Bird Dog Exercise Variations for Core Strength and Back Health

Article originally appeared on stack.com on 6/1/16

The Quadruped Bird Dog exercise has been a popular core and spinal stabilization drill for quite some time. Made famous by low back specialists and functional training experts such as Stuart McGill, Gray Cook and Mike Boyle, the Quadruped Bird Dog exercise is an an effective movement for reinforcing 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 training center. The movement is quite simple. While maintaining a neutral spine, kneel on the floor in a quadruped position (on your hands and knees), raise your opposite arm and leg straight out while focusing on keeping your abs braced, stomach pulled in, and your whole body in one straight line from head to foot. The goal is to resist rotation and extension forces that are attempting to destabilize your spine and cause you to lose your balance.

Proper execution can produce a variety of benefits, including improvements in core activation, rotary stability, spinal alignment, reduced low back pain, postural control, shoulder stabilization, hip alignment, shoulder mobility and spinal stabilization. In addition, the contralateral movement improves the ability to integrate a strong pillar while simultaneously coordinating both lower and upper body segments—a critical aspect of athletic performance.

Whether you're a pro or collegiate athlete, bodybuilder, powerlifter, adolescent athlete, fitness enthusiast or active individual simply looking for a drill to improve low back function and spinal health, the Quadruped is a fantastic drill that can enhance multiple aspects of athletic performance and muscle function.

The Drawback

During the first few attempts, Quadrupeds can be much more challenging than they appear. However, with adequate practice they quickly becomes quite manageable. In fact, one of the downfalls with the traditional Bird Dog Drill is that it inevitably becomes too effortless. Although it may suffice for elderly individuals and special populations, it tends to lose some of its effectiveness in athletes and higher functioning adults. As a result, I've had to modify the movement to make it more challenging for the highest functioning athletes. The key is to perform it while elevated on a bench rather than on the floor.

Quadruped on Bench: A Better Variation

Performing the Bird Dog exercise on the bench instead of the floor (the traditional method) exponentially increases both the difficulty and effectiveness for several reasons.

It eliminates one base of support. Instead of having your feet and ankles fixed to the floor, they'll be hanging off the edge of the bench. Rather than having three points of contact (hand, knee and foot), you'll only have two anchor points (hand and knee), which greatly increases instability and innervation of the core.

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

The bench forces you to maintain a narrow base throughout. Rather than having your knees and hands spread wide, you'll be confined to the narrow space of the bench, which can feel quite challenging. However, this also helps to promote proper alignment throughout the body.

A traditional bench is typically softer than any floor surface, even 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.

Kneeling in an elevated position several feet off the floor typically causes one to have greater respect for the movement as a means of avoiding a sudden crash 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, motor control and movement quality.

Hand activation is an often-ignored aspect of quadruped movements. Relaxing the hand such as is commonly seen when performing them on the floor facilitates lethargic neuromuscular activation. On the other hand, the bench variation promotes intense grip and hand activation, since to maintain balance and control, you have to make sure your anchor hand is firmly gripping the side of the bench. This facilitates a neurophysiological response known as concurrent activation potentiation (CAP), or irradiation. In simpleterms, activation of smaller muscles such as in the hands, feet and neck produces greater neutral 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 address.

All of these factors make the Quadruped much 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.

Quadruped on Bench with Narrow Base

A simple modification to make the bench variation of Quadruped Bird Dog even more difficult is to kneel width-wise on the bench rather than lengthwise. This creates an even smaller base of support, forcing you to resist more extreme rotational forces. You'll want to master the first variation, as this one can be quite tricky. To reap the full benefits, it's also imperative that your body maintains a fairly straight line throughout.

Additional Notes About the Quadruped Bird Dog

  • The Quadruped Bird Dog is all about technique and postural alignment. What most people forget is that posture and body alignment include 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 will be straight down toward the bench.
  • Closing your eyes will make the variations more difficult. However, that can be the key to helping you find your ideal position due to increased reliance on sensory feedback from muscle 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.
  • The front extended arm should be in approximately the same relative position as the top of an Overhead Press. In other words, your arm should be in line with your 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.
  • A firmer bench surface, although less comfortable, will be more stable, while a softer surface will make it more difficult to maintain your balance due to the increased instability from the softer foam.
  • Allowing your supporting arm to maintain a slight bend throughout can be helpful, as it helps to eliminate overarching of the low back, which is common with a locked arm position.
  • If you're unfamiliar with Quadrupeds and Bird Dog exercises, start with the floor variations and progress to the bench once you've mastered your form.
  • Although you're likely to lose your balance when first attempting the more advanced variations, safety is not a concern since yourarm and foot will rotate to the ground, allowing you to catch yourself without injury.
  • I typically recommend holding each position for 3-7 seconds. However, the clock does not start until you are perfectly locked in. If it takes 10 seconds to reach a stable position, the clock starts once you achieve that stability. Then hold for an additional 3-7 seconds. In other words, don't count duration based on time per repetition; instead, count based on time once stabilization has been established.
  • I typically have most of my athletes place their mid shin on the edge of the bench.The farther 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 so that most of the shin of your support leg is off the bench.
  • Many gyms have different bench options with different widths. This may seem obvious, but thinner benches force you to maintain a narrower base, making it significantly more challenging. When first attempting these, 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.
  • Although it's best to start with slower controlled movements, the faster you move into a Quadruped Bird Dog position, the more difficult it is to stabilize, since you'll be forced to recruit your stabilizers and motor units at a faster rate. Just make sure your form stays in check when moving quickly.
  • In terms of hand position of the extended arm, the 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, while a neutral grip promotes greater activation of the deltoids.