The Bird Dog Exercise

The bird dog exercise is an excellent method of strengthening the primary movers of the spine, such as the superficial erector spinae muscle group and the deeper spinal muscles (i.e. multifidus, etc.).  And, the bird dog strengthens the secondary muscles, the rectus abdominus, transversus abdominus, and gluteus maximus along with many of the shoulder girdle muscles which function as stabilizers during this exercise.

This week, we will feature the foundational bird dog exercise as well as three progressive variations this and next week.  Always master the foundational exercise first prior to attempting the variations and follow the suggested progression mastering each variation before moving to the next.  As always, prior to beginning any exercise program, please consult your physician.

Bird Dog – Foundation

-Begin by kneeling down on the floor on the hands and knees.  The wrists should be aligned directly under the shoulders and the knees directly underneath the hips.

-Head, neck and shoulders should be a natural extension of your spine—gaze at the floor. Avoid permitting the head to sag downward or any hyperextension of the spine; keep the rib cage lifted, the navel pulled toward the spine and the pelvic floor muscles engaged.

-Maintain this position of the spine/torso throughout the exercise.

-Take your left leg and extend it back tucking the toes underneath creating a straight diagonal line from the hip to the heel.  Then, engaging your gluteus maximus, lift the leg to hip height so that the leg is parallel to the floor.  The left hip and knee should point toward the floor and the toes should point toward the wall behind you.

-Make certain that you have found a stable position on the right leg/right/left hand (i.e. three points). Now, extend the right arm out so that the fingertips point to the wall in front of you and point your thumb toward the ceiling with the arm parallel to the floor.

-You want to create a straight line from fingertips to toes on opposing sides of the body, now stabilizing on “two points” (i.e. your right leg and left hand).

-Hold this position for 4-30 seconds without compromising your form at any point, and then perform on the other opposing sides.

-Perform this exercise two-three times through, two-three non-consecutive days/week.

*Tips:  Make certain to breathe deeply and rhythmically throughout the exercise; keep your body weight as equally distributed as possible; initially perform on a stable surface, and strive for meticulous form/technique throughout; never permitting any discomfort in the lumbar spine.  If you begin to lose balance/stability, pull your pelvic floor in deeply and make certain that the glutes are solid as a rock on the extended leg side.

Variation/Progression #1

-Holding the bird dog position as described above (i.e. left leg and right arm extended), draw the extended leg and arm back in toward the torso simultaneously, flexing at the elbow and hip/knee joints so that the elbow lines up directly under that shoulder and the knee lines up directly under that hip joint. Then, extend back to the beginning position and repeat.  Perform 8 repetitions each side.

-Avoid moving the head/spine/torso—hold your position and let your appendages move.

Variation/Progression #2

-Holding the bird dog position described in last week’s column (i.e. left leg and right arm extended), lower the leg and arm back toward the floor (i.e. lower the leg/arm until you almost touch the floor) and then lift both simultaneously back to hip and shoulder height..

-Make certain the movement initiates from the hip joint/shoulder joint for the leg/arm and that you avoid any lumbar spine motion.

-As with all variations of the bird dog exercise, the torso remains stable throughout while the appendages move.

-Perform 8-12 repetitions of the hip extension/shoulder flexion and then switch to the other opposing sides and repeat.

-You may perform two-three sets of this exercise, two-three non-consecutive days/week.

Variation/Progression #3

-Holding the bird dog position described in last week’s column (i.e. left leg and right arm extended), move the left leg out to the left side of the body as you move the right arm out to the right side of the body.

-Think of “sliding” the leg and arm along a table-top smoothly out to the sides without permitting hip motion (i.e. leg/arm remain parallel to the floor as you “slide” out/in).

-As in variation #2, move only the appendages not compensating with torso movement.

-Perform 8-12 repetitions of the leg/arm slide and then repeat on the other side.

-You may perform two-three sets of this exercise, two-three non-consecutive days/week.

Further progression and regression tips:

Progression Tips:

-If you have mastered the foundational and all three bird dog variations, you may attempt the foundational bird dog exercise prone from the top of a stability ball with the ball firmly placed under the torso and the toes of the supporting leg and fingers of the supporting arm (still opposing), able to touch the floor throughout.

-Progressions #2 and #3 may also be attempted from the stability ball once the foundational bird dog is mastered on the ball.

-Another possible progression is to place a mini ball (i.e. a pliable ball smaller than a basketball but larger than a baseball) under the supporting hand, extend the same leg and then extend the opposite arm keeping the toes of the opposing leg on the floor.  Hold for 10-30 seconds and then switch sides with the ball.

Regression Tips:

-You may return to a 3-point balance position at any time during any of these variations.  For example, if you seem to be able to lift the leg/arm up, but struggle a bit during the static hold, then lower the arm back to the floor and re-set your posture.  Remember, balance is what happens between imbalances, so be patient with yourself.

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