I’ve spent most of 2020 horizontal. So why not do the same during my workouts? While there’s plenty of belly-up core exercises to pick from, like crunches or Russian twists, in my book, there’s one core exercise that rules them all: the dead bug. Though admittedly not the sexiest name, dead bug exercises are a simple and effective way to build core stability and strength throughout your body. Keep reading to learn how dead bugs can work your muscles, how to do them, and what experts have to say about this exercise.
Meet the Expert
- Brendon Ross, DO, MS, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation medicine at University of Chicago, is a sports medicine orthopedist and researcher.
- Heather Hamilton, MS, ACSM, is a certified personal trainer, fitness educator, and competitive powerlifter with degrees in exercise and health science. She’s the director of fitness at the Colorado School of the Mines and co-owner of Barpath Fitness in Golden, Colorado.
- Katie Kollath, MS, CPT, is a certified personal trainer and health coach, weightlifting coach, and competitive powerlifter with a degree in health and human performance. She co-owns Barpath Fitness.
What Is the Dead Bug Exercise?
While the name “dead bug” may not imply an awesome core workout, this exercise delivers just that. Dead bugs are named for their shape: “Typically, you’re lying on your back, and your limbs are moving but your core is stable,” says Hamilton.
Want to build strength, stability, and coordination all at once? Then dead bugs are the answer. Customize the exercise to suit your ability and fitness level, or add in equipment to target different muscle groups while conditioning your core.
Dead bug exercises work all 360 degrees of your core—that’s the abdominal muscles on your front and sides, along with the muscles in your lower back and hip girdle area, says Ross. Make dead bugs a full-body workout by incorporating arm and leg movements or equipment like weights or resistance bands. “Any patient that's dealing with any sort of lower extremity issue—whether it’s knee problems, hip problems, back problems, or pelvic instability—can benefit from dead bug exercises,” says Ross. “They’re really the entire spectrum of core exercise. They also encourage spine stability and engage the muscles along your back, arms, and glutes.”
Developing core control and stability sets the stage for better performance in your workouts overall, says Hamilton. “It’s a really great primer for the core, especially if you’re doing heavy lifting or compound movements like squatting. It’s the same articulation of your pelvis position,” she says. That extra core strength and stability can benefit your everyday life, too, by preventing back pain, improving your posture and making daily activities easier.
Dead bugs can also help develop body awareness and coordination, says Kollath. “Coordinating your arm and leg movements helps with proprioception. I like it a lot for older clients because it's an approachable exercise for those who are used to moving around less.”
And anyone can reap these benefits. “They’re low-impact, so for individuals who may have difficulty doing activity that’s on a standing plane, these are very accessible exercises to a wide population and range of ability levels,” says Ross.
Here’s the short list of the major benefits of dead bugs, courtesy of the experts:
- Improves core strength
- Builds core and spinal stability
- Strengthens back, arm, and leg muscles
- Low-impact and easy on your joints
- Helps prevent back pain
- Encourages body awareness and coordination
- Accessible to people of all ability and fitness levels
- Primes your body for better form and performance in other exercises
How to Perform
Let’s start with the basics. Here’s a dead bug exercise that will challenge your core without you even needing to move:
- Lie on your back.
- Bend your knees 90 degrees and stack them over your hips.
- Tilt your pelvis up so that the small of your back presses into the ground.
- Place your hands on your thighs. Press your hands into your thighs and your thighs into your hands to engage your core.
- Hold still for as long as you can maintain proper form.
Add arm and leg movements to your dead bugs from there:
- Lie on your back with your legs bent, arms reaching toward the ceiling and back pressed to the ground.
- Slowly extend one arm and one leg parallel to the floor.
- Return to the starting position and switch sides.
Extend the opposite arm and leg to work your deep abdominal muscles or same-side arm and leg to build oblique strength. Start with three to four sets of 10 to 12 reps per exercise with 30 to 60 seconds of rest in between, say Kollath and Hamilton.
Tailor dead bug exercises to what’s best for you, says Hamilton. If you feel your lower back arching off the ground as you move, lower your reps to prioritize form. Or move one extremity at a time instead of an arm and a leg simultaneously, to focus on maintaining good form.
If you’d like to make your dead bugs more challenging, try straightening your legs or incorporating equipment like free weights, medicine balls, or resistance bands. Hold a medicine ball or weight overhead with both hands, then slowly lower it behind you, suggests Kollath. Hamilton recommends tying a resistance band to something unmoving behind you and then pressing the band forward over your torso as you lower one or both legs. You can also squeeze a yoga block or light medicine ball between your calves, thighs, or hands to promote stability.
“Anybody can do these because they’re very safe exercises,” says Ross. “Just make sure that if you haven't done any sort of exercise program, get some guidance from a fitness instructor, health professional, physical therapist, or athletic trainer to demonstrate and monitor you for proper form.”
The most important safety consideration is to keep your back pressed fully to the ground, says Hamilton. Prioritize quality of form over quantity of reps to avoid injuring your lower back. If you feel any back pain while you move, stop.
And keep it slow—like, really slow. Even though you may not always work up a sweat with dead bugs, moving too fast might compromise your form. It might also mean you’re relying on momentum instead of muscle strength to complete the movement.
It may seem obvious, but don’t forget to breathe. “With dead bug exercises in particular, it's super important to breathe through your diaphragm so that you can brace your core properly,” says Hamilton. A good rule of thumb is to exhale at the hardest part of your movement, which is typically when you bring your arms and legs back to center, says Kollath.
Dead bugs are an accessible and customizable exercise to strengthen your core and other muscles, improve spinal stability, and develop full-body coordination. These safe bodyweight exercises have a low barrier to entry, and can be a welcome departure from more traditional core exercises like sit-ups or planks.
Add a dead bug exercise or two into your current fitness routine, or use it in a standalone workout to counteract that work-from-home back pain we’ve all been feeling after hunching over our laptops for so many months. Hammer out a few reps throughout the day to reawaken your core and lengthen your spine while still remaining relatively sweat-free for your next video call.