It sounds like it’s meant for animals, but the bird dog exercise is a core-based floor workout that can be done by anyone—no equipment needed. Best yet, this full-body move will help strengthen and stabilize a wide variety of muscles in your body. To help us understand everything possible about the benefits of it and how to perform a bird dog properly, we asked personal trainers Bethany Stillwaggon, ACSM-CPT, and Steve Stonehouse, NASM-CPT, as well as physical therapist Briana Bain, to tell us more about this valuable exercise.
Meet the Expert
What Is It?
Though it’s a fairly simple move that requires no equipment, a bird dog exercise involves your entire body. Stillwaggon describes a bird dog exercise as “a fantastic stability, strength, & control movement that is done on all fours,” with a goal “to find the connectivity in our muscles and joints.” She also says that it can “prevent imbalance injuries that typically occur from an under-utilized back muscle and an overly tight front side of the body.” Stonehouse agrees, noting that the bird dog is “extremely valuable, as a strong core and good spinal stability will help you in everyday life.”
This move is excellent for all fitness levels, and because it relies only on body weight, both beginners and advanced exerciser enthusiasts can do it. As a low-impact workout, it’s considered safe for people recovering from injuries, though modifications may be needed for some circumstances; those are provided along with variations below. In terms of fitting them into your routine, Stillwaggon advises that “Bird dogs are great to do anytime! Complete some bird dogs before or after a workout or use it as a little recovery or reset to your high-intensity workout.”
It’s no surprise that an exercise that uses your full body targets a great range of muscles. Stonehouse tells us that a bird dog exercise targets the core, glutes (butt), low back, upper back and shoulders, abs, and thighs. It can address all of these muscle groups because it requires movement from your arms and legs while your core stabilizes your body. Stillwaggon says that it’s “a great exercise for those wanting to build low back support without putting any pressure on the low back or concern for compromising the stability of the low back musculature.”
A Step-by-Step Guide
- To begin, set up in an area large enough to extend your arms and legs straight outward at the same time. Place a yoga mat, or other supportive flat mat, onto the floor beneath you.
- Next, get on all fours into a tabletop position. Gently rest your weight on the palms of your hands and your knees. Your shoulders and knees should be shoulder and hip-width apart, respectively, and your placement should feel natural, not strained. Stillwaggon suggests that your head placement should be neutral, “looking straight down to the ground at your fingertips.”
- Once you feel secure and stable in your tabletop position, it’s time to move into the active part of the exercise. You’ll be performing it on each side, with your left arm combined with your right leg and your right arm combined with your left leg. Stonehouse says to “lift and extend your right arm out in front of you while simultaneously lifting and extending your left leg behind you,” with the goal to “form a straight line from your right fingertips to your left toes while keeping your hip square to the ground and resisting any unnecessary spinal rotation.” Stillwaggon advises that your thumb should point up when you extend your arm and says that this part of the move is so powerful because “just about every joint and muscle in the body is active in preventing movement in the rest of the body, creating stability of the core, and building strength in lifting the weight of our arm and leg.
- Hold the arm and leg extension for one or two seconds, then return your arm and leg to your starting tabletop position.
- Perform the move with your two other limbs: if you started with your right arm and left leg, repeat the move with your left arm and right leg. Hold it while extended for a moment just like you did on the other side, then return to tabletop. Stonehouse says to make sure you keep your core engaged the entire time and warns you to keep breathing.
- Repeat five-to-ten times on each side.
Variations and Modifications
When modifying this exercise, you’ll always want to focus on core stability no matter how your arms and legs might move differently. The easier way to vary it is to do only the arm extension or only the leg extension. Performing only one part of the move may help anyone dealing with an upper or lower-body injury. If you have a knee injury, though, you may not be able to do this move starting from a tabletop position at all. To perform a bird dog exercise without the tabletop starting position, Stillwaggon suggests the following:
- “Try a bird dog in a high plank position instead. Because the all-fours position provides the body with more support at the body's base because the foot, knee, and hand are close in proximity, the plank will certainly provide more of a challenge. Try it yourself and see how you do with lifting the opposite arm and opposite leg in opposite directions while in a plank.
- A standing bird dog is another great modification that removes the bodyweight pressure completely. Instead of starting and finishing on all fours, begin by standing with arms by your side and lifting one leg from the hip slightly behind you while lifting the opposite arm to the sky. This still allows the body to feel the posterior muscles working in tandem to provide the body stability and balance of the standing leg.”
Note: If you are experiencing any pain while performing a Bird Dog, or any of its modifications, stop and seek medical attention. "A physical therapist can assess and treat any orthopedic conditions causing pain, and a personal trainer can assess form and provide modifications if needed," says physical therapist Briana Bain.
Full Body Connectivity
A bird dog exercise helps to strengthen your core, arms, and legs while also enhancing your ability to move your body in a singular, fluid manner. Try adding the bird dog exercise to your next workout; your whole body will thank you!
Son NJ, Jun HJ, Yi KO. Angular differences between the lower extremity and the ground that express maximum core muscle activation according to core-strengthening exercises. Korean Journal of Sport Biomechanics. 2017;27(4). doi:10.5103/KJSB.2017.27.4.247