Is the Bird Dog the Best Beginner Core Exercise Ever? 1 Trainer Thinks So

POPSUGAR Photography | Chaunté Vaughn
POPSUGAR Photography | Chaunté Vaughn

If you're looking for a great beginner core exercise that won't strain your back or require you to lay supine (on your back), then bird dog is the one for you. This core-strengthening exercise engages your abs, lower back, and glutes. The accessibility of this move makes it attainable for everyone from professional athletes to individuals recovering from back injuries. That's why you'll see the bird dog exercise in strength-training programs, functional movement regimens, Pilates and yoga classes, and physical therapy sessions alike.

Wondering why this exercise is referred to as bird dog? It's named after trained hunting dogs (aka bird dogs) who hold their legs in a similar stance when they smell prey.

Hunting aside, the bird dog exercise is often written off as too easy, but that ignores just how effective the exercise is at building core strength and stability. This guide will help you understand the full benefits of the movement, how to properly set it up in your body, and ways you can modify or advance it.

Bird Dog Exercise Benefits

This exercise is used in a variety of modalities as a means to reduce potential injuries as well as a form of rehabilitation after injuries occur. It's so effective because of the muscles it works and how it works them.

The bird dog activates the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae muscles. By targeting these muscle groups, this exercise effectively helps individuals build and sustain core strength over time. Lifting the opposite-side arm and leg also creates an unstable base, and research has shown that increasing instability does cause greater engagement of the trunk muscles, which can increase the effectiveness of an exercise.

The core engagement has positive effects on your overall stability and balance, and it can even reduce low back pain. In fact, in a review in the journal PLoS One, researchers found that core-stability exercises significantly reduce chronic back pain, which is notoriously stubborn. And the bird dog is a killer core stability exercise, since it strengthens the muscles around the spine and pelvis.

How to Do the Bird Dog Exercise

If you have any preexisting conditions or injuries, consult a physician before trying the bird dog. If you've been cleared, these steps can ensure you stick to proper form.

POPSUGAR Photography | Chaunté Vaughn
  • Start in a tabletop position, with your wrists under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
  • Engage your core to support your spine.
  • Extend your right arm straight out in front of you until your wrist is in line with your shoulder. At the same time, or just after, extend your left leg straight back until your ankle is in line with your hip.
  • Keep your hips and shoulders squared to the ground by rotating your extended thumb up to the ceiling and your extended pinky toe down toward the ground.
  • Hold this position for two to three breaths, then return to the starting position.
  • Repeat with the opposite arm and leg.
  • Go through two to four more rotations with proper alignment on each side.

Bird Dog Exercise Modifications and Variations

Leg-Only Bird Dog

Instead of lifting your opposite leg and arm, you'll keep both hands on the floor and lift one single leg at a time. Your focus will be to keep your hips closed and squared to the floor while bringing your ankle up in line with your hip.

Leg-Down Bird Dog

Instead of extending your leg back to a straight position, you'll place your toes and ball mount on the floor. Your opposite arm will still be extended forward in line with your shoulder. You'll hold this position for a moment and return to center before switching sides.

Elbow-to-Knee Bird Dog

You'll set this variation up the same way as a traditional bird dog. However, instead of releasing back down to the floor at center, you'll round in like cat pose and draw your elbow and knee to meet at your belly button. Start by repeating 3 rounds of 12 reps on each side.

Weighted Bird Dog

You'll set this variation up the same way as a traditional bird dog and add weight to the hand that is lifting off the ground. You can hold a light dumbbell, or wear a wrist weight. As you increase your strength you can also add ankle weights to your legs.

Plank Bird Dog

Begin in a plank position with your feet hips-width distance or further apart. Slowly lift the opposite leg and arm while staying square to the floor beneath you. Hold for a moment then return to your plank position. Repeat on the opposite side.

Christa Janine, a seasoned media professional based in Los Angeles, boasts a diverse educational background encompassing digital cinema, journalism, and anthropology, with a master of arts in journalism from Columbia College Chicago. Christa is a prominent figure in the health and wellness industry, recognized as a 500-hour E-RYT yoga instructor and a trusted influencer in the digital fitness space. She currently instructs for Alo Moves and PS, leveraging her platform to encourage others to lead authentic lives and actively advocating for diversity and inclusion within the yoga and fitness space, spurred by her own experiences navigating the industry's systemic inequalities.