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  • Writer's pictureSarah Barbosa

The Dead Bug Exercise: How To + Variations

If you'd rather watch a video on this topic: check out my Youtube Video on this below!

What is a Dead Bug?

A dead bug is a core stability exercise, meaning you are contracting your core muscles to limit trunk movement. To challenge your core and make this more difficult, we gradually introduce movement of the arms and legs. By extending out an arm or a leg, it intensifies the effort required to sustain the core contraction. In this blog I will show 5 variations before we even get to the real dead bug exercise, because as easy as the dead bug may seem, it is common for many people to need an easier variation to start with.

Why should I do this exercise?

I love the dead bug exercise. It is usually where I begin when teaching all of my patients core stability to make sure they start with a good foundation. Even some of the advanced powerlifters and strongman I work with struggle with this exercise. Here's why it's great:

  1. It's the perfect way to start to learn how to even find your core and how to maintain it through a series of simple but effective progressions.

  2. This technique is then easily transferred into basic movement patterns like hip hinging or squatting. So whether you're a competitive powerlifter with poor core bracing technique, or you're a Mom who threw her back out lifting a case of water off the ground, this can help minimize low back injuries.

What's the starting position?

There seems to be some debate about whether your low back should be pressed against the floor or if you should have a slight arch in the low back.

Because the spine in your lower back naturally has a curve into an arch, you generally want to keep this position. It becomes especially important when you start to transition this technique into standing when learning how to properly hip hinge/ deadlift or squat. Once you start these activities, and weightlifting is involved, you definitely don't want a rounded (opposite of arching) lower back or else that can lead to a higher risk of injury.

That being said, beginners doing this exercise can maintain contact between their lower back and the ground. Unlike situations where there's force exerting down the spine, such as having a loaded barbell on your back about to squat, rounding your back isn't hazardous while laying on the ground, particularly if there's no pre-existing lumbar spine injury. Some individuals may need a more rounded back approach initially to avoid strain in the upper back or other regions. The goal would be to perform this exercise with a slight natural arch into your lower back, described below:

The Set-Up:

  • Start laying on your back with your knees bent

  • Find what's called a "neutral pelvis position". To do this, arch your back fully, then round your back fully, then find the middle point and stay there.

  • Then, brace your core. To do this, lie your fingers just on the inside of the bones on the front of your hips. Imagine preparing for a punch to the stomach, tightening your core in response. As you perform this action, you should feel your core muscles tensing into your fingertips.

  • This is the position you want to maintain throughout the entire dead bug position no matter what variation you are doing.


Within each variation, make sure you maintain a stable core position. Imagine there is a glass of water on your belly and you want to avoid rocking so it does not fall off. I'm going to sound like a dead horse here, but remember... keeping a stable core is the most important thing in each of these variations. Your moving arms and legs are just to make the exercise harder. It's all about the core!

#1) Alternating Marches

Alternating core marches

Start with both feet on the ground with your knees bent. Lift one leg up, bring it back down, then lift the other leg up, and bring it back down. That's 1 rep.

#2) Up Up, Down, Down

Core progression exercise Up Up Down Down

Begin with both legs on the ground and your knees bent. Lift one leg up and hold it there, then lift the other leg up, then bring the first leg down, and then the other leg back down. That's 1 rep. Begin the next rep starting with your other leg.

#3) Up Up, Down Together

Core progression exercise Up up down together

Begin with both knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Lift one leg up and hold it there, bring the other leg up to match it, then bring both legs down together slowly.

#4) Up Together, Down Together

Core progression exercise Up Together, Down Together

Begin with both knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Then bring both legs up to 90º/90º (tabletop) position, then slowly bring both legs down.

#5) Bicycle

Core progression exercise Bicycle

Begin with both legs up in a 90º/90º position. Slowly extend one leg out, then bring it back in to the starting position. Then repeat with the other leg. That's 1 rep.

#6) Dead Bug

Dead Bug Step By Step

Begin with both legs up in a 90º/90º position and your arms up pointing toward the ceiling. Slowly extend opposite arm and opposite leg. Return to the starting position. Then repeat with the other arm and leg. That's 1 rep.

Sets & Reps / Fitting it into your workout plan:

  • Aim for 3x10.

  • I recommend performing this exercise at the start of your workout as it's a simple way to get your core active but not completely fatigue you out.

  • Once you can perform 3x10, move onto the next variation, working your way up to 3x10 in total. (If you can only perform 3x6 at first, that's fine.)

Finishing thoughts:

  • A dead bug is just one example of a core stability exercise. There are a lot of other core stability exercises, such as planks or suitcase carries. Other ab training where you move through a range of motion, such as crunches or hanging leg raises, are great too! You should perform both core stability and moving ab exercises, as each has its own benefits and will make the other stronger. You want to train your core to help you move but also train it to limit movement when needed.

  • If you are rehabbing from a lower back injury, it is usually safer to start with core stability exercises, however you should be evaluated by a health care professional who can properly diagnose you and give you a plan made for you.

  • If you are a lifter, the dead bug is a great way to teach you how to maintain core tightness. So if you're about to squat or deadlift, you will be comfortable with knowing how to engage your core. The last thing you want is to be unable to control the position of your spine and then end up injuring your back.

  • With that being said, make sure a dead bug is not the ONLY core exercise you are doing to strengthen your core!

  • Breathing: Normally when doing regular exercise you want to inhale when the muscle is lengthening and exhale when the muscle is shortening. Because the main muscles working (the core) are actually in an isometric contraction, meaning it is keeping still, it is hard to pattern your breathing with the dead bug. In general, you can try to inhale as your legs are moving away from you, and exhale as they are coming back. They will be smaller breaths though due to the core tightness being maintained.

Have questions or need help with your lower back pain? Send Dr. Sarah a message!

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