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Shane Heins demonstrates the dead bug exercise.

How To Do The Dead Bug Exercise Like An Expert

Written by
May 13, 2024
Updated May 14, 2024

The dead bug exercise strengthens your core with a movement that’s as functional as can be, preparing you for the rigors of sports and everyday life while protecting your lower back. Here’s how to do it right, along with its many progressions and regressions.

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Key Takeaways

1. The dead bug strengthens the core while your limbs are moving. This helps teach you to breathe while in motion.

2. To do the dead bug properly, you must keep your lower back against the floor.

3. You can progress the dead bug to harder variations where you tap your hands and feet against the floor, and extend your arms and legs.

4. The dead bug trains the deep core muscles, as well as the rectus abdominis, obliques, lower back, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and hip flexors.

What Is The Dead Bug and What Are Its Benefits?

(See 00:22 in the video above.)

The dead bug exercise has you lying on the floor and holding your arms and legs above your body, eventually progressing to where you move your limbs while you maintain a stable, neutral pelvis. (Yes, it kind of makes you look like a beetle that’s in its death throes, belly up on the floor.) As you raise an arm, or leg, or both, your lower back wants to peel off the floor. If you can keep it locked down, you’ll maintain a healthy spine and pelvic position—the same kind you ideally want when you’re running, lifting, playing, etc.

Dead bugs strengthen your core muscles, prehabbing the lower back to help prevent injury. They also teach you to breathe while maintaining a core brace, which is essential for staying stable and performing well in lifting and sports.

How To Do The Dead Bug Exercise Correctly

(See 01:26 in the video.)

The term “dead bug” can apply to several variations of the same basic exercise. We’ll walk you through all of them so you can find the level that’s appropriate for you and aim to progress to the next one accordingly.

Basic Dead Bug

The simplest type of dead bug has you just learning to keep your core braced with the pelvis in neutral (perpendicular to your spine). All you have to do is lie still on your back with your knees elevated and your elbows over your shoulders… but don’t underestimate the challenge here. If your lower back buckles from the floor or your knees drift above your hips, you’re breaking form.

Practice holding this position with your full attention.

Step 1. Lie on your back on the floor and bend your knees so your feet lie flat. Tuck your chin so your head is neutral. Flatten out your lower back against the floor by tucking your tailbone under. You’ll feel your core muscles activate and your pelvis will be neutral—90 degrees to your spine. Place your hands flat on the floor so you have extra stability.

Step 2. Brace your core and raise one foot off the floor at a time so your hips and knees are bent 90 degrees. (Your knees should end up directly over your hips.) Now raise your arms off the floor, so they’re directly over your shoulders, and bend your elbows 90 degrees. Try to hold this position for 30 seconds, or as long as you can.

“People usually start to hold their breath when they’re being challenged in this position,” says Shane Heins, Onnit’s Director of Fitness Education, “but you should be able to stay in this position while being able to breathe and talk and stay mostly relaxed. Think ‘relaxed but activated.’”

Alternatives to the Dead Bug

(See 04:47 in the video)

When you’ve got the dead bug hold down, you can begin to integrate movement at the legs and arms. It may look a little like you’re running on your back (or crawling upside down), and that isn’t far from the truth. If you can keep your pelvis and spine neutral while your arms and legs move, you’ll be a more efficient mover in general.

Dead Bug Progression 1 (Dead Bug With Heel and Finger Tap)

Shane Heins demonstrates the dead bug with heel and finger tap.

(See 05:12 in the video.)

Step 1. Start in the basic dead bug position explained above (on your back, arms and legs bent).

Step 2. Keeping your low back on the floor, slowly reach one arm behind your head while you bring the opposite side leg toward the floor. Keep the bend in both your elbow and the knee, and gently tap the floor with your hand and foot.

Step 3. Return to the starting position, and repeat on the opposite sides. That’s one rep.

“Be careful not to crunch your abs at the top,” says Heins. “You’re just tapping and coming back to center with your elbows over your shoulders and your knees over your hips.” Do the movement slowly to start, but as you get more comfortable, you can speed up the tempo. This will create a little more instability for you to control.

Dead Bug Progression 2 (Dead Bug With Reach)

(See 06:48 in the video.)

Shane Heins demonstrates the dead bug with reach.

The next level up is to lengthen the levers you’re working with—i.e. extend your arm and leg so that you have to control them at their full lengths. This will be challenging for almost anybody, including experienced athletes, so take it slow.

Step 1. Begin extending your arm and opposite leg straight. Don’t let them rest on the floor, but get both limbs straight enough so that they just hover above the floor. DON’T LOSE YOUR LOW BACK POSITION! If you feel like your back wants to arch, stop the range of motion before it does and work in the range you have only. As you get stronger you’ll be able to extend your limbs straighter.

“Be very mindful of your breathing here,” says Heins, as it will get more difficult to keep your core activated while breathing under the duress of this challenging movement. Teach yourself to “breathe behind the brace,” expanding your abdomen on the inhale but without losing the tension in your abs.

