Quadruped Bird Dog Exercises to Improve Core Strength, Low Back Health and Posture: Plus 9 Challenging Variations

This article is exclusive to AHP.  It represents the uncut, fully extended version of a more abbreviated article originally featured on STACK (09/23/16)

The Bird Dog has been a popular core and spinal stabilization exercise for well over a decade. Made famous by low-back specialists and functional training experts Stuart McGill, Gray Cook and Mike Boyle, the Bird Dog has been shown to be an effective movement to reinforce proper spinal alignment and core recruitment.

Even if you're unfamiliar with the name, you've more than likely performed it yourself or seen it performed at your local gym and fitness center. Performing the Bird Dog is quite simple:

  1. While maintaining a neutral spine, kneel on the floor in a quadruped position with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders.
  2. Raise your opposite arm and leg straight out, keeping your abs braced, stomach in and your whole body in one straight line from head to foot.
  3. The goal is to resist rotation and extension forces that attempt to destabilize your spine.

Proper execution can produce a variety of benefits, including improvements in core musculature innervation, rotary stability, spinal alignment, reduced low-back pain, postural control, shoulder stability, hip alignment, shoulder mobility and spinal stabilization. In addition, the contralateral (opposite arm and leg) movement improves the ability to integrate a strong pillar while simultaneously coordinating upper- and lower-body movements—a critical aspect of athletic performance. Whether you're an athlete, bodybuilder, powerlifter, fitness enthusiast or an active individual looking for a way to improve your low-back function and spinal health, the Bird Dog is a worthwhile drill that can enhance multiple aspects of performance and muscle function.

The Drawback of Bird Dogs

During the first few attempts, Bird Dogs can be more challenging than they appear. However, with enough practice they quickly become quite manageable. One drawback I've noticed with the traditional Bird Dog is that it inevitably becomes too simple and effortless. Although it may suffice for elderly individuals and special populations, it tends to lose some of its effectiveness for athletes and higher functioning adults.With this in mind, I devised various methods and progressions of the exercise to challenge even the highest functioning athletes. Here are a few of my favorite variations.
 

7 Benefits of Performing Bird Dogs on a Bench

Nearly all of these variations involve the use of a bench to perform the exercise. This technique was first highlighted nearly a decade ago by world-renowned strength coach Nick Tumminello. Unfortunately, it's gone largely unnoticed by most trainers and coaches. Performing the Bird Dog on a bench instead of the floor (the traditional method) exponentially increases both its difficulty and effectiveness, for six reasons:

REASON #1: It eliminates one base of support. Instead of having your feet and ankles fixed to the floor, they hang off the edge of the bench. Rather than usual three points of contact (hand, knee and foot), you only have two anchor points (hand and knee), which greatly increases instability and activation of the core.
 

REASON #2: Besides the greater instability, eliminating the foot anchor point reduces the likelihood of over-extending your low back, because it promotes greater activation of the anterior core. In essence, you're forced to lean over rather than tilting back. If you sit back toward your feet and overarch your low back (a common compensation pattern with the traditional quadrupeds), you'll lose your balance.

REASON #3: The bench forces you to maintain a narrow base of support. Instead of having your knees and hands spread wide, you are confined to the narrow width of the bench, which can feel quite challenging. However this also helps promote proper alignment throughout the body.

REASON #4: A traditional bench is typically softer than any floor surface, including an exercise mat. Besides saving the knees, this significantly increases the difficulty of the movement, since a softer surface tends to be more unstable and produce more oscillations in the body.

REASON #5: Kneeling in an elevated position several feet off the floor causes you to have greater respect for the movement to avoid falling off the bench. This tends to promote higher levels of mental engagement, focus and concentration, which can do wonders for increasing core stability, spinal alignment and motor control.

REASON #6: Hand activation is an often ignored aspect of quadruped movements. Relaxing the hand, as is commonly seen when the exercise is performed on the floor, results in lethargic neuromuscular activation. In contrast, the bench variation promotes intense grip and hand activation, since in order to maintain balance and control, your anchor hand must firmly grip the side of the bench. This facilitates a neurophysiological response known as concurrent activation potentiation (CAP), or irradiation. In simple terms, activation of smaller muscles such as those in the hands, feet and neck produces greater neural drive to larger muscles throughout the kinetic chain. As a result, you experience increased core innervation and spinal rigidity, which is exactly what the quadruped Bird Dog drill is designed to promote.

REASON #7: All of these factors make the quadruped exercise more unstable and challenging. As a result, you are forced to produce smoother movements and eliminate momentum, which has a tendency to produce jarring extension and rotational forces on the spine.

