Deadbugs: The What, Why, and How

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I know what some of you may be thinking:  “Really, Tony, a post on deadbugs?  What’s next….telling us how much you love Twilight or that you’re adopting another cat?  You haven’t gone soft on us now have you?”

<—– LOL, get it??  I actually put a picture of a “dead bug” here, when I’m actually just referring to the exercise.  High five!

Full confession time.  Okay, I admit it: back in 2008 I read the first Twilight book.  But only because I wanted to see what all the hoopla was about and see for myself why so many people were going bat shit crazy over it.

Well that, and it was a dark period in my life. I was single at the time and was going through some existential phase where I was trying to figure out what everything means.  Vampires wasn’t the answer.

I read it, didn’t care for it, and moved on with my life.

As far as the cat thing.  I plead the 5th…..;o)

With regards to deadbugs, however, in many ways I feel they get a bad rap and that they’re one of the more UNDERrated core exercises out there.  Perhaps a more apropos way to explain things would be that deadbugs are almost universally seen as a “sissy” exercise and a waste of time by many trainees, meatheads, and athletes alike.

I couldn’t disagree more.

I was recently asked by MensHealth.com to provide a “hot list” of some of my favorite go to core exercise that I either use with my athletes and clients, or that I pepper into my own training as well.

While I offered the prerequisite favs like Pallof press variations, stir-the-pot, and carry variations, I purposely OMITTED deadbugs for a few reasons:

1.  I didn’t want the incessant eye rolling pointed in my direction.

2.  Despite their perceived “easiness,” deadbugs are actually an exercise that are absolutely butchered by, well, everybody.

3.  As such, I took the greedy way out, held back, and decided to keep deadbugs to myself and dedicate an entire post on them in an effort to persuade everyone reading that they’re the bees knees (and that they should take the time to pay a little more attention to detail).

Getting the obvious out of the way:  deadbugs are an exercise that, for all intents and purposes, help with motor control and can be seen as a “baseline” exercise to ascertain whether or not someone has any glowing imbalances that need to be addressed.

Let me explain.

While it’s fairly common in the athletic realm, more and more we’re seeing people in the meathead/weekend warrior or what I like to call the “I like to lift heavy things category” present with an overextended posture or anterior pelvic tilt.

While this isn’t necessary anything to write home about – there IS a “range” of acceptable anterior pelvic tilt – it does become problematic when it’s excessive and otherwise leads to other imbalances up and down the kinetic chain.

For starters, those in excessive anterior pelvic tilt will almost always have extension based back pain – where the facet joints, posterior discs, etc are placed in an ungodly amount of stress which can manifest into more profound issues like spondylosis (end plate fracture) down the road.

Mike Robertson has a cool term for this called Flawed Active Stability – whereupon you’re cueing the body to engage the paraspinals and spinal erectors, effectively crushing the spine, in an effort to gain stability.

What’s more, in general, because of the misalignment associated with APT, it’s not uncommon for people to experience chronic pulled hamstrings, anterior knee pain, hip pain, and a myriad of other issues.

All of this to say: it just plain sucks donkey balls and can really mess with one’s training in the long run if not addressed or at least kept under wraps.

But again, I’m just stating the obvious.

Do Your Deadbugs, Yo!

Deadbugs are a fantastic way to teach the body to “encourage” more posterior pelvic tilt while simultaneously enhancing motor control and to engage the lumbo-pelvic-hip stabilizers to do their job.

As note above, most people flat out do a piss poor job when it comes to performing deadbugs correctly.  Here’s a great example.

Upon first glance those don’t look too shabby, right?  Offhand those look pretty good.  But with a closer look we can definitely comb through some common technique flaws that many should be able to appreciate.

1.  Before anyone makes fun of me for tucking my t-shirt into my sweatpants, just know that I did it for a reason. Which was to show how most people perform their deadbugs:  with an excessive arch in their lower back and with their rib cage flared out.

Well that and we had people visiting the facility from Australia yesterday and I didn’t want to make things awkward by walking around with my shirt off.

Admittedly, it’s still hard to see in the video above, but if you were in the video with me (oh, hey, hello!) you would easily be able to fit your hand in between the floor and my lumbar spine.  This shouldn’t happen and essentially defeats the purpose of the entire exercise.