Dead Bug Progression 3 (Dead Bug With Arm and Leg Extended)

Shane Heins demonstrates the dead bug with arm and leg extended.

(See 07:56 in the video.)

Now you can try keeping your arm and leg straight the whole time.

Step 1. Start with your arms and legs extended over your shoulders and hips, respectively. Your knees don’t have to be locked out, but they should be nearly straight. Begin extending your limbs.

“Just holding your arms and legs straight can be tiring,” says Heins, “and, this time, you won’t have a gradual extension of the limbs.” There’s little room for error here, so take it slow and strict. “Keep a long spine and don’t forget to breathe.”

If you have any trouble with any of the variations, says Heins, work on moving just one limb at a time. That is, get used to your arm tapping behind your head, and then your foot, before working the two together; do a few reps of reaching the arm back before you extend the leg, and so on. Another trick: “rest one foot on the floor for stability,” says Heins.

What Muscles Does The Dead Bug Work?

(See 00:52 in the video.)

The dead bug involves all the ab muscles, including the rectus abdominis (the muscle that shows up as a six pack if you’re lean enough), the obliques (the muscles on the sides of your abs that are primarily responsible for twisting your torso), and the transversus abdominis (a deep core muscle that protects the spine). The spinal erectors on the back side of your abdomen will work, too, to stabilize you.

Because it also trains breathing mechanics, the dead bug recruits numerous other muscles you can’t see from the outside and therefore may not think about, such as the diaphragm, pelvic floor, and hip flexors. It’s not a movement that will have a direct impact on how your physique looks shirtless, but it will improve your ability to train an endless variety of other movements that do make you look muscular and lean, so think of the dead bug as a wise investment.

If you’re interested, here’s an ab workout that will contribute to the way your abs appear on the outside.

How To Stretch Before Doing Dead Bug Exercises

(See 10:55 in the video.)

Perform the following movements to prepare your hips and spine for effective dead bugging, courtesy of Heins. Perform 3 rounds of 5–10 reps for each movement.

1. Kneeling Child’s Pose to Updog

Shane Heins demonstrates the kneeling child's pose to updog exercise.

(See 11:17 in the video)

Step 1. Get on all fours and push your body back so you’re practically sitting on your heels with your arms extended overhead (a child’s pose from yoga).

Step 2. Pull yourself forward again, pushing your pelvis forward and extending your spine to come up into an updog pose. Drive your shoulders down away from your ears. That’s one rep.

2. Mountain Climber With Twist

(See 12:19 in the video)

Step 1. Get on all fours and then take your knees further behind your hips, as if you were going to do a pushup on your knees.

Step 2. Step your left leg forward and plant it outside your left arm. Extend your spine as much as you can so your chest faces forward and your back is relatively flat.

Step 3. Now press your right arm into the floor as you twist your torso to the left and reach your left arm overhead. You can use your left hand on your left knee for assistance if needed.

Repeat on the other side. That’s one rep.

3. Pelvic Clock

Shane Heins demonstrates the pelvic clock exercise.

(See 14:28 in the video)

Step 1. Lie on your back on the floor, bend your knees, and rest your feet flat and in line with your hips. Place your hands on top of your lower belly and the upper edge of your pubic bone.

Step 2. Keeping your butt on the floor, tilt your pelvis under and back down again. Use your hands for feedback, feeling your pelvis move and your core muscles contract.

Step 3. Move your pelvis side to side, raising your right hip bone and then tilting it back down to raise the left. Drive through your knees to move the hips. This will also help prevent unwanted movement at the legs.

Step 4. Now combine all four motions so you’re moving your pelvis in a smooth, circular motion like hands around a clock. Think about getting it to touch 3, 6, 9, and 12 on a clock face. Make one full revolution, and then repeat in the opposite direction. That’s one rep.

Try another core warmup, this one from Coach Francheska Martinez, before a full-body workout.

How To Fit The Dead Bug Into Your Workout

(See 17:35 in the video.)

The dead bug can be used before, during, or after your normal workouts, or really at any other time of the day. Heins suggests using it as an activation drill, doing the variation that’s appropriate for you after you’ve done some warmup/mobility work. “The dead bug can help warm up and ready your core muscles for the harder training to come in your session,” he says. Heins suggests doing 3 sets of 30 seconds (holds or reps).

You can also do the dead bug between sets of your lighter, less stressful exercises—rows, pushups, and lunges, for instance. Do a set, then knock out a set of dead bugs for some extra core work, and repeat. Heins cautions not to do dead bugs between sets of very core-intensive exercises, however, because you don’t want to fatigue your ab muscles for lifts that rely on them strongly. In other words, don’t do dead bugs between sets of heavy overhead presses, deadlifts, or back squats. You may find that you can’t train them as heavy or get as many reps if your core is pooped.

If you want to start your day with some core work, either to get it out of the way or to increase your overall volume, dead bugs are safe to do first thing in the morning. By the same token, you can do them at night before bed too. “Do reps for 15–30 seconds and three to five rounds,” says Heins.

Master another core-training exercise with our guide to the kettlebell around the world exercise.

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