How to Do Dead Bugs to Strengthen Your Core

Dead bugs may look easy, but they're one of the most effective core exercises. Here's exactly how to do a dead bug exercise.

Woman in Dead Bug Exercise Pose
Photo: Courtesy of Bicycling Magazine

Whether you're a seasoned athlete or desk-bound weekend warrior, core strength and stability are essential components of any fitness routine. Your core is the powerhouse where all other actions originate from, including limb movement, bursts of speed, and strength exercises. On the other hand, when your core is weak and unstable, back pain is sure to follow. A weak core also means less power and stability for daily functional movements, such as carrying groceries, cleaning, and picking up your kids or pets.

But the experts agree: One of the best ways to address acute low back pain and a weak core is through exercise. And dead bugs are widely recognized as one of the best options for stabilizing the lumbopelvic region, aka your low back and pelvis, according to the Strength and Conditioning Journal.

Below, you'll find instructions on how to do dead bug exercises correctly and videos demonstrating the movement from Sandra Gail Frayna, physical therapist and founder of Hudson Premiere PT. Plus, you'll learn different ways to modify or intensify the dead bug exercise.

How to Do a Dead Bug

"This exercise starts out by laying on your back with your legs in a tabletop position," says Frayna. "Keeping your back planted flat on the ground and keeping your core tight is important to avoid any strain on your back." Since the dead bug exercise is performed on the floor, feel free to lay out an exercise mat for comfort, she adds.

A. Start in tabletop position, knees stacked over hips and ankles in line with knees at a 90-degree angle. Arms reach straight overhead, in line with shoulders. Keep back planted flat on the ground and core tight to avoid back strain.

B. Reach left arm straight back over head toward the wall behind you and extend right leg forward, keeping leg elevated off the floor.

C. Slowly bring left arm and right leg back to the tabletop position at the same time. Repeat on the other side.

Raise your head slightly for more challenge or keep it rested on the floor, whichever suits your fitness level, suggests Frayna. Of course, you should always get your doctor's clearance before performing a new exercise. Avoid this dead bug exercise if you have a neck or back injury or if you feel any pain. (This is different than the expected discomfort from the tension of activated core muscles.)

The Key Dead Bug Exercise Benefits

Dead bugs are a deceptively simple exercise that, when performed correctly, light up your abdominal and back muscles with a deep burn. Here are the benefits of adding dead bugs to your workout and improving your core strength.

Reduces Lower Back Pain

Performing stabilizing exercises, including dead bugs, has been shown to reduce reoccurring low back pain by 63 percent compared with those who don't perform these movements, according to a study from the Strength and Conditioning Journal. "When performing a dead bug, you are working to resist or prevent movement around the spine, strengthening not only your main abdominal muscles but more importantly the smaller stabilizing muscles that keep your spine upright," says Danyele Wilson, NASM certified trainer, HIIT master trainer, and EvolveYou coach. "Strengthening those smaller stabilizers will help you improve your balance, coordination, and posture, and can help relieve lower back and hip pain," she adds. And, unfortunately, back pain is a widespread issue with 80 percent of individuals experiencing it at some point in their lifetime, according to Medical Clinics of North America.

Since back pain is so common, incorporating exercises such as dead bugs prevents and treats back pain without aggravating it, so you can feel and perform your best. "[The dead bug is] a good, low-impact exercise unlike a plank, which works similar muscles but can cause strain on the back," explains Frayna.

Helps Prevent Injuries

Core work is one of the most crucial aspects of fitness and injury prevention because all other movements (such as biceps curls, lunges, or even just going for a walk) originate from this link between your upper and lower limbs. A strong core is essential for joint stability, which protects joints from injury by keeping them in place, according to the Strength and Conditioning Journal. Another key benefit of improving core stability is the ability to actively brace your core muscles under heavy loads, which stabilizes the spine, preventing buckling and injuries during lifting.

All actions, including daily activities, walking, running, and household chores, rely on your core. When your core is weak, you are more likely to get injured during these tasks, says Frayna. "With a weakened core, I often see knee, hip, or ankle injuries," she explains. "[These injuries] happen when [you] get fatigued and [your] core isn't strong enough. [You] start to sway, causing an imbalance that creates more pressure on [your] hip, ankle, or knee joints."

Plus, training the deep postural muscles helps prevent destabilizing forces that can occur when other muscles try to make up for a weak core during athletic and everyday activities, notes an article in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. When these kinds of compensatory movements occur in your body, you can end up with aches, pains, and strains in your muscles, ligaments, and tendons.

Another less-considered reason to improve core stability is to prevent damage to what's beneath. Strengthening your entire core and developing lumbopelvic stability helps protect your vital organs during contact sports or accidental slips and falls.