And this is why I tend to lean more towards deadbugs from the get go – rather than birddogs – because the floor provides more stability and kinesthetic feedback to the body.

2. Another mistake is that people tend to rush this exercise.  Many will just haphazardly flail their arms and legs around hightailing it through the set.  While we could make a case that extending the arms and legs may be too much of a progression and we need to REGRESS the exercise – read THIS for more ideas – much of the time it just comes down to slowing people down.

All that said, lets take a look at what PROPER deadbug should look like.

I know it doesn’t look much different than the first video, but I assure you there’s a lot to consider.

1.  My shirt’s still tucked in.

2.  My lower back is flush against the floor – and I’m encouraging more posterior pelvic tilt.

3.  Moreover I’m also taking a massive breath and inhaling THROUGH MY NOSE to focus more on a 360 degree expansion into my torso.  In other words:  I’m not just breathing into my stomach, but also trying to expand sideways and INTO the floor as well as my ribcage (but without allowing it to flare out too much).

4.  From there I lower contralateral limbs – controlled, in an effort to resist extension – while FORCEFULLY exhaling my air through my mouth.  I do this until ALL my air is out.

By doing this a few things happen (and I apologize in advance for all the enumerations in this post):

1. I slow myself down.

2. The diaphragm is better engaged.

3.  Many don’t think of this part, but with all my air exhaled out, I now have nothing to help stabilize my spine except the muscles themselves.

It’s not uncommon for people to literally start shaking as they proceed with their set. This is okay – so long as you maintain proper spinal position – as it just demonstrates that the muscles in the surrounding area are now doing their job more efficiently.

I’ll typically shoot for 2-3 sets of 5-8 repetitions PER SIDE.

And there you have it.  It’s nothing flashy or Earth shattering, but I guarantee that if you go a head and try to perform your deadbugs in this fashion you’ll notice how much MORE challenging they can be, and they’re anything but a sissy exercise.

Give it a try and let me know what you think.

 

 

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  • Chris Brown (not that one…)

    Liked the post…the fashion sense on the other hand, not so cool but to each their own I guess! Jokes aside, if having some amount of a lumbar curve is anatomically normal, why do you want to stress the PPT and lumbar flat against/into the ground thing with deadbugs?

    • TonyGentilcore

      APT is normal, but when it’s EXCESSIVE that can be problematic. I just didn’t want people to assume that APT in of itself was a bad thing.

  • Kirk

    Hey Tony, Great stuff as always. This question is off topic a bit but I was wondering if you have any general advice for training in groups (specifically a high school baseball group). Sorry, as I’m sure this is one of those questions where you could say, “it depends”. For example, I want to incorporate exercises such as rythmic stabilizations but when I’m by myself with a group of maybe 8-10 guys it can be tough to work them in. I know I could probably use them as the A2 or B2 of a superset (half the group goblet squat and rythmic stabilization, other half single leg rdl and chest suppported row…then flip the groups).. . Sorry to ramble, just looking for some ideas to incorporate.

    • TonyGentilcore

      No worries Kirk – it’s a legit question, and you’re right: it does depend.

      That said, with things like rhythmic stabilizations I think they’re “user friendly” enough where you can teach your athletes how to perform them correctly.

      It’s not like you need a pHd in order to do them….;O) But, it will be important to coach them up and to demonstrate that it’s a subtle exercise and not something they want to be too aggressive with.

  • It’s amazing to watch people’s ‘AHA moment’ when you coach the correct technique.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Indeed – it is. Incorporating the breathing is KEY here. Hope the new place is coming along well my man.

  • deansomerset

    Good stuff dude.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Dude! Thanks dude!….

      • Carl Macdonald

        Yep, double high five for that one with sustained hold until all your air’s out!

  • Barath

    Inspired by Jimmy Kimmel’s “unnecessary censorship”, I added the bleep in various positions of your last paragraph. It now reads thusly:

    1. I slow myself down.

    2. The ***** is better engaged.

    3. Many don’t think of this part, but with all my air exhaled out, I now have nothing to help stabilize my ****** except the ******* themselves.

