Beginning Core Exercises – The Bird-Dog Exercise Progression


This core-stability  exercise is very effective for beginner. But it is not easy, even for some people who have been working out for a long time.

What to do

Bird-dog exercise - Starting Position

Bird-dog exercise – Starting Position.

Bird-dog exercise with arm strongly outstretched

Strongly extend one arm forwards.

Lengthen one leg outwards. Don't lift at the expense of the low back.

Lengthen one leg outwards. Do not bend the low back!

Maintain a neutral spine, i.e. there should be a slight curve, and you need to hold this curve while moving the arms and legs. This is precisely what is meant by core stability. If you are moving your spine then stability is lost.Try to do the movements smooth and with control. When you attain a position hold it for one or two rounds of abdominal breathing.Use the foam roller to check that the position of the low back is kept stable throughout:

Bird-dog with foam roller

Bird-dog with foam roller

When you are confident that this is perfect then move onto the next step:

Bird-dog - Final Position

Extend one arm forward and the opposite leg backwards

Alternate sides to train movement initiation. Continuous one-sided movements will train endurance.

Important Points

1. Extending the leg

The leg should be extended, not raised! Do not raise your leg at the expense of the low back; the point of the exercise is to maintain that stable spine in a neutral slightly arched position. Your abdominal muscles need to be tight and work against unnecessary curving. When you feel the point when your adbominals seem to be fighting your gluts then we are doing the exercise correctly. When you are sure that your low back is staying strong (e.g. check using foam roller feedback) then push your leg straight from the glut muscles.

2. Soulder position

Simply put: keep your shoulders aways from your ears. Lengthen the posterior neck.

3. Scapular position

Do not allow the chest to sink down so that your scapula (shoulder-blades) ‘wing’ up.  You may need someone to give you feedback or even take a photo or video. Get your therapist to check. If the scapula ‘wing’ too much then it is first best to do some stabilising exercises.

How Often/How much

This exercise can a few times per day or a few times per week, depending on what is required.

In the beginning spend 5 – 10 minutes once or twice a day exploring the exercise and familiarising yourself with the movements.

How to Progress

When it is fluid go for 2 sets of 5 repititions of each combination:

Workout #1

1 x 5 Right Arm/Left Arm (alternating)

1 x 5 Right Leg/Left Leg (alternating)

1 x 5 Right Arm & Left Leg/Left Arm & Right leg (alternating)

1 x 5 Right Arm/Left Arm (alternating)

1 x 5 Right Leg/Left Leg (alternating)

1 x 5 Right Arm & Left Leg/Left Arm & Right leg (alternating)

After a while it may not be necessary to do just the arms on their own. So e.g.

Workout #2

1 x 10 Right Leg/Left Leg (alternating)

1 x 10 Right Arm & Left Leg/Left Arm & Right leg (alternating)

1 x 10 Right Leg/Left Leg (alternating)

1 x 10 Right Arm & Left Leg/Left Arm & Right leg (alternating)

At a certain point we can go for some endurance. So rather than relaxing and alternating between movements we will do one side continuously without a break. So try to touch your knee against your elbow each time. Your back will flex slightly, just make sure that when you stretch your leg out your back does not curve beyond neutral.

Workout #3 – Endurance Variation

1 x 5 Right Leg

1 x 5 Left Leg

1 x 5 Right Arm & Left Leg

1 x 5 Left Arm & Right Leg

Or you can do 2 x 5 of each or 1 x 10 or 2 x 10. You can also mix and match training movement initiation and endurance. Just remember that one repetition done well is better than ten done badly.

Advanced Version

The advanced version includes a strong leg raised in line with the torso.

Who should do this Exercise?

Not everyone needs to do this exercise but everyone needs to have to ability to do it.

If you are just beginning with exercising then doing 5 minutes each day will make a big difference.

If you are more experienced with exercise then this is always a useful addition to your usual routine. Also, consider it as a test – everyone should be able to do this exercise. So if you are already working out then try this exercise to test yourself. If you cannot do it with controlled breathing then now you have got a challenge.

I still use the foam roller dead-bug exercises about once a week. My attention is on keeping a smooth breathing pattern throughout each set.

It should be possible to perform even if you currently suffer from back pain. If this exercise exacerbates the pain then it is likely that you are doing it incorrect. Ask your therapist to check.

Who should not do this Exercise?

Shoulder pain or excessive winging are contra-indications.


Neutral Spine. No pressing the low back downwards.

Abdominal Breathing – Slow and controlled – one or two rounds at the top.

Movement initiation should be practised first. Relax limbs between repititions.

Where Next?

Related topics (coming soon):

Beginning Core Stabilisation Exercises – Overview

Beginning Core exercises – Bird-dog progression

Beginning Core exercises – Side-bridge progression

Foam Roll Exercise Variations

McGill’s Big 3

Progressions (coming soon):

Dead-Bug Intermediate Variations

Dead-Bug Advanced Variations

Intermediate Core Stabilisation Exercises

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