Dead bugs might have an entertaining name, but anyone who’s tried them can tell you they’re no joke. The name comes from the exercise’s starting position, where you lay on your back with your knees bent and stacked over your hips, and arms straight up in the air with your hands stacked over your shoulders — in a position that looks like a “dead bug.” From there, you extend opposite arm and leg away from each other to complete the exercise.
While that might not sound so difficult, there’s a reason so many trainers use this movement with clients of all levels. “The dead bug gained recognition from the research of Dr. Stuart McGill,” explains Julian Sisman, a certified personal trainer and strength and conditioning specialist. McGill’s research showed that doing the dead bug — rather than a crunch or full situp — trains the core more effectively through anti-extension (or resisting the movement of arching your back and jutting your ribs out in front of you) while also protecting the lower back.
There are plenty of other exercises that also train anti-extension, like planks and ab rollouts, but the dead bug is special, Sisman says.“It can easily be regressed and progressed, making it a simple, safe and effective full-core exercise for all fitness levels. It also requires simultaneous movements of the upper and lower body in different directions, without movement of the spine, which improves neuromuscular firing and coordination.”
Plus, you can do them anywhere without any equipment. But to get the maximum benefits, which include a stronger core, you’ll need to make sure you’re doing them properly. Here’s how:
KEEP YOUR BACK NEUTRAL
When doing a dead bug, you’ve got to find the perfect balance between not arching or flattening your back too much. “You shouldn’t be pressing your back into the mat, as this can prevent you from activating your deeper abdominal and core layers,” notes Erica Ziel, founder of The Core Rehab Program and The Core Connections Podcast. “On the flipside, you don’t want to arch too much, putting stress on your low back.”
“Because everyone’s body is different, you may find your low back touches the mat or floor. This can be OK, as long as you are not putting pressure into the mat or floor.” Once you’ve found the right balance, pay attention to what happens as you lower your legs. “Only go to a point that does not cause you to change the position of your spine,” Ziel recommends.
ENGAGE YOUR DEEP ABDOMINALS
“The most common mistake I see in dead bugs is disconnecting from the deep abdominal muscles,” says Liron Kass, Creator of Restart, an online Pilates program. Here’s how to fix that: “Put your hands on your tummy and do a fake cough. The muscles that you feel pulling under your hands are the same muscles you need to use when you lengthen your legs and arms away from each other,” Kass explains. “These muscles are easily activated when you breathe out, so make sure you inhale to prepare for the exercise and then, before you move your legs and arms, breathe out and pull those ‘coughing’ muscles in.”
DON’T USE YOUR HIP FLEXORS
“When doing any abdominal exercise, if you are feeling more work coming from your hip flexors, then you aren’t engaging your abdominals correctly,” Ziel points out. If you feel tension in the front of your hip, go back to rule number 2 and work on getting your abdominal muscles working. “Our hip flexors can become tight from lots of sitting, so avoiding letting them take over during abdominal exercises is important.”
It’s tempting to move fast when you’re working out, but you’ll see greater benefit and be more challenged if you take things down a notch in this exercise. “Control the speed so you can watch out for any loss in neutral spine such as your lower back arching,” recommends Kristian Flores, a strength and conditioning coach. “Increasing the time under tension is the best way to improve performance, not by moving quickly and doing many repetitions. Pause for ‘one-Mississippi’ at the bottom of the move before returning to the start position. Pause again at the start position to reset and get your breathing ready.”
WHEN IN DOUBT, MODIFY
“If you are experiencing back pain, or your lower back is lifting from the floor, regress the movement,” Sisman recommends. Start with regression number 1, then work your way through the list as you get stronger.
Regression #1: Alternate moving your arms only. Legs stay bent at 90 degrees.
Regression #2: Alternate legs only with toe taps, touching toes to the ground instead of straightening the leg.
Regression #3: Alternate legs only, extending them straight. Hands can be overhead and pressed against a wall or stacked above your shoulders.
Regression #4: Alternate extending the arm and leg on the same side.
Once you’ve mastered these, go back to the regular dead bug.