There’s no shortage of talk about what to do for strong abs. Crunches are a hotly debated move, planks (in all their forms) generally receive an enthusiastic thumbs up from trainers, and heavy weight-training exercises like deadlifts are getting more attention now than ever. But there’s an even more effective way to train your core, explains Ashleigh Kast, trainer at Drive Clubs’ Soho location and founder of Sophisticated Strength. It’s called the dead bug, and it’s way more badass than the name suggests.
The dead bug exercise involves lying face up on your mat with your arms in the air above your torso and your legs in the air with your knees bent at 90-degree angles. Then, you lower opposite arm and leg toward the floor in a slow and controlled fashion. Return to center and then repeat on the other side. Sound simple? Physiologically, it’s anything but. “You have to completely stabilize through your midsection in order to perform this abs exercise,” explains Kast. It’s a total core movement that not only works your abs like crazy, but also helps you have better form in myriad other fitness applications.
Check out a photo of the move below and scroll down for a helpful GIF and full step-by-step tutorial. But let’s first explain why you’ll want to add this move to your regular routine.
What makes the dead bug such a core superstar is the way it teaches you to keep your trunk stable while moving the rest of your body.
“Once you master this you’re preparing your abs to fire properly during other ab-strengthening exercises such as squats and deadlifts,” Kast says. (Yes, a heavy squat is insanely effective at strengthening your core, Kast says.) “Dead bugs prepare you for dynamic motions.”
Those dynamic motions include running, too. When running with proper form, your upper body has a slight lean forward, but your torso needs to remain stable as it rotates with your stride and as your arms and legs move. Dead bug teaches you how to find that trunk stability during movement, Kast, a USATF certified track and field coach, explains. This translates to a more effective running stride and it helps to protect your lower back.
It’s also great for beginners and advanced exercisers alike.
If you’re just starting an abs routine, this move can be better than a plank because you’re not supporting your own bodyweight, explains Kast. That can be challenging and often the shoulders will take the brunt of the work instead of your core, she adds. With the dead bug, it’s completely abs-focused.
What’s more, you can modify the exercise in several ways to make it more challenging. That way you can adjust as your muscles get stronger.
And it honors the body’s natural structure, which decreases the chance of injury.
Fitness experts often cite the joint-by-joint approach to training. This basically means that some joints in the body are meant to be more mobile, like your hips and ankles, while others are meant to be stable, like your lumbar spine. Improper use of the joints can lead to pain. Because you are lying on your back and keeping your low rib cage pressing against the ground, the dead bug keeps your lower back stable, explains Kast. “You’re engaging the muscles of your core while also protecting your lower back.”
So while it’s not going to magically give you a six-pack (no exercise can), if you’re not doing the dead bug, you’re missing out.
It bears repeating: You can’t spot train your abs. Spot training—the idea that concentrating workouts on a specific body part will help define that particular body part—is a fitness myth. If your goal is muscle definition or fat loss in a particular area, you need to reduce overall body fat, through a combination of healthy eating, strength training, and cardio. With that said, the dead bug is such an effective move for working those abs, that you absolutely should be adding it to your routine.
Now let’s talk proper form.
- To do the classic dead bug exercise start on your back. Bend your knees and lift your legs into the air with your knees bent at 90-degree angles. Shoot your arms straight into the air with your wrist above your shoulders. This is your starting position.
- While you’re here think about drawing your shoulders to your hips to create internal trunk tension.
- Keep your arms and legs engaged (imagine shooting fireworks out of your hands and feet) and inhale as you lower opposite arm and leg toward the floor. “Your appendages are playing a tug of war,” explains Kast.
- Take four slow counts to lower and go as low as you can. If your lower back arches you’ve gone too far.
- Exhale, pressing your low rib cage against the floor, and take four slow counts to return to your starting position.
- Start with 10 reps on one side before switching to the next side.
Focus on syncing the motion to your breath and moving to the count of four, explains Kast. Without having to think about supporting your bodyweight, you can give your full attention to form.
When you’re ready to progress, there are lots of ways to make this move more challenging. Alternating sides with each rep will fire up the obliques a bit more. You can also do this exercise with straight legs and you can add weight to the movement by holding dumbbells or kettlebells in your hands. If you have back issues always check in with your doctor before starting any exercise routine, and if you experience any pain during the movement, stop.
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