Dead Bugs Exercise Variations – The Best and Most Underutilized Exercise

Dead bug exercise variations are one of my absolute FAVORITE exercises and if done properly with advanced progressions, they can be a core killer!! Learning to activate your deep spinal stabilizers like the transversus abdominis in these positions is imperative before progressing to more dynamic exercises. As with all “core stabilization” exercises, you MUST PROGRESS THEM to more functional and upright movements once you learn what it feels like to truly stabilize your spine!

 

Core Stabilization: The Dead Bug Exercise

As previously mentioned, the dead bug is an all encompassing core stabilization exercise that requires an extensive amount of control from our entire core! Moreover, our deep core stabilizers are often neglected, and there have been correlations between inactivity of this particular muscle group and low back pain. We may think that doing exercises like chin-ups is what is best for our core; however, spending time with foundational exercises that focus on stability of our core rather than mobility is what creates a foundation of a bulletproof core! Once the stability is enhanced, this then can begin to to combine with progressive mobility in order to create healthy movement patterns! Below we show you the basics of this exercise with a description of the set-up as well as correct execution!

 

Dead Bug Exercise: Build Your Core The Right Way!

Sample [P]Rehab Exercise Library Video

So what exactly is the dead bug exercise?

  • To perform this exercise, you will begin laying on your back on a comfortable surface, such as a padded mat, carpet, etc.

 

  • Next, you will want to get into the starting position. This is when you arms are extended in line with your shoulders, and your legs are lifted so that your knees are directly over your hips. (This is the dead bug position!)

 

  • To initiate the movement, sink your belly button down towards your spine to engage your transversus abdominus. You should feel that your low back is glued down to the surface you are on, with no gaps between your back and that particular surface.

 

  • With your core stabilized, move one arm back behind you and slowly lower down the opposite leg towards the floor simulatneously with a slow and controlled movement pattern

 

  • Bring both extremities back to the dead bug starting position, and then repeat with the opposite extremities

 

Proper Motor Control Development

These deep core-stabilizing muscles are EXTREMELY important for our spine integrity and health. They are responsible for stabilizing each individual vertebra that, when all added together, makes up our spine. In order to move our spine for function, we activate our superficial core muscles like our rectus abdominis and erector spinae. However, if these superficial core muscles attempt to move our spine WITHOUT OUR DEEP CORE MUSCLES SIMULTANEOUSLY STABILIZING EACH VERTEBRAL SEGMENT, abnormal movement patterns and shearing forces will occur in the spine!

Shown here is an alternating leg dead bug exercise variation. Notice how my pelvis/spine stays BRACED and neutral throughout the leg movements (which increase the lever arm thus making the exercise harder). To often people don’t brace or control this movement properly and thus don’t get any sort of core work from it. FIND YOUR MOTOR CONTROL LIMIT on how far you can extend your leg WHILE BRACING WITHOUT YOUR PELVIS/SPINE MOVING. On my third rep, you can see my pelvis move. This is MY MOTOR CONTROL LIMIT. With practice, you will be able to lower/extend your legs further and further. Now find your limit!

As you continue to work on this exercise, your motor control limit threshold will increase! Thus meaning, you will eventually be able to perform more repetitions before movement compensations occur. It is always important to understand when your compensations occur, and to NOT continue moving through those compensations. Be intentional with your exercises. In many cases, LESS is MORE!

 

READ: LOW BACK TIGHTNESS, CAUSES, ROUTINES, AND TREATMENT

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Dead Bug Exercise Variations: Incorporate Upper Extremity Movements

Here is another variation of the dead bugs. This time, we are using our upper extremity to vary the biomechanical demands placed upon our core. You can alternate arms or reach overhead simultaneously. Again, the same rule applies: the core needs to stay braced and activated the entire time!

The goal of motor control exercises are to enable the patient to regain control and coordination of the spine and pelvis using principles of motor learning. There is a growing body of literature that supports utilizing motor control exercises as a treatment for chronic and recurrent low back pain, and in some cases—see the meta analysis below—motor control exercises were shown to be superior to general exercise in reducing disability and pain.

Low back pain is a multifaceted problem that is highly influenced by pain science, kinesiophobia, physiology, and psychology. In no way shape or form am I saying motor control exercises will alleviate low back pain – however, there is a growing body of literature that supports motor control exercises as an effective treatment approach in addition to the normal standard of care. This is especially true for those with clinical instability who have impaired control and coordination for the spinal muscles.

