July 05, 2022
Step aside, crunches and sit-ups. There is a better, more effective abdominal exercise in town, ready to safely target our deepest core muscles, provide stability, and strengthen everything from our low back muscles to our transverse abdominis. Beloved by many exercise professionals and dedicated gym-goers alike, the dead bug exercise is effective, versatile, and safely strengthens your core.
The perks don't end there, either. This exercise helps create a desirable washboard stomach (no personal trainer required!) while ensuring you've got a strong core ready for an endless assortment of compound gym exercises, including deadlifts, squats, lunges, pull-ups, and push-ups.
After reading this post, you’ll have a clear understanding of the following:
Please don’t hold its less than desirable name against it. The dead bug deserves a spot in your core routine.
A core-targeting bodyweight exercise, the dead bug activates the entire abdomen, including the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques, pelvic floor, and erector spinae. Aside from an exercise mat, which is more for comfort than anything, the dead bug requires no equipment and can easily be modified to become easier or harder based on your fitness level. Lie face-up, arms extended upward and your legs lifted, knees bent to 90 degrees, and lower your opposite arm and opposite leg to the floor using slow, controlled movements, while your opposite limbs remain extended in the air.
When we think of our core, often our first thought involves envisioning a six-pack. And while all core exercises combined with low body fat will likely lead to washboard abs, the dead bug achieves more than this. It also works the deepest inner core that protects other muscle groups, like your lower back, and provides more stability in everyday movements and weightlifting exercises.
Think about how crucial core strength and stabilization are to completing pull-ups, push-ups, lunges, squats - we could go on, but you get the idea here. Without a strong core, your pull-up game will be pretty dismal.
Rectus Abdominis: A long muscle found on the front of the abdominal wall, this is the one responsible for achieving a defined abdominal look (whether it's 4-pack abs vs. 6-pack vs. 8-pack) if your body fat is low enough. Centrally located on your trunk, the rectus abdominis runs under the breastbone, ending at your public bone. In addition to contributing to your overall chiseled look, the primary function of the rectus abdominis is trunk flexion, an essential movement for exercises such as sit-ups.
Transverse abdominis: Now we get into our deeper core muscles, the transverse abdominis, which lie behind the rectus abdominis and are responsible for stabilizing your body, protecting your spine, and protecting and supporting internal organs. This deep core muscle offers spinal and organ protection by wrapping around your sides and spine. Suffice it to say, a strong inner core is essential and exercises targeting your transverse abdominis are equally important. Think of your favorite gym exercises: None are possible without the transverse abdominis.
Internal obliques: On the lateral side of the abdomen, the thin, broad internal obliques work with the two other abdominal wall muscles - external obliques and transverse abdominis - to flex, laterally flex, bend, and rotate the torso or trunk. Internal obliques contribute to many movements, including the side plank, Russian twist, mountain climbers, and of course, the dead bug.
External obliques: Extending from the lower ribs to the pelvis, this member of the abdominal wall family is on each side of the rectus abdominis on the outer surface of the abdomen’s sides. Larger and more toward the front than the internal obliques, the external obliques' primary function is trunk rotation. External and internal obliques team up to complete standing wood chops, trunk rotation exercises, and weighted side bends. As your trunk twists or bends to the right during any of these movements, the right internal oblique and left external oblique simultaneously contract. Oblique-strengthening exercises are essential for a healthy, stable core.
Pelvic floor: Covering the bottom of the pelvis, consider your pelvic floor the foundational base of your core muscles. Consisting of a combination of muscle and tissue, this muscle group starts from the front of the pubic bone, runs to the back of the coccyx, or tailbone, and extends side-to-side on your sitting bone. They protect several organs and work with your abdominal and back muscles to support and protect the spine. Commonly associated with being weak in women suffering from diastasis recti after pregnancy, a strong pelvic floor is just as important for men.
Erector spinae: Consider this group of long muscles, including spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis, running on the sides of your spine to be your lower back muscles or extensors. Starting at the base of the spine and extending upward to the base of the skull, the erector spinae muscle group works with your abdominal muscles and obliques, contributing to lateral flexion and rotation. It helps with all upper body movements, stabilizing the body, supporting the spine, and enabling your spine to extend. All three contribute to completing weightlifting movements such as the deadlift, good mornings, and the glute bridge.
