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Smart Core Training Week 3 - The Bird Dog

We’re back to some more info on core training today with part 3 of my series on Smart Core Training that was originally filmed at the Carlisle Med Gym. This week we’re going to progress to another aspect of core training and talk about an exercise called the Bird Dog.

As a brief recap, in week 1 we took a look at rotational core stability training in the Pallof Press. Then, in week 2 we looked at anterior core stability in the Curl-Up. Now, in week 3 we’re going to look at the third aspect of core training, which is posterior core stability.

When talking about posterior core stability, we’re basically looking at training the muscles of the back that run along either side of the spine. These muscles help support the spine, and especially work to resist flexion at the spine.

Just as we talked about last week when talking about the Curl-Up, we need to take a minute to discuss the true, functional role of the posterior core muscles, so that we can train them accordingly. Without understanding the functional role of these muscles, we tend to fall back into the anatomical perspective when designing exercises to train them, and that’s what we see with many traditional back strengthening exercises.

The anatomical role of the back muscles, when contracted to create movement is to extend the back or, in other words, to arch the back backwards. From this anatomical function, we get many of the traditional exercises intended to train these muscles. Exercises like Prone Back Extensions, Roman Chair Back Extensions, Reverse Hyperextensions, Superman Extensions, etc. All of these exercises recruit the back muscles to create movement of the spine into extension. Many of them even go through nearly full range flexion and extension at the lumbar spine, which is the exact opposite of our goal to build stability at the lumbar spine!

Unfortunately, because many of these exercises were originally touted as great back health exercises, or as “the best exercise for your back EVER!”, you can still find many people on the internet talking about how you should perform these to strengthen your spine and keep your back healthy. All I have to say is – Don’t listen to them!

If you’re interested in learning more on the topic of exercises like Reverse Hypers from a trusted source, here’s an excellent article from Mike Robertson:

Roman Chair Back Extensions (shown above), which recruit all of the muscles around the spine to extend/hyperextend the low back place a ton of compressions on the spine. Not a good plan for long-term back health! Image Source.

The main issue with these exercises, is that they may do an excellent job of developing strength at the low back muscles, but at the same time they compromise spine health by creating excessive amounts of compression. This is the same issue that we talked about last week when discussing the sit-up versus the curl-up. We want to be sure that the exercises we choose to train the core muscles don’t simultaneously compromise the health of the spine.

In particular, the facet joints of the spine receive the bulk of the load when the back is under extension and compression. While extension at the spine can actually be therapeutic for many disc injuries, overdoing this extension at the low back will likely lead to more long-term issues in the back in the form of arthritic facet joints.

So, while some extension based treatment from a qualified health professional can be good for rehabbing a disc injury, incorporating aggressive extension exercises into your regular exercise repertoire in the hopes of maintaining spine health is not the way to go.

One of the biggest challenges that is faced when looking at how we can effectively train the muscles of the posterior core is that if we contract all of the muscles at once, as with all of the extension exercises I listed above, it places a lot of compression on the lumbar spine.

How much exactly? Well, even more than the 3300 N of force that we talked about with the sit-up last week. In fact, even the superman exercise which is often recommended as part of a therapeutic treatment when rehabbing the spine, imposes up to 6000 N, or over 1300 lbs. of compression on a hyperextended spine. According to Dr. Stuart McGill in his book Low Back Disorders “This is not justifiable for any patient!”

The Superman Exercise

So, how do we effectively train the back-extensor muscles while not compromising spine health? Enter the bird dog!

The bird dog is presented by Dr. McGill as a good alternative to exercises like the superman exercise because it isolates different compartments of the back-extensor muscles, and recruits them while not causing twisting and extending at the spine.

The bird dog works by extending one leg at the hip and extending one arm at the shoulder while kneeling on all fours, and thus it recruits one side of the thoracic spine musculature, and one side of the lumbar spine musculature. By doing this, we only create a moderate compression of around 3000 N on the spine, which is much safer than any of the aforementioned back exercises!

In addition to training the back muscles while not compromising spine health, another reason why I love the bird dog so much is because it also incorporates a rather challenging rotary stability component. By taking away one arm and one leg, you must now stabilize on one hip and one shoulder while maintaining a rigid torso.

This stability challenge is a great way to train shoulder, hip, and rotational core stability in addition to posterior core stability. In other words, it lets us kill a lot of birds with one stone (no pun intended!). This great efficiency allows it to be a very effective core training exercise.

So, to learn more about this excellent core training exercise, as well as how to perform it, check out the video below:

To summarize the bird dog:

What is it?

The bird dog is a very efficient and safe way to train the muscles of the posterior core – the back muscles that run along the spine. Named after a hunting dog pointing at a bird, the bird dog not only safely trains the back-extensor muscles, but it also allows us to incorporate a rotational stability component into our core training. On top of it being an excellent core training exercise, the bird dog uniquely challenges the stability and control of the hips and shoulders as they must stabilize effectively as the base of support is changed throughout the exercise.

How much?

The bird dog can be performed for 1-3 sets of 5-8 reps each side. Once again, as with our other core training exercises, it may be wise to start with a minimal hold of each rep, but the goal should be to build endurance by working up to 5-10 second holds on each rep. The bird dog can also be inserted during the main part of your strength training workout with higher sets and reps, or it can be focused on as part of the warm-up to maintain core stability while not doing a high amount of reps.

How often?

As with many other baseline core exercises, the bird dog is not generally something that will cause much soreness or fatigue, and therefore it can be performed as often as every day. If you are just starting out and want to get caught up with your core strength and stability, then performing the bird dog in small doses every day is not a bad idea. On a more long-term scale, however, the bird dog can fit into a regular training routine by being performed in either small doses in each workout during the warm-up, or just once or twice per week in the strength training portion of the workout but with more sets and reps each time.

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