Take it easy. Slow down. Focus. So many of us would get so much more out of our workouts if we followed those three simple guidelines. But we don’t. Instead, we push ourselves, then push some more, thinking that’s the way to get results.
“The whole challenge with the fitness industry is the belief that the harder you go, the more fit you’ll get,” says Sonima pain and anatomy advisor Pete Egoscue. “That’s just not true.”
The “push-it” mindset turns good movements into strange contortions that are anything but beneficial. So is the case with Bird Dog, an exercise where you start on all fours then lift an arm and alternate leg off the floor.
When you perform the move correctly, it helps your posture, strengthens deep back muscles, and teaches your load-bearing joints (ankles, knees, hips and shoulders) to work together. But many people try to “go farther” with this underestimated exercise and wind up putting unnecessary stress on their spine.
“This is an advanced exercise that is often done poorly by beginners,” elite performance coach Michael Boyle writes in his 2016 book, New Functional Training for Sports.
You can perform the move like a pro—and spare your back a lot of stress—by learning what good form for Bird Dog means. The first step is to understand what the exercise is really meant to do.
Why Add Bird Dog to Your Workout?
A proper Bird Dog strengthens important back muscles called extensors—longissimus, iliocostalis, and multifidus. Together, they stiffen and stabilize the spine, helping it to carry weight. A good Bird Dog does all of this while placing while a minimal amount of load on the spine itself, according to Stuart McGill, Ph.D., head of the spine biomechanics laboratory at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
To train these muscles properly, your goal is to hold the spine rigid in a neutral position as you move your arms and legs. What’s a “neutral” position? Perhaps that’s best understood by explaining what it’s not. Neutral is not rounded, as if you were hunched over at a computer. A rounded back is said to be in flexion.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, neutral is not belly-dipping-toward-the-floor. This position—also incorrect—is called extension.
Instead, neutral is the position between those two extremes. Your shoulders and hips form a line. There’s a slight inward curve at the lower back, and a slight outward curve up by your shoulders.
Neutral is the position your spine would naturally take on if you were just walking around. In fact, Egoscue says that when you perform the Bird Dog, “You’re actually duplicating the muscle action of walking.”
The Big Mistake People Make When They Bird Dog
When you understand what “neutral spine” means, and that maintaining that position is the goal when you Bird Dog, you can immediately see the problem with this common “go further” form fault.
People—often strong folks who have a good range of motion—turn the Bird Dog into a sort-of All-Fours Half-Superman, lifting their hand as high as they can reach and kicking their heel toward the sky (see above). This causes several problems.
- A Superman-type move can apply almost three times as much compression to the spine compared to a proper Bird Dog, according to McGill’s research.
- This greater degree of force is being applied to a spine that’s in a hyperextended position. That means that the discs between vertebrae are being pinched on one side and are bulging on another.
- Hyperextension can also be damaging to the interspinous ligament, an important tissue primarily located in your lower back.
The combination of these factors is why McGill, in his book Low Back Disorders, concluded about the Superman: “This exercise should not be done in any form.”
How Bird Dog the Right Way
Start by positioning your hands directly underneath your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips.
Beginners may want to start by lifting just one arm or leg at a time. As you do, be careful not to round at the upper back when moving the arm, or hike up the hip on the side of your elevated leg. Keep the hips level.
The next level is to perform what we more commonly know as Bird Dog, where your arm and leg move at the same time.
Push back through your heel. Think “heel to the wall.” The foot should be dorsiflexed, which means “toes pulled toward your shin.” Also, and this is key, your heel should not be held higher than your butt. “If the heel stays level with the butt, the back cannot extend,” Boyle explains.
Notice your knee of the lifted leg. Is it bent? If so, try and straighten it out. “A lot of people don’t bring their leg into full extension behind them,” Egoscue says. “They keep the knee bent, when they should be focusing on extending it.”
Your raised arm should be horizontal but no farther. McGill suggests making a fist with your elevated hand to get more muscle engagement from the move.
In a well-executed bird dog, your ankle, knee, hip and shoulder will form a line. Hold that position for 5 to 8 seconds, then lower and repeat. Perform all of your reps with one arm and leg, then switch to the others. Keep the motion controlled throughout.
“Slow down,” Egoscue says. “And don’t hold your breath. It doesn’t matter when you inhale or exhale, just make sure that you’re breathing.”