The dead bug exercise is something you’ve probably heard of and it’s brought nothing but confusion into your life. I’m here to fix that. I can’t tell you why it’s called a dead bug or who named it that, I don’t make the rules, but I do write articles about them and am here to explain why they’re beneficial.
(As to the name theory, I suspect it’s because you kinda sorta not really look like a dead bug while doing them, but that was lazy exercise naming if it’s true.)
The dead bug is a “core” exercise. But first, we need to define the function of the core. The core’s action is to stabilize the midsection/torso while the arms and legs move around it.
There are six main ways to train the core: flexion (crunch), lateral flexion (side bend), rotation (twisting), anti-extension (plank), anti-lateral flexion (side plank), and anti-rotation (Palof press). Each of these deserves its own article, so for these purposes, the core involves any movements and muscles that stabilize the midsection.
The dead bug is an anti-extension exercise. Like a plank, the goal is to not extend your lower back by using the abdominal muscles. What takes the dead bug to the next level, as compared to something like a plank, is the incorporation of moving the arms and legs while keeping the core braced.
But just you wait reader, there’s another bonus of the dead bug exercise that few other core exercises incorporate: the contralateral pattern.
Contralateral sounds fancier than it is. “contra” means opposite and “lateral” means side. The dead bug works on an opposite side pattern, think “opposite arm, opposite leg.” This is very “functional” because that’s how we walk, jog, and sprint.
(I hate that word, but I guess I don’t hate it THAT much because I used it anyway.)
When the left leg goes up and forwards so does your right arm (hence, contralateral). But functional is an appropriate word because there are very few athletic and real-life demands that involve simply the arms and legs holding still (like a plank) or aren’t contralateral (like a side bend).
Pro tip: When performing a dead bug keep everything from the top of your shoulders down to your hips as flat as possible touching the ground.
The biggest error: letting the low back arch and come off the ground. This error happens when the core and flexion muscles are not strong enough to “anti-extend.” This will often manifest itself by the ribs popping up.
“Well, how am I supposed to get strong enough to not arch my back if I can’t do a dead bug?” Fantastic question. You are supposed to do dead bugs.
Often this error is not a lack of strength, but a lack of focus on not arching or focusing too much on the arms/legs instead of keeping the core rock solid. Because the dead bug is performed with just your bodyweight, it’s a perfect place to start for core strengthening with the contralateral pattern.
Start with 2 sets of 8 on each side (16 total reps) then work your way up to 3 sets of 10 on each side. The dead bug should be placed at the end of a workout because it will intensely use the core due to its contralateral demands.
If even this is challenging you can regress the movement by keeping your knees bent at 90 degrees the whole time. This decreases the challenge on your core muscles.
Once the regular dead bug is mastered, there are multiple ways to progress it.
Loop a band around a stationary object and grab it with both hands so it’s trying to pull your hands upwards. This will increase the anti-extension demand from the arms and upper abs. Use a thicker band or move farther away from the anchor to make the band tighter if you want more of a challenge.
Squeeze a physioball between the forearms and knees while performing the exercise. One leg will always move in and out but you can choose if you want to move the opposite arm as well or keep both forearms squeezed.
Make sure the band is secure around the middle of your feet before starting the reps. In this case, less is more in terms of resistance. This variation is an opportunity to work on hip flexor strength because when one leg straightens, the band will try to pull the other leg down as well. Much more control of the hips and pelvis is needed for this one.
If you’re looking for a simple but effective core exercise that’s actually “functional,” then the dead bug exercise is your answer. Focus on keeping your lower back flat against the ground, build up a volume of repetitions, and progress when you feel very comfortable with the exercise. And if you discover why it’s called a dead bug, please let me know.