Dead Bug

Appropriately named, the dead bug is performed lying on your back with your arms and legs in the air. 

As silly as the imagery may seem, the benefits of doing this exercise are essential, as evidenced by research on exercises to stabilize the lower spine

The dead bug's stability, motor control, and injury prevention benefits can lay the foundation for peak performance. 

Let's explore the versatility of this simplistic movement and uncover the many ways it can be used to your advantage!

How To Do

  1. Lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Raise your arms and straighten them over your chest so your fingers point to the ceiling.  
  3. Raise your feet off the floor keeping your knees and hips bent at a 90-degree angle.
  4. Maintain bracing in your entire trunk so there is abdominal tightness and lower back contact with the floor. 
  5. Lower your right leg towards the floor while extending your knee and extend your left arm overhead.
  6. Bring your limbs back to the starting positions and repeat the movement with the opposing limbs. 
  7. Perform all movements without releasing the bracing of the trunk, and be sure to exhale on limb extension and inhale upon return.

Tips From Expert

  • Mind your lower back at all times making sure it does not leave the floor.
  • Use resistance like dumbbells and ankle weights to increase difficulty.
  • Perform with same side limbs instead of opposite sides, as an alternate way to progress. 
  • If you experience lower back pressure during the movement, modify to heel taps rather than straightening the leg out completely
  • Revert to slower movement or position holds to build control if a full range of motion is not possible.

Optimal Sets and Reps

The dead bug is unique in that all fitness goals do not match well with it. Its straight limb features and core focus lend it more towards low loads and muscular endurance goals. Heavy resistance training, hypertrophy, and power don't gain much traction with the dead bug.

Training Type Sets Reps
Strength Training 3–5 6–8
Hypertrophy N/A due to low resistance levels N/A
Endurance Training 2–3 15–20
Power Training N/A due to slow control speeds N/A

How to Put in Your Workout Split

Despite being limited as mainly a strength and endurance exercise, most common workout splits can still incorporate the dead bug. 

  • Push/Pull — This split can have great use for the dead bug regardless of which muscle group is featured that day. Highly loaded compound movements (activating multiple muscle groups) characterize this split. However, the dead bug can activate the abdominal bracing necessary for these heavy lifts. 
  • Total Body — If your program is designed daily to work your full body, the dead bug fits as a preparation exercise. Low-impact exercises with full body in mind utilize many movements that require stabilizing through your core. 
  • Single Muscle Group — Even if your routine features just one muscle group per day, the dead bug can be beneficial. 

As in the push/pull split, any heavy compound movement presented in your session can use the core activation provided by the dead bug exercise. 

Lastly, with the dead bug, the variation between splits is less about only focusing on sets and reps. Remember, hypertrophy and power are not big factors when it comes to this exercise.

Primary Muscle Groups

Lower Rectus Abdominis

Muscles located below your upper abs and above your public bone between your ribs.

Lower Rectus Abdominis

The lower rectus abdominis muscles are primarily used in the dead bug and they directly influence the lower spine.

Interestingly, the muscle activation rate of the rectus abdominis changes with the speed at which the deadbug is performed. Done at a slow speed the activation rate was 6% and it increased to 53% when performed at a higher speed.

As a beginner, it might be advisable to start slowly to familiarise yourself with the exercise. Once it feels comfortable, you can ramp up the speed to get even more muscle activation in the lower rectus abdominis.

Secondary Muscle Groups

Gluteus

Large, superficial muscles located at your buttocks just below your lower back area.

Quadriceps

Muscles located at the front portion of your upper legs, below your pelvis and above your knees. Consists of four parts.

Upper Rectus Abdominis

Muscles located just below the lower chest and above the lower abdominals. Between your ribs and pubic bone.

Iliopsoas

Muscles starting at your back, moving through your pelvis connecting just below your groin.

Latissimus Dorsi

Large, triangular shaped muscles located just below your shoulder blades. They extend along your spine down to your pelvis.

Anterior Deltoid

Muscles located at the front of your shoulder region

Lateral Deltoid

Muscles located at the side of your shoulder which gives your shoulders a rounded appearance.

Upper Rectus Abdominis

The upper rectus abdominal role while doing the dead bug is to help stabilize the midsection of the spine during arm extension.

This part of the rectus abdominis will help to keep the midback in contact with the surface you are resting on. This way, you will get the most out of the dead bug exercise and engage your core optimally. 

Gluteus

The gluteus muscles include hip extensors that aid in extending the leg away from the trunk during the dead bug. Leg extension involves opening up the hips and aligning the spine with the thigh. The glutes are a crucial muscle group in this action, as seen in other strength movements.  

Iliopsoas

The iliopsoas muscle connects the pelvis and the lower spine to the thigh bone. It is a hip flexor, which means it helps in bringing the thigh bone up towards the trunk. In performing the dead bug, it has a tremendous responsibility in decelerating the hip extension movement.  

