With respect to exercises to prevent back pain, few exercises are better researched than the Bird Dog, the Curl Up and the Side Plank, also known as McGill’s Big Three. (1)
Through research, the bird dog, curl up and side plank have been identified as the effective minimum of exercises to prevent back pain due to the lack of muscular endurance of the involved muscles. Thus, most athletes or fitness clients would benefit from practicing the Bird Dog at some point during their training.
The Bird Dog appears to be a simple exercise; however, from experience, very few clients can perform the exercise correctly. Knowing how to help athletes or clients perfect their form through effective corrections becomes a valuable tool.
This article and complementing videos presents the most common deviations from correct form in the Bird Dog and how to correct them. The corrections are based on practical experience with clients as well as guidelines that are laid out in detail in reference 2. The correction is, by nature, a trial and error process, as you can never know in advance if a particular correction will work for a particular client.
Substantial explanations are provided on the video clips and it might be beneficial to watch these clips before reading the text.
- Become aware of common deviations from optimal form in the Bird Dog
- Learn exercise correction tactics to achieve optimal form in the Bird Dog
A Case Study
I had never worked with the client before, but he had received instruction in the Bird Dog. This video clip shows the assessment of some of the patterns we subsequently worked on correcting.
Begin with the easy fix
Begin the trouble shooting process by
- Addressing elements that if not addressed, nothing else will work; for example, a back injury.
- Assuming it is an easy fix, that the deviation can be corrected by cueing.
The second clip shows how correction was attempted with cueing, following the assumption that the client has the ability to execute the correct pattern
Proceed with more involved interventions if needed
The following section lists common deviations from optimal form in the Bird Dog and how to correct these deviations with more involved interventions.
- The space between the low back and the dowel rod increases – with a resulting hyper lordosis - as the client lifts arms and legs:
1.) Perform the Bird Dog with the abdominal drawing in technique. Abdominal drawing in may help stabilize the pelvis and reduce hyper lordosis. (3)
2.) Stretch the latissimus dorsi and/or hip flexor muscles immediately prior to each set.
This clip shows the effect on the client’s execution after stretching the hip flexors. Additionally, cueing of the initiation of the lift is provided
This clip shows the effect of stretching the latissimus dorsi. Ideally, the client’s arms and thighs should be vertical to reflect a more equal weight distribution.
3.) Test the athlete-client’s execution in the Bird Dog Vertical exercise. The Bird Dog Vertical involves a minimal lift of any of the support points in such a way that the hand or knee is touching, but not resting on the floor.
- As the athlete-client lifts – for example – the leg and right arm, the right hip/thigh moves laterally (adduction on the supporting hip).
- Place the dowel rod just outside the athlete-client’s thigh to provide feedback about any lateral movement. You may simultaneously ask the athlete-client to notice if the pressure shifts under the supportive hand. Filming the client with a phone could complement this step.
- Does the shift happen before the arms/legs start moving? Check that the knees are placed right under the hip joint. If the knees are placed wider than the hip joints, the client may shift to place the hip right above the knee joint before lifting.
- Does the shift happen after the arms/leg start moving? Regress the exercise to lifting just one arm or one leg.
The body avoids positions of weakness and seeks positions of strength is a useful phenomenon to keep in mind to understand the source of a movement error. This clip shows how a lateral shift of the pelvis was corrected by supporting the clients on the forearms and reducing the need for triceps strength.
- There is side flexion of the spine to the same side as the lifted hand.
- Stretch the Latissimus Dorsi Muscle, including the lateral fascial line.
- The erector spinae muscles may not be strong enough and the quadratus lumborum muscle, which, in addition to extending the spine, also side-flexes the spine, takes over. The solution is to regress the exercise to the Bird Dog Vertical.
- The arm is not lifted high enough
- Increase range of motion in the thoracic spine and shoulder flexion with appropriate stretches.
- Regress the exercise to a Bird Dog Vertical.
- The leg is lifted too high
- Guide the leg of the athlete-client to the appropriate height with your hand.
- Place a roller or dowel rod across the pelvis to give feedback about the position of the pelvis.
The Matter Over Mind Protocol is an incredibly powerful mind-body exercise correction tactic. (2) Through simple stages, the personal trainer can guide the client to tap into resources that are already present. This clip shows the execution after application of the Matter Over Mind Protocol.
A successful exercise correction process is incredibly rewarding both for the client and the personal trainer, who, in a very clear way, experiences that they are making a difference.
Further, embracing and working towards mastery of that process can be an inoculation against boredom as a trainer. No two clients learn in the same way and it is exciting to see that what works for one client may not work for another.
This article provides common deviations of correct form in the Bird Dog and guidelines for how to correct them. The video clips show a case study where the relevant corrections are applied to a client.
- McGill S. Building whole body and spine stability. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Chapter 9, page 209-228. Backfit Pro Inc. 2009.
- Jensen K. The Art of Exercise Instruction. What to Do When What You Say Does Not Work. www.yestostrength.com. 2017.
- Tae-Woo K, Yong-Wook K. Effects of Abdominal Drawing-In during prone hip extension on the muscle activities of the hamstring, gluteus maximus, and lumbar erector spinae in subjects with lumbar hyperlordosis. J.Phys.Ther.Science. 27:383-386. 2015.