Proper form for the Bird Dog exercise

Posted on February 27, 2013

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bird dog form exercise

Just say no.

When I first have someone perform an exercise I’d say something like 80% do it sub par, 5% do it well, and 15% make me say “Holy hell stop moving now.”

For the Bird Dog, it’s more like 100% need to stop moving now. I just never see people do this well without extensive instruction. And I rarely see anyone ever teach it well. It’s not just the trainer or therapist’s fault; it’s a hard exercise to teach.

Often times when an exercise fits into this category I just don’t bother, at least not until the trainee is more experienced. However, the Bird Dog I take exception. I think it’s too valuable to not bother with.

The purpose of Bird Dogs

Since I often live in my own world, I’m only going to go over why I use this exercise. Other people may have different reasons.

The main reason I use the Bird Dog is to teach proper movement and motor control between the lower back, abdominals and hips. Specifically, teaching people to dissociate between hip and lower back movement.

Therefore, this is often a go-to exercise when it comes to helping those with lower back issues.  This is because people with lower back issues typically present with hypermobility (too much movement) at the lower back.

Their lower back is doing too much work; their hips, shoulders and abdominals are doing too little.

(For more on why this happens check out: Assessing the hips in the transverse plane (Why your lower back hurts).)

Thus, I use the Bird Dog to teach people how to use their lower back less, but their stomach and hips more.

I’m going to intentionally ignore going over anatomy for this post. One thing I’m noticing with the emails / comments I get is way too much focus on muscles and not enough on movement. I know this is hard  to grasp (it was for me too), but keep in mind the Bird Dog is for training proper MOVEMENT. The muscles will follow.

My other concomitant reason for doing Bird Dogs is to work on shoulder flexion, upward rotation and winging.

Notice a reason for doing Bird Dogs IS NOT, IS NOT, IS NOT to strengthen the lower back. If you’re feeling this in your lower back you’re doing it wrong.

To see all this more clearly let’s go over the common form errors.

Common form issues

I’m going to break down each flaw in relative order of importance. I don’t correct one flaw until the one above it is reached. For instance, say the person needs to work on controlling lower back extension and rotation, as well as scapular winging. I ignore correcting the winging until the lower back issue is resolved. Some people may be an exception to this hierarchy, but this is overwhelmingly what I use.

Too much lower back extension and rotation

Bird dog shitty overall lines

Ideally, this is a straight line.

So should this. And no, Holly, it's not cause you qualify for "Baby got back."

So is this. And no, Holly, it’s not cause you qualify for “Baby got back.”

Remember, when dealing with lower back issues we’re almost always dealing with hypermobility. Therefore, our goal is to prevent movement at the lumbar spine. So, when I have people do this absolutely no lower back extension or rotation is allowed. We want the hips to move into extension, but the lower back to stay still. That way we’re teaching the body to dissociate between moving the hips and moving the spine.

This is by far the most common flaw when doing the Bird Dog. People just shoot their leg in the sky. The goal is NOT to lift your leg as high as possible! I’ll go over this more later with the progressions.

The foot shouldn't be above the ass.

The foot shouldn’t be above the ass.

The rest of the form issues are secondary to the above. Nothing else happens until the above is solid. Whenever you do an exercise the max amount of things to think about is two. For the Bird Dog, until the above is mastered, I only give one thing to think about. I’ll discuss this more in the progressions below. 

Poor shoulder flexion / upward rotation

Bird dog not enough shrug

While people will shoot the foot into the ceiling, they’ll push the arm towards the floor.

Bird dog crappy arm lines arrow down

I like to emphasize shrugging the shoulder into the ear to further enable upward rotation.

Before (bad)

Before (bad)

After (better, but not perfect)

After (better, but not perfect). See how much closer the shoulder is to the ear.

I really only focus on this for those with some shoulder history. Unless everything is solid, working on this cue starts venturing into “Too much to think about” territory.

Lastly, one thing I never see anyone else correct is the fact the shoulder is internally rotated. By externally rotating the arm, at least to neutral, we’re providing some more bang for your buck by loosening the lats and pecs.