Engaging the iliopsoas muscle in this exercise serves two functions. First, it allows the leg to come back towards the trunk as the muscle shortens. Secondly, it allows to slowly descend the leg towards the ground as the muscle lengthens. 

Quadriceps

The quadriceps muscles are also hip flexors that help to decelerate hip extension in the dead bug. These muscles are active whether the hip is bent or extended during the deadbug exercise.

The quadriceps is a muscle composed of four different heads: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis obliquis, and the vastus intermedius. They serve secondarily to pull the thigh closer to the trunk, therefore assisting the iliopsoas during the exercise. 

Latissimus Dorsi 

The latissimus dorsi is a muscle that originates around the side of the upper back and attaches under the shoulder.  

During the dead bug exercise, this muscle will help in bringing the arm back toward the starting position (extension of the arm). As the arm reaches overhead, the latissimus dorsi will be in a stretched position.

Anterior Deltoid 

The anterior deltoid muscle is located on the front of the shoulder and its role is to bring the arm overhead (flexion) during the deadbug exercise.  

This muscle is important for optimal shoulder strength. It has been shown that the deltoid can have up to 70% muscle activation when it reaches 120 degrees of shoulder flexion (overhead motion). In the dead bug exercise, you are sure to activate this muscle when you reach your arm overhead.

Lateral Deltoid 

When performing the dead bug exercise, the other shoulder flexor is the lateral deltoid. This is another part of the deltoid muscle located on the side of the shoulder. Its role is to assist the anterior deltoid with bringing the arm overhead.

Equipment

Bodyweight

Bodyweight

Requires bodyweight resistance and additional equipment for proper execution.

Variations

Exercises that target the same primary muscle groups and require the same equipment.

Plank Shoulder Taps

Leg Raises

Bicycle Crunches

Inchworm

Dynamic Planks

Burpees

Twisted Mountain Climber

Tuck Jumps

High Plank to Toe Touch

Hollow Hold

Reverse Crunches

Sit-Throughs

Reaching Crunches

Dynamic Rollups

Reverse Plank

Lying Toe Touches

Walking Plank

Plank with Leg Lifts

Plank Jacks

Mountain Runner

One Arm Plank

Twisting Crunches

Bodyweight Squat & Knee Kick

Supine Marching

Alternatives

Exercises that target the same primary muscle groups and require the different equipment.

Who Should Do The Dead Bug?

Those With Tight Lower Backs

Lower pain and back tightness are common sources of discomfort for many people. In 2020, it was reported that 619 million people suffered from low back pain around the world. This area of the body is called the lumbar spine and it is largely influenced by the lower abdominal muscles.

When the lower abdominals are not engaged, active, and as strong as they need to be, the lower back vertebrae may sit in an overly extended position. You should look to target your lower abdominals in your training for lumbar spine balance and a healthy core.

Those Improving Strength

The dead bug is a great strength exercise due to the core control it requires and the resistance effect of the limbs. 

Your lower spine is the targeted area for stability with this exercise, as your arms and legs extend and return to the starting position. The natural response to this would be for the back to arch, but the abdominals are tasked to stabilize this and counter that movement.

This ability in the abs is what builds core strength and can even be progressed. By using sources of resistance beyond body weight such as dumbbells or ankle weights, you can effectively boost core strength. 

Exercisers Training Coordination 

Another great feature of the dead bug is the coordination it teaches the body through limb movement. 

Your opposing side arms and legs extend simultaneously as your body’s nervous system must control the actions through the spine. This ability lays down the foundation for your training and maximizes performance for more challenging exercises that require similar movements.

Take the example of a forward lunge while holding a dumbbell overhead with the hand on the opposite side. This is a more complex version of the preparatory movement seen in the dead bug.    

Who Should Not Do The Dead Bug?

The Injured

The dead bug is a slow and stationary exercise with a high value for strength and performance. Still, this exercise should not be done if there is pain or injury, especially in the hips, shoulders, and spine. 

Significant muscle control is required through the abdominals, upper legs, and shoulders to stabilize those joints. Furthermore, this is done through the vulnerable movement of limbs extending away from the body. 

The level of pressure and muscle activation necessary for the dead bug make it ill-advised to perform before you are fully capable. A suggestion would be to perform the same or similar limb actions from an upright posture instead. This can take the pressure of gravity out of the movements to decrease intensity. 

Deconditioned Individuals 

It may have been a long while since you’ve exercised. Or, maybe you’ve never worked out before at all. You may not even be currently in a gym yet. 

In these cases, you might need to establish a baseline of strength and muscle activation first. The coordinated effort posed by the dead bug over multiple joints can be a task needing a ramp-up. 

Look through these exercises and choose your starting point while working towards being gym-ready.

Individuals Lacking Motor Control 

The dead bug presents obvious performance challenges of strength, stability, and flexibility, that have undoubted value. 

A less commonly known benefit of doing this exercise is improved motor control. This is the ability of the body to coordinate a series of muscular actions from a brain-body perspective. 