    It’s not uncommon for people to literally start shaking as they ********. This is okay – so long as you maintain proper ****** position – as it just demonstrates that the ***** in the surrounding area are now doing their job more efficiently.

    I’ll typically shoot for 2-3 sets of 5-8 repetitions PER SIDE.

    And there you have it. It’s ***** flashy **** Earth shattering, but I guarantee that if you go ahead and try to perform ******* in this fashion you’ll notice how much MORE **** they can be, and they’re anything but a sissy ******.

    Give it a try and let me know what you think.- See more at: ***********

    • TonyGentilcore

      hahahahahaah. Nice.

  • kedric93

    For population who are not in extension or in flexion, would you cue them to get into neutral first and then brace when doing the exercise instead of cueing a posterior tilt for everyone?

    Thanks,
    -kedric

    • TonyGentilcore

      Yep, neutral.

  • Chris

    Excellent post Tones,

    What’s your thoughts on using an active hip flexor component like squeezing a tennis ball between non active leg ala a Cook hip-lift to really drive home the need for PPT and “flat back”? I’ve used that technique on my self and subsequently with clients and then performed the move in a non-alternate fashion for prescribed reps before changing sides with ball.

    Valid or not?

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  • Brent

    mos def solid stuff as per usual. question though…
    If I recall from functional stability training of the core, Reinold mentioned find neutral pelvic positioning first, brace that shiz, breathe and then do your thing. So if someone’s neutral posture is more PPT at rest, would you still cue person into a post. pelvic tilt, or tell them to find a more APT neeutral pattern and brace there?

    Basically, do you cue all clients to push low back into ground before doing the exercise regardless of what their static posture is? If so, I’ve been seriously effing up my deadbugs. And therefore my life is over.

    ps – and I totally had a “honey I shrunk the kids” moment when I saw the dead bug. That movie scared the crap out of me and still does.

    • Brent

      ps – after watching FST, I found a fool proof way of doing rhythmic stabilizations w/o a partner. Grab a shake weight and hold that bastard. All this time I thought the shake weight was a useless infomercial toy. Guess I had it wrong all this time. The more you know 🙂 Gonna have to blog about this idea. Should take the fitness industry by storm… by which I mean, my mom will read about it. boom!

      • TonyGentilcore

        LOL – now that IS a useful way to implement the Shake Weight. Well done.

  • Lori Frederic CSCS, CMT

    great article Tony! It’s funny how with the right guidance and cueing, clients can get mentally and physically exhausted with the basic dead bug. Sometimes you have to regress to progress! – Lori

    • TonyGentilcore

      Exactly! Couldn’t agree more.

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  • Hudson Wu

    Thanks for the article Tony! I have a question : what is the purpose of including the contra lateral arm movement? Will removing it make any difference?
    Thanks again !

    • TonyGentilcore

      It’s a progression. Depending on the person, sometimes I’ll start with arms only or legs only. But when they’re ready, the contralateral component plays into some of the DNS stuff and how force is transferred – in diagonal patterns – throughout the body.

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  • Yoshi

    By extension based back pain are you referring to extension in the thoracic or lumbar region? I read your other article on extension based back pain and I wanted to clarify. I myself have pain in the thoracolumbar region on the right side and I believe it’s due to cueing chest up without keeping the ribs down. Deadbugs make a world of difference.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Extension in the lumbar spine.

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  • Salvadorrr

    Great guide! (I know I’m a bit late, but still…)

    I’m doing these to help fix my APT. However, I feel most of the burn at the end of the exercise on my lower ribs rather than lower down where I was expecting. Is this normal for APT, or is there an identifiable technique problem?

    Thanks again 🙂

    • TonyGentilcore

      Hard for me to say without seeing you in person or a video, but your RA does attach to your ribs so I don’t feel you’re doing them wrong….;o)

      • Salvadorrr

        Well I’ve slightly adjusted my technique and it feels like it’s working more of the core now (although still slightly more in the upper core). Thanks again for the article!

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  • everstar

    If I’m way out of shape, should I go right for the 2-3 sets of 5-8 per side? What would be an acceptable sets/rep count for those of us whose core is mostly dough?

    • TonyGentilcore

      Start with what you can handle. Go from there.