Bird Dog on Bench with Partner Perturbations

It's one thing to produce levels of instability in a systematic and uniform fashion under highly predictable circumstances. However, athletes also need to address other biomotor capabilities, which carry a higher degree of specificity to the playing field. Several factors I like to address involve reactive stabilization, unpredictable instability, and rate of stabilization development.

The next variation involves assuming a standard Bird Dog position on a bench, then getting tapped or pushed from a variety of angles and forces. Known as perturbation training, this has been scientifically shown to increase activation of the stabilizers and surrounding core musculature as a means of handling unpredictable oscillations and body jolts.

For athletes in contact sports as well as in everyday life, this can be invaluable. In essence, it teaches you how to properly fire your core and spinal stabilizers as a means of ensuring your body is prepared to handle any and all incoming force vectors, regardless of the scenario.

Here are a couple of my NFL athletes, Jarius Wynn and Fernando Velasco, prepping for the season.

Rapid Bird Dog Call-Out with Response Selection

Another often disregarded aspect of core training is rate of stabilization development. Whether you're an Olympic weightlifter or a competitive athlete, most sports require the muscles around the spine to activate quickly and intensely. This drill can be performed using two different methods. The first simply requires you to perform the quadruped on a bench by lifting each side as quickly as possible and stabilizing rapidly.

The second is a bit more complex, as it addresses response time and response selection as well as stabilization development. In this video, I call out left or right signals, and my athletes not only have to respond as quickly as possible to my voice, they also have to select the appropriate side to lift in response to my command, without hesitation. Once they have selected the appropriate side to extend (typically by matching the proper arm side with the command given), they must stabilize their body, core, and spine as quickly as possible to lock the movement in and avoid losing their balance.

As most coaches are aware, athletes need to be capable of producing force quickly (rate of force development).  This quadruped drill addresses a similar and equally important performance attribute in the form of rate of stabilization development. Besides greatly taxing various physiological components of the body, this variation is very mentally and psychologically intense, which is something both athletes and fitness enthusiasts need to address. If you're a coach who is having trouble getting your athletes to focus their minds, this one's a must.

Quadruped Bird Dog on Bench with Narrow Base

A simple modification that makes all the bench variations more difficult is to kneel widthwise rather than lengthwise on the bench. This obviously creates an even smaller base of support, forcing you to resist more extreme rotational forces. Be prepared to be humbled, since this one can be quite frustrating to master.

 Quadruped Bird Dog on BOSU Ball

The BOSU ball gets a bad rap, primarily because most individuals don't understand its purpose. It's not meant to overload the prime movers but instead to activate the smaller stabilizers around the shoulders, spine, core, hips and feet.

If you don't believe me, try performing the Bird Dog with your knees on a BOSU ball. Keep your feet elevated off the floor, as you would on the bench, then prepare to activate your core stabilizers like never before.

Having your knees elevated slightly above your hands creates a slight decline, which challenges your core stabilizers even more. If you have any alignment issues or deviation in mechanics from head to toe, this variation will both expose and address it, because it's impossible to perform with anything less than precise execution.

quadruped Bird Dog with Medicine Ball

Stabilization of the glenohumeral joint is an often overlooked benefit of the quadruped Bird Dog drill. Maintaining proper scapular position is a critical component for successfully stabilizing the movement, particularly when it's performed on a bench.

To further emphasize shoulder stability, one variation I prescribe for my athletes involves placing their hand on a medicine ball. You will need an adjustable step box or bench that allows the hands and knees to be at approximately the same height.

Besides forcing you to pack your shoulders and centrate your glenohumeral joint, the instability created on your upper extremities elicits further disruptions throughout the kinetic chain, requiring full body stabilization.

Whether you're an athlete involved in throwing sports, a lifter who needs increased shoulder stability or an injured athlete looking for an effective rehab exercise to fix shoulder and low back pain, this one is tough to beat.

Stretched Bird Dog

One common complaint about the Bird Dog exercise is that athletes cannot feel their core muscles working to the same degree they typically would with more intense anti-extension exercises such as Weighted Planks and Abdominal Rollouts. Although the Bird Dog is a highly effective rotary stability and core stabilization drill, it's not designed to burn the core to the same extent as other exercises. Instead, the goal is to improve stability, alignment, posture, motor control and other critical components of performance.

However, if you're looking for a Bird Dog variation that not only addresses those factors but also satisfies the mindset of someone who wants to annihilate his core, try performing it in a stretched or long-lever position. Although it can be performed on the floor, the bench variation makes it substantially more difficult.

Besides greatly increasing rotary stability and activating spinal stabilization muscles, the extension forces placed on the spine require the entire musculature of the anterior core to fire at near maximal levels. If this doesn't destroy your core, nothing will.