Before; palm down (bad)

Before; palm down (bad)

After; palm down (better)

After; palm in (better)

Scapular winging

Dan winging

For some people, simply supporting themselves on their hands will cause their scapulae to wing. Using the cue of “push your shoulder blades away from one another” will often alleviate this. (This is demonstrated in a video below.) However, for some, like those with significant shoulder issues, they will not be able to reverse the winging in this position no matter what. In this case, Bird Dogs are not advisable.

For more on scapular winging check out: Example of impaired movement causing pain. 

Cervical hyperextension

Bird Dog crappy arm : back

Pretty simple here. Tuck your chin to your chest and look down.

Bending / leaning on opposite arm

Bird Dog opposite arm bending

The support arm shouldn’t bend. It stays straight providing just enough stability you don’t fall over.

Entire body rocks backwards

Bird Dog Rocking backwards

Bird Dog Rocking backwards with line

Lines should be more vertical.

This is a bit more rare. As best I can tell, people do this to help them prevent the balance issues that sometimes arise. By putting more of their weight back on the leg they get a greater sense of stability. In the end though, once the body is set over the hands and knees, we do not want any rocking backward or forward.

Excessive wrist extension

Bird dog crappy arm lines arrow down wrist too

Bird Dog crappy wrist

The wrist should be straight.

After (better, but not perfect)

After (better, but not perfect)

Bringing it all together – Proper form and cueing

Much like which form issues I assess first, which things I cue first follow a hierarchy. The form issues give us a good idea of what proper form is, but let’s bring it together to further elucidate.

The first cue is always “Pull your stomach up to the ceiling.” I’ve seen other people use phrasing like, “Tell your client to put their hand perpendicular to the rectus abdominus so they feel their obliques, then tell them to engage the oblique and fascia.” WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU SAYING???

Anything more than “Pull your stomach up and in” is too much for someone to think about. Get this straight, then move on.

Once the person is effectively pulling their stomach in, I make sure they aren’t rotating the pelvis. For this I actually use the cue of “Don’t let the hips move/twist” rather than “Don’t let your lower back move/twist.” Technically, the hips are moving into extension (i.e. they are moving), however, mentioning the hips to people seems to resonate more.

Once the lower back is set, I mention to the person “We are trying to make a line from your hands to your shoulders to your hips to your foot.”

Bird Dog Straight

Bird Dog Straight with line

Then I’ll say “You should feel some work in your butt, stomach, and shoulders, but NOTHING in your lower back. If you feel anything in your lower back let me know.”

Progressions

Here’s my hierarchy of progressions:

1) Leg only, and the foot hits the ground every time! For some people, I never let them lift their foot off the ground.

If the person has trouble with just this (rare), I move backwards a step and go with the following:

0) Leg only; foot hits ground; laying over bench.

Using the bench assures the person’s lower back cannot rotate or extend. The client is fully aware of any pelvic movement because what’s tangible to their stomach will change.

2) Foot hits ground; the arm moves too.

Once the person has consistently demonstrated proficiency with just the foot (at least 2 weeks), I’ll bring the arm into play.

Bird Dog Straight

3) The progressions become vast from here. Some people like to add weight to the arm; others will perturbate the extending limbs, you can bird dog while in a plank, etc.

I don’t have many people who ever make it this far. This stuff can be HARD. (Keep in mind I’m not dealing with athletes either.)

Miscellaneous

Combining

For new people, or people with a lower back history, I almost always combine the Bird Dog with the Backward Rocking stretch.

This insures if the person does get their lower back involved at all, we immediately loosen things up with the rocking stretch.

Also, hip extension issues often accompany lower back issues. While the Bird Dog is working the hips into extension, the Backward Rocking is working them through full flexion. Something which often gives people with lower back issues relief.

The combination is essentially a nice insurance policy for making sure the person leaves the session with a healthy feeling lower back and hip(s).

Bringing me to:

Always used at the end of the session

I pretty much always do abdominal work at the end of sessions. The reason is in those with lower back issues the primary factor with the abdominals is not strength, but endurance. (There are studies on this but I don’t feel like looking them up. Shirley Sahrmann goes over this too.) The abdominals are most likely to get worked in an endurance manner by being engaged at the end of the session.

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