Correct dead bug technique involves a neutral back that neither arches nor pushes down, regular breathing that leads to more powerful core contractions, and contralateral movements between the arms and legs. Focus on moving slowly, breathing in before moving your arms and legs, and exhaling as you bring your arm and leg back to their starting positions. This is a great beginner friendly movement.
How to do the dead bug exercise:
The most important way to avoid common mistakes is to remain mentally present throughout the exercise. And if you are still struggling with any of these mistakes despite your best efforts, consider modifying them.
Modification ideas for this core exercise include: only moving your arms while keeping the legs bent to 90 degrees, using the arms and legs but only tapping the ground with your toes, as opposed to straightening your legs, only alternating your legs and leaving your arms extended upward, or extending the arm and leg on the same side. Remember, correct form is far more important than progressing using the incorrect technique.
There are many variations to the traditional dead bug, ranging from easier modifications to more advanced versions to keep you progressing. We included several ways to make this move easier earlier in this post, so we’ll focus on progressions here.
Keep the same form and movements as the bent-leg dead bug with one adjustment: Rather than bending your knees, keep your legs straight from start to finish. Your core will go into activation overdrive as it works to keep your back from arching, legs straight, and trunk stabilized.
Prepare to feel your abdominals burn as this stability ball kicks them into overdrive. Assume the standard dead-bug position, with your spine in a neutral position, adding the stability ball into the mix by placing it between your hands and knees.
Your thighs and palms begin on the ball, holding it up, and the challenge of this move is to keep the stability ball in place as one arm and the opposite leg leave the ball, lowering to the ground before raising back up. Adding more stability exercises to your routine will further strengthen your stabilizing muscles, particularly the transverse abdominis.
Using a kettlebell, medicine ball, or dumbbell (not too heavy), you can add some weight to the mix, further working your core and increasing your heart rate. This is a pretty versatile exercise, so depending on how you feel, you can use a weight in one hand or both. Start in the standard dead bug starting position, with your knees bent to 90 degrees.
With your arms straight overhead, extending upward and straight, hold a weight or kettlebell in one or both hands, or a medicine ball in both. Work to keep your core stable as you slowly lower the weight and opposite leg to the floor. If you're using one weight in one hand, finish reps on that side before switching the weight to the opposite side.
We’d be remiss not to include a dead bug variation featuring a resistance band. Anchor the resistance band behind you, keeping it near the ground. Lie on your back, distancing yourself far enough away to create tension on the band. Grab an end of the band in each hand, and extend your arms up.
Bending your legs to 90 degrees, in the standard dead bug starting position, raise your arms overhead, holding the resistance band anchored behind you. There should be tension so your arm muscles are contracting. Part of this exercise’s challenge is for your core to work to maintain a neutral back, as your legs alternate lowering to the ground from their bent position. Your arms remain overhead with the band the entire time. There are plenty of great resistance band core exercises that will complement this dead bug version, so you can create an entire abdominal strengthening routine. Your stabilization muscles will love it.
100% yes. Dead bugs are safe, reduce your injury risk, and work your deep core muscles, while crunches create added lower back stress and only work your superficial core muscles.
Biologically, there is no such thing as upper and lower abs. But, similar to heel touches, dead bugs work every core muscle you have, meaning the entirety of the superficial outer rectus abdominis, or 6-pack muscles, your obliques, and of course, your deep residing transverse abdominis.
The dead bug exercise activate and strengthen your rectus abdominis, the muscle responsible for giving your stomach the rippling 10-pack abs of your dream. But that’s only half the battle to targeting visible abs, and this is where the expression “abs are made in the kitchen” comes into play.
You can work your rectus abdominis every day for the rest of your life (which we do not recommend), but if you're not fairly lean, you will not see visible abs. Women hoping to showcase their abs likely need a body fat percentage below 19%, while males hoping for a washboard stomach typically need a body fat percentage below 9%.
We've provided you with everything you need to master the dead bug exercise and build a strong trunk. The missing piece of the puzzle is determining training frequency and how to include it in your routine. Aim for 2 to 3 sets of 5 to 10 reps, twice weekly, based on your current core strength and fitness level. As you progress each week, add a set or a few more reps, and then swap it out for one of our suggested progressions. You can also get creative with your variations, like adding ankle weights to your dead bug exercises.
Find a spot for it with your other core exercises (or swap it in place of a different core move), and if you don’t have an ab regimen, add one ASAP. We recommend placing it on the same day as your leg training session or working it in as a dynamic warm-up. Trust us: Your abs, deep core muscles, and lower back will be happier than ever.
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