At the end of every gym day — before social distancing began, that is — my fiancé and I would recap what workouts we both did. Without fail, he'd mention that he completed a set of bird dogs — a fairly simply core exercise that never made my list. To be totally honest, I didn't even know what he was talking about until I googled the move.
Upon my early research, I learned that bird dogs are usually prescribed in physical therapy, and that the movement can be beneficial for those suffering from back pain.
For more information, I reached out to Sam Becourtney, PT, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F at Bespoke Treatments in New York City.
"Bird dogs are commonly used in physical therapy in situations where there is a lock of core strength, pelvic control, hip pain, or back pain," Becourtney explains.
The move, Becourtney says, engages the core and helps you work on anti-rotation through the hips and spine.
"The main benefit of this exercise is for core and spinal stabilization. It is a great way to recruit and engage the deep core musculature — think deeper than the '6-pack' rectus abdominus muscles."
While on all fours, you're essentially extending the opposite arm and leg to elongate your body, while keeping the hips and spine as still as possible. Here's how:
- Start in "quadruped" position with both hands and knees on the ground.
- Knees should be bent at 90 degrees, and hands should be under elbows under shoulders.
- Find a "neutral" pelvis or spinal position by arching your back as far as you can, then rounding your back as far as you can (think Cat-Cow). Then, find a position in-between those two end ranges where you feel secure.
- Once secure in this neutral spine position, actively engage the core musculature by drawing your belly button toward your spine.
- Reach one arm out and forward as you extend the opposite foot out and back — without allowing your lower back to arch.
- The goal is to create a straight line from your hand to your opposite foot, keeping your spinal alignment as is, and keeping your hips stacked (avoiding rotation).
- Return to the starting position, switch hands/feet, and repeat for a prescribed number of repetitions.
As someone who regularly worries about her posture (trust me, it needs work) and deals with some lower back pain, I was particularly interested in the back health benefits.
"The bird dog can be beneficial for the health of your back because of the core and spinal muscle recruitment that is required to perform the exercise," Becourtney says.
What's more, Becourtney explains a bird dog is performed with "the spine suspended," which means you're not vertically loading through the spine via gravity like when standing.
"Instead, the hips are loaded in this quadruped position, which makes it an ideal posture to work on core stabilization without risking overload or increase in pain through the lower back."
Other than in physical therapy rehab programs, bird dogs are often performed in warmups for activities like sports or weightlifting. Coincidentally, they've since shown up in a few warmups on my favorite fitness apps.
"There is no 'bad' time to perform this exercise, but I personally like to prescribe it as a way to get the body warm, get certain muscles firing, and get the pelvis/hips moving. Because it is not an exercise you commonly load, it would serve best as a warmup to more challenging core exercises, once able to tolerate," Becourtney says.
However, this is all dependent on if you're experiencing pain or dealing with an injury.
Becourtney explains that if you're experiencing knee pain, shoulder pain, or instability, have difficulty transiting from floor to standing, or notice that bird dogs cause an increase in back pain, you should first consult a healthcare professional for advice.