee, hip, or ankle injuries,” she explains. “[These injuries] happen when [you] get fatigued and [your] core isn’t strong enough. [You] start to sway, causing an imbalance that creates more pressure on [your] hip, ankle, or knee joints.”
Plus, training the deep postural muscles assists in preventing destabilizing forces that can occur when other muscles try to compensate for a weak core during athletic and everyday activities, notes an article in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. When these types of compensatory movements occur in your body, you can end up with aches, pains, and strains in your muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
Another lesser-considered reason to enhance core stability is to prevent harm to what lies beneath. Strengthening your entire core and developing stability in the lumbopelvic region helps safeguard your vital organs during contact sports or accidental slips and falls.
Dead bugs can aid in improving your alignment by supporting your stabilizing profound core and spinal muscles, according to an article in the Academic Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. “When performing a dead bug, you are working to resist or prevent movement around the spine, strengthening not only your main abdominal muscles but more importantly the smaller stabilizing muscles that keep your spine upright,” says Wilson. Maintaining proper alignment of your spine is crucial for maintaining an erect and supported posture.
Muscles Engaged By Dead Bugs
“[The dead bug exercise] is a movement that should be incorporated into your workout routine as it engages deeper core muscles, including the transverse abdominis, erector spinae, obliques, rectus abdominis, and the pelvic floor,” says Frayna. Working these external and internal profound stabilizing muscles is what makes dead bugs so effective in protecting your spine and low back muscles. That’s because training your stabilizers assists in reducing motion in the lumbar spine, according to the Strength and Conditioning Journal. In other words, dead bugs maintain stability and strength in your hips and pelvis while diminishing the strain that can cause pain, tension, and injury in this region.
Variations of the Dead Bug Exercise
Although dead bugs may appear effortless, they are certainly not. You may need to modify them until you develop enough strength to execute the correct form. If you’re ready to challenge yourself, try a more demanding variation. And if you have any concerns with your lower back, make sure you have obtained clearance from a doctor before performing these dead bug exercises.
Modification: Bent-Leg Dead Bugs
To modify dead bugs, decrease the range of motion when extending your legs and arms away from your core, which will reduce the amount of core strength and stability required to perform the movement. You can also attempt the exercise with bent knees, lightly touching each heel to the floor before returning it to the center. Make sure to only bring your thighs to a 90-degree angle, rather than curling them toward your chest.
A. Begin in tabletop position, with knees aligned over hips and ankles in line with knees at a 90-degree angle. Arms extend straight overhead, aligned with shoulders.
B. Extend your left arm straight back over your head towards the wall behind you, and lower your right leg towards the ground while keeping your right knee bent at a 90-degree angle.
Tap the surface using the right foot’s heel.
C. Gradually bring the left arm and right leg back to the tabletop position simultaneously. Repeat on the opposing side.
Modification: Bent-Leg Dead Bugs with Arms Parallel
If the variation of the dead bug exercise is still too difficult, attempt the bent-knee version while maintaining the position of your arms instead of stretching them out. This alteration further decreases the required effort and serves as an optimal starting point for individuals new to core exercises or aiming to alleviate lower back pain.
A. Commence in the tabletop position, with your knees aligned over your hips and your ankles in line with your knees at a 90-degree angle. The arms are extended along your ribcage, with palms facing downwards.
B. Lower the right leg towards the ground, keeping the right knee bent at a 90-degree angle. Tap the ground with your right heel while maintaining the position of your arms.
C. Gradually bring the right leg back to the tabletop position. Repeat on the opposite side.
Progression: Isometric Dead Bug Hold with Weight Bar
To enhance the level of difficulty, incorporate an isometric hold utilizing resistance. Apply pressure with a weighted bar against your knees, which not only intensifies the effort required to sustain an elevated torso, but also provides resistance for the leg that is not being extended. For an additional challenge, elevate your neck and shoulders off the ground (only exclude this modification if it generates neck pain).
A. Initiate in the tabletop position, with your knees aligned over your hips and your ankles in line with your knees at a 90-degree angle.
B. Press a weighted bar into both thighs just above your knees, with palms facing away from you. Actively press your thighs back into the bar to maintain an isometric hold.
C. Extend and lower the right leg towards the ground. Continue pressing the bar into your thighs.
D. Gradually bring the right leg back to the tabletop position. Repeat on the opposite side.
Progression: Isometric Dead Bug Hold with Bodyweight Resistance
To lessen the intensity while still providing an additional challenge, press your hands against your thighs instead of utilizing a weighted bar.
A. Commence in the tabletop position, with your knees aligned over your hips and your ankles in line with your knees at a 90-degree angle.
B. Press your palms into your thighs just above your knees. Actively press your thighs back into your palms to maintain an isometric hold.
C. Extend and lower the right leg towards the ground.
Continue exerting pressure with the left hand on the left thigh.
D. Slowly bring your right leg back to the tabletop position. Repeat on the opposite side.
Common Errors in the Dead Bugs Exercise
The most frequent mistakes individuals make when performing dead bugs are curving their lower backs off the ground and excessively tilting their necks upwards, both of which can result in discomfort. “Ensure that your lower back remains grounded as you go through each repetition, and avoid straining your head and neck by looking forward,” advises Wilson. “Keep your head, neck, and spine in a neutral position on the ground.”
Another typical error in the dead bug exercise is moving too quickly. The effectiveness of dead bugs lies in the slow and controlled movement that creates tension and effectively activates the deep stabilizing muscles. This is because when performing exercises that don’t rely on heavy weights, employing a slower tempo is necessary to reap the benefits, as stated in a review by Sports Medicine.
How to Incorporate the Dead Bugs Exercise into Your Routine
Including dead bugs in your exercise routine is straightforward due to their versatility. You can incorporate dead bugs as part of an active warmup before weightlifting or engaging in any sport. When used in a warmup, dead bugs will help you engage your deep core muscles, which can protect your spine, joints, and other musculature from opposing forces and movements that may cause instability or injury.
Alternatively, you can integrate dead bugs into any other segment of your routine, such as during an active recovery session, as part of a cooldown after your workout, or on a designated core-training day. Utilizing dead bugs in a cooldown may provide additional benefits, as lying on your back and moving slowly and deliberately aids in returning your nervous system to a state of relaxation, reducing the risk of overtraining, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Additionally, after completing your dead bugs, you can unwind on the floor and revel in the endorphins released post-workout — who could resist that?