Dead Bugs – The Best and Most Underutilized Exercise

Dead bugs are one of my absolute FAVORITE exercises and if done properly with advanced progressions, they can be a core killer!! Learning to activate your deep spinal stabilizers like the transversus abdominis in these positions is imperative before progressing to more dynamic exercises. As with all “core stabilization” exercises, you MUST PROGRESS THEM to more functional and upright movements once your learn what it feels like to truly stabilize your spine!

Proper Motor Control Development


These deep core-stabilizing muscles are EXTREMELY important for our spine integrity and health. They are responsible for stabilizing each individual vertebra that, when all added together, makes up our spine. In order to move our spine for function, we activate our superficial core muscles like our rectus abdominis and erector spinae. However, if these superficial core muscles attempt to move our spine WITHOUT OUR DEEP CORE MUSCLES SIMULTANEOUSLY STABILIZING EACH VERTEBRAL SEGMENT, abnormal movement patterns and shearing forces will occur in the spine!

 

Shown here is an alternating leg variation of the dead bugs. Notice how my pelvis/spine stays BRACED and neutral throughout the leg movements (which increase the lever arm thus making the exercise harder). To often people don’t brace or control this movement properly and thus don’t get any sort of core work from it. FIND YOUR MOTOR CONTROL LIMIT on how far you can extend your leg WHILE BRACING WITHOUT YOUR PELVIS/SPINE MOVING. On my third rep, you can see my pelvis move. This is MY MOTOR CONTROL LIMIT. With practice, you will be able to lower/extend your legs further and further. Now find your limit!

 

Incorporate Upper Extremity Movements

Building upon yesterday’s post, here is another variation of the dead bugs. This time, we are using our upper extremity to vary the biomechanical demands placed upon our core. You can alternate arms or reach overhead simultaneously. Again, the same rule applies: the core needs to stay braced and activated the entire time!

The goal of motor control exercises are to enable the patient to regain control and coordination of the spine and pelvis using principles of motor learning. There is a growing body of literature that supports utilizing motor control exercises as a treatment for chronic and recurrent low back pain, and in some cases—see the meta analysis below—motor control exercises were shown to be superior to general exercise in reducing disability and pain.

Low back pain is a multifaceted problem that is highly influenced by pain science, kinesiophobia, physiology, and psychology. In no way shape or form am I saying motor control exercises will alleviate low back pain – however, there is a growing body of literature that supports motor control exercises as an effective treatment approach in addition to the normal standard of care. This is especially true for those with clinical instability who have impaired control and coordination for the spinal muscles.

 

Anti-Extension and Anti-Rotation Dead Bugs

Here are some amazing advanced dead bug variations that involve placing an anti-rotation and anti-extension torque on the core. The KEY here is to maintain an absolutely stable and still pelvis/spine. What makes these so advanced is the torque attempting to pull your spine into either rotation or extension. The only way to prevent your pelvis/spine from moving is to stabilize with your core!

Note that in the anti-rotation dead bugs you can either hold the theraband with one or two arms. Using one vs two arms will equally provide the same anti-rotation torque; the difference between them is determining which other muscle groups must be called upon to stabilize the upper extremity. Using only my left hand (away from the theraband anchor), I must activate my Post Delt and scapular retractors. Using only my right hand (closer to the theraband anchor), I must activate my pectoralis and anterior delt. These are just some things to keep in mind when determining your handhold!


With the anti-extension dead bugs, you get great recruitment of the lats and triceps. Remember not to overly flex the cervical spine! Thanks to @coach.jacksontaylor and @thebarbellphysio for the dead bug variations!

 

Citation: Bystrom et al 2013. Motor Control Exercises Reduces Pain and Disability in Chronic and Recurrent Low Back Patients in SPINE.

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