LISTEN: LOW BACK DISCUSSION WITH [P]REHAB

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Dead Bug Exercise Variations: Head Lift

What is excellent about this dead bug exercise variation is that by performing a head lift, you not only are working on your core stabilization, but you are also targeting recruitment of your deep neck flexors! Deep neck flexor muscular endurance is an important indicator of good neck stability and health! By performing just this small head lift, you will also feel that your core has to work that much harder than if your head is relaxed on the floor. You will be surprised with how much more your core becomes engaged with this small movement progression!

Start this exercise on your back in a 90/90 position, with your knees over your hips and your arms in front of your shoulders. Keep the small of your back pushed into the floor by activating your core. While maintaining core activation, perform a chin tuck and lift your head/neck off the ground. While maintaining head/neck position, drop one leg and the opposite arm towards the floor. The closer you drop the arms and legs towards the floor, the more challenge this exercise will be. Return to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side.

 

Dead Bug Exercise Variations: Regress The Movement If It is Too Challenging!

Regressions are NOT a bad thing! In fact, it is better to start with an exercise difficulty that is most appropriate for YOU, rather than trying to perform a particular movement that may be too challenging for your body to handle. This is where people can run into trouble with faulty movement patterns, as well as potential injury. What is excellent about the dead bug is that it not only can be progressed to a more challenging exercise, but it can also be regressed to make it a more appropriate exercise for individuals!

Dead Bug Exercise Variations: Legs Horizontal

Start this exercise on your back in a 90/90 position of your knees and hips. Keep the small of your back pushed into the floor by activating your core. While maintaining core activation extend your legs out one at a time. The closer your feet are towards the floor the more challenging this exercise will be on your core.

By keep your arms on your abdomen, this exercise is less challenging than the traditional dead bug, which incorporates both arm and leg movement!

 

Anti-Extension and Anti-Rotation Dead Bug Exercise Variations

Here are some amazing advanced dead bug exercise variations that involve placing an anti-rotation and anti-extension torque on the core. The KEY here is to maintain an absolutely stable and still pelvis/spine. What makes these so advanced is the torque attempting to pull your spine into either rotation or extension. The only way to prevent your pelvis/spine from moving is to stabilize with your core!

Note that in the anti-rotation dead bug exercise variation you can either hold the theraband with one or two arms. Using one vs two arms will equally provide the same anti-rotation torque; the difference between them is determining which other muscle groups must be called upon to stabilize the upper extremity. Using only my left hand (away from the theraband anchor), I must activate my posterior deltoid and scapular retractors. Using only my right hand (closer to the theraband anchor), I must activate my pectoralis and anterior deltoid. These are just some things to keep in mind when determining your handhold!

Working on anti-rotation is excellent because often times with activities of daily living, our core is constantly challenged. Whether someone bumps into you when walking on the sidewalk, or you lose your balance on an uneven surface, your core helps you prevent excessive, uncontrolled movements!


With the anti-extension dead bug exercise variation, you get great recruitment of the lats and triceps. Remember not to overly flex the cervical spine! Thanks to @coach.jacksontaylor and @thebarbellphysio for these dead bug exercise variations!

 

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References

  1. Bystrom et al 2013. Motor Control Exercises Reduces Pain and Disability in Chronic and Recurrent Low Back Patients in SPINE.

 

Disclaimer – The content here is designed for information & education purposes only and is not intended for medical advice.

6 Comments
  • Partner Core Workout Series - How To Make Core Training More Engaging
    Posted at 16:38h, 20 August Reply

    […] visit our back section of our blog to learn more about other variations of core exercises including dead bugs and […]

  • Jennifer
    Posted at 14:27h, 24 October Reply

    Can you say more about your caution against flexing the cervical spine too much?

    • Michael Lau
      Posted at 12:38h, 10 November Reply

      Flexing the cervical spine is perfectly normal and okay!

  • Alita Battle Angel 123 Movies
    Posted at 10:49h, 24 January Reply

    Great article.

  • Nicola K
    Posted at 15:37h, 21 August Reply

    Thankyou for the information on the motor control limit. I’m very out of shape and had a group PT session encourage me to move both legs together through a full range of motion while in deadbug position and I couldn’t do it without compromising my back, and I didn’t know how to modify the exercise to make it work. Now I know how to find out the safe range of motion and work from there.

    • Sherif Elnaggar
      Posted at 07:13h, 25 August Reply

      You’re welcome! Thank you for your comments and awesome to hear you have found something that works for you!

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