Sometimes a complex movement like the dead bug exercise needs to be learned. Individuals with deep neuromuscular impairments may not be well served by doing the dead bug. 

Benefits Of The Dead Bug

Enhances Core Stability

This is probably the most easily apparent benefit to the dead bug. The natural resistance presented by the extension of the limbs produces a reaction to stabilize as leverage for the movement. 

This stability is accomplished not just by the superficial muscles, but through deeper stabilization muscles that run closer to your spine. 

Here are some other moves that pair nicely with the dead bug to train your spinal stabilizers.

Boosts Athletic Performance

The benefits of the dead bug can have tremendous implications for athletic performance.  

Being athletic requires a high level of coordination to perform in the best way possible. The foundation set by the simpler movements of the dead bug can lay the groundwork for these higher-level coordination skills. 

As an example, athletes can experience negative consequences from having weak deep core muscles. Research on runners has shown that a weaker core significantly increases the load on the lumbar spine.

Improves Balance

The impact that the dead bug has on balance can be seen most evidently under circumstances of physical activity.  

Whether in sports or just a daily activity requiring you to avoid falling, life on your feet requires balance. The motor control and reactiveness this exercise teaches is the source of that balance. This exercise has the potential to be a stepping stone for more challenging balance exercises.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are dead bugs worth doing?

Yes, dead bugs are worth it. They will allow you to move through your days while benefiting from their motor and stability benefits.

Are dead bugs better than planks?

Which of these is better depends on the situation. The dead bug is better when there’s an additional need to improve coordination and mobility.

How long should I do dead bug?

If you are not moving limbs and are just holding the position, then 30 seconds is sufficient. The benefits are meant to relate to short bouts of exercise and daily living.

What are the mistakes for the dead bug exercise?

The biggest mistake is to allow your lower back to lift from the floor. Other mistakes include moving too quickly, jerking movements, and using too much resistance.

Resources

  1. Chung Reen Kim, Dae Kwon Park, Seok Tae Lee and Ju Seok Ryu (2016). Electromyographic Changes in Trunk Muscles During Graded Lumbar Stabilization Exercises. PM & R, [online] 8(10), pp.979–989. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmrj.2016.05.017.
  2. Flynn, W. and Vickerton, P. (2023). Anatomy, Abdomen and Pelvis: Abdominal Wall. [online] Nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551649/.
  3. McGill, S.M. and Karpowicz, A. (2009). Exercises for Spine Stabilization: Motion/Motor Patterns, Stability Progressions, and Clinical Technique. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, [online] 90(1), pp.118–126. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apmr.2008.06.026.
  4. Escamilla, R.F., Lewis, C., Pecson, A., Imamura, R. and Andrews, J.R. (2016). Muscle Activation Among Supine, Prone, and Side Position Exercises With and Without a Swiss Ball. Sports health, [online] 8(4), pp.372–379. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738116653931.
  5. Neto, W.K., Vieira, T.L. and Gama, E.F. (2019). Barbell Hip Thrust, Muscular Activation and Performance: A Systematic Review. Journal of sports science & medicine, [online] 18(2), pp.198–206. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6544005/.
  6. Takumi Jiroumaru, Kurihara, T. and Tadao Isaka (2014). Measurement of muscle length-related electromyography activity of the hip flexor muscles to determine individual muscle contributions to the hip flexion torque. SpringerPlus, [online] 3(1). doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/2193-1801-3-624.
  7. Hiroku Mitsuya, Nakazato, K., Takayoshi Hakkaku and Okada, T. (2023). Hip flexion angle affects longitudinal muscle activity of the rectus femoris in leg extension exercise. European journal of applied physiology, [online] 123(6), pp.1299–1309. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-023-05156-w.
  8. Wu, J.G. and Bordoni, B. (2023). Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Scapulohumeral Muscles. [online] Nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK546633/#:~:text=The%20latissimus%20dorsi%20muscle%20at,adduction%20on%20a%20horizontal%20plane.
  9. Hecker, A., Aguirre, J., Eichenberger, U., Rosner, J., Schubert, M., Sutter, R., Wieser, K. and Samy Bouaicha (2021). Deltoid muscle contribution to shoulder flexion and abduction strength: an experimental approach. Journal of shoulder and elbow surgery, [online] 30(2), pp.e60–e68. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jse.2020.05.023.
  10. World (2023). Low back pain. [online] Who.int. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/low-back-pain#:~:text=Key%20facts,expansion%20and%20ageing%20(1).
  11. Yamane, M., Aoki, M., Sasaki, Y. and Hayashi, T. (2022). Feedforward coactivation of trunk muscles during rapid shoulder movements. JSES international, [online] 6(4), pp.660–668. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jseint.2022.04.003.
  12. Raabe, M.E. and Ajit M.W. Chaudhari (2018). Biomechanical consequences of running with deep core muscle weakness. Journal of biomechanics, [online] 67, pp.98–105. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbiomech.2017.11.037.