Weighted Quadruped Bird Dog on Bench

Another effective and simple method for increasing the overall tension and physiological demands of the quadruped bird dog is to perform it weighted by placing a plate on your mid/low back.  Besides providing greater stimulation and overload to the targeted musculature, this variation punishes any twisting or rotational movements as the weight will begin to shift and slide off your back.  To keep the plate locked in you’ll be required to produce very smooth motions and resist any rotation or lateral deviations.  The bench variation makes this movement even more challenging.

Reverse Ipsilateral Bird Dog on Bench

Perhaps the most difficult variation is one made famous by the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) Assessment. Developed by Gray Cook and Lee Burton, it was designed to constitute the most challenging test of rotary stability and spinal stabilization in order to expose any and all forms of imbalance and activation deficits. If you've ever witnessed or experienced an FMS assessment, you'll immediately understand how difficult this one can be, as less than 10 percent of high level athletes can actually pass the test.

With that said, if you're a glutton for punishment and looking for a core exercise that many consider impossible, look no further than the Reverse Ipsilateral Bird Dog. To add to the insanity, try performing it on a bench! The difference is that you lift your arm and leg on the same side (ipsilateral = right arm and right leg), rather than your opposite arm and leg (contralateral = right arm and left leg). This makes the movement insanely difficult to balance and control. If you're a masochist like me, try it with your eyes closed on a narrow base, positioning yourself widthwise on the bench. Just don't blame me if you crash and burn.


Additional Notes & 12 Final Points on the Bird Dog

  1. The Bird Dog is all about technique and postural alignment. What most people forget is that posture and body alignment includes everything from head to foot. With this in mind, both feet should be dorsiflexed and straight. The body (from the extended arm to the opposite foot) should form a relatively straight line (very slight deviations are acceptable). The head should be kept in a neutral position, not hyperextended. This means your gaze should be straight down, toward the bench.
     
  2. Closing your eyes makes all the variations more difficult. However, it can be the key to helping you find your ideal position, because of your increased reliance on sensory feedback from muscles spindles and other proprioceptive mechanisms. When your eyes are closed and you finally reach a point where you feel locked in, chances are your form is spot on.
     
  3. Your extended arm should be in approximately the same position as the top of an Overhead Press. In other words, your arm should be in line with the ears and in the same plane as your head. If it feels difficult to achieve this position, you need to work on your shoulder mobility by performing exercises that target scapular retraction and depression.
     
  4. A firm bench surface, although less comfortable, is more stable than a softer surface, which makes it easier to maintain balance.
     
  5. If you're unfamiliar with quadrupeds and Bird Dog exercises, start with the floor variations and progress to the bench variations once you've mastered your form.
     
  6. Although you're likely to lose your balance when you first attempt the advanced variations, safety is not a concern, because your arm and foot will rotate to the ground, allowing you to catch yourself without injury.
     
  7. I typically recommend holding each position for 3-7 seconds. However, the clock doesn't start until you're perfectly locked in. If it takes 10 seconds to reach a stable position, the clock starts once you achieve stability. In other words, don't count duration based on time per repetition; count it based on time of stabilization achieved.
     
  8. I have most of my athletes place their mid-shin on the edge of the bench. The further back you slide your knee toward the end of the bench, the more challenging the movement becomes. Start with the edge of the bench near the top of your ankle, then gradually progress until most of the shin on your support leg is off the bench.
     
  9. Many gyms have benches with different widths. This may seem obvious, but thinner benches force you to maintain a narrower base, making the drill significantly more challenging. When first attempting Bird Dogs, use the widest bench you can find. In addition, benches that have a slight concave shape (as opposed to completely flat) are far more challenging due to the added instability and rotational forces.
     
  10. It's best to start with slow, controlled movements, but the faster you can move into a quadruped position, the more difficult it is to stabilize, because you'll be forced to recruit your stabilizers and motor units at a faster rate. Just make sure your form stays in check when you move quickly.
     
  11. Regarding hand position of the extended arm, your hand can assume either a pronated or neutral grip, or anything in between. Although the differences are subtle, a pronated grip tends to emphasize more upper back musculature, and a neutral grip promotes greater activation of the deltoids.
     
  12. An often-neglected yet important cue is to keep the support arm slightly bent at the elbow joint (soft elbow).  This allows the upper torso to tilt over to a slightly steeper angle (which is ideal) thereby allowing a straight line to occur throughout the body that’s also parallel to the floor.  Without this slight elbow bend the torso will be angled up too high (roughly 10-15 degrees) and the tendency to over arch and over-extend through the low back will be more pronounced.   The soft elbow position eliminates this.