Improves Posture

Dead bugs can help improve your posture by supporting your stabilizing deep core and spinal muscles, according to an article in the Academic Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. "When performing a dead bug, you are working to resist or prevent movement around the spine, strengthening not only your main abdominal muscles but more importantly the smaller stabilizing muscles that keep your spine upright," says Wilson. Keeping your spine in alignment is key for a tall, supported posture.

Muscles Worked By Dead Bugs

"[The dead bug exercise] is a move that should be included in your workout routine as it works deeper core muscles, including the transverse abdominis, erector spinae, obliques, rectus abdominis, and the pelvic floor," says Frayna. Working these external and internal deep stabilizing muscles is what makes dead bugs so potent for protecting your spine and low back muscles. That's because training your stabilizers helps reduce motion in the lumbar spine, according to the Strength and Conditioning Journal. Translation: Dead bugs keep your hips and pelvis stable and strong while reducing stress that can lead to pain, strain, and injury in this region.

Dead Bug Exercise Variations

Although dead bugs may look easy, they definitely are not. You may want to modify them until you build strength to ensure you nail the form. If you're ready to level up, try a more challenging variation. And if you have low back issues, be sure you've been cleared by a doctor to perform these dead bug exercises.

Modification: Bent-Leg Dead Bugs

To modify dead bugs, reduce the range of motion when your legs and arms extend from your core, which will lessen the amount of core strength and stability you'll need to perform the movement. You can also try the move with bent knees, lightly touching each heel down on the floor before raising it back to the center. Be sure to only bring your thighs to 90 degrees, rather than tucking them toward your chest.

A. Start in tabletop position, knees stacked over hips and ankles in line with knees at a 90-degree angle. Arms reach straight overhead, in line with shoulders.

B. Reach left arm straight back over head toward the wall behind you and lower right leg toward the ground, keeping right knee bent at a 90-degree angle. Tap the ground with right heel.

C. Slowly bring left arm and right leg back to the tabletop position at the same time. Repeat on the other side.

Modification: Bent-Leg Dead Bugs with Arms Flat

If this modification for the dead bug exercise is still too much, try the bent-knee version while keeping your arms in place instead of extending them. This adjustment reduces the effort needed even more and is the perfect starting place if you're new to core work or if your goal is to reduce low back pain.

A. Start in tabletop position, knees stacked over hips and ankles in line with knees at a 90-degree angle. Arms are long against ribcages, palms facing down.

B. Lower right leg toward the ground, keeping right knee bent at a 90-degree angle. Tap the ground with right heel. Arms remain in position.

C. Slowly bring right leg back to the tabletop position. Repeat on the other side.

Progression: Isometric Dead Bug Hold with Weight Bar

To increase the challenge, add an isometric hold using resistance. A weighted bar pressed into your knees will not only increase the effort used to keep your torso lifted, but this hold also provides resistance for your non-extending leg. For an extra challenge, curl your neck and shoulders up off the ground (but ditch this modification if it causes any neck pain).

A. Start in tabletop position, knees stacked over hips and ankles in line with knees at a 90-degree angle.

B. Press a weighted bar into both thighs just above knees, palms facing away from you. Thighs should actively press back into the bar for an isometric hold.

C. Extend and lower right leg toward the ground. Continue pressing the bar into thighs.

D. Slowly bring right leg back to tabletop position. Repeat on the other side.

Progression: Isometric Dead Bug Hold with Bodyweight Resistance

To reduce the intensity but still provide more challenge, press your hands against your thighs instead of a weighted bar.

A. Start in tabletop position, knees stacked over hips and ankles in line with knees at a 90-degree angle.

B. Press palms into thighs just above knees. Thighs should actively press back into palms for an isometric hold.

C. Extend and lower right leg toward the ground. Continue pressing left palm into left thigh.

D. Slowly bring right leg back to tabletop position. Repeat on the other side.

Dead Bugs Exercise Common Mistakes

The most common mistakes people make when performing dead bugs are arching their lower backs off the floor and craning the neck up too much, both of which can lead to pain. "Make sure you do not let your low back lift off the ground as you move through each rep, and do not try to crane your head and neck up to look forward," instructs Wilson. "Keep the head, neck, and spine neutral on the ground."

Another common dead bug error is to move too quickly. The magic of dead bugs is found in the slow and controlled motion that provides time under tension to build up that deep burn and effectively work your deep stabilizers. That's because when performing exercises that don't rely on heavy loading (aka using hefty weights), you need to use a slower tempo to reap the benefits, according to a review from Sports Medicine.

How to Add Dead Bugs Exercise to Your Routine

Adding dead bugs to your exercise routine is simple because they are so versatile. You can use dead bugs as part of an active warmup before lifting or playing any sport. As part of a warmup, dead bugs will help you connect to your deep core muscles which can protect your spine, joints, and other musculature from opposing forces and movements that could destabilize you and lead to buckling or injury.

Alternatively, you can program dead bugs into any other part of your routine, such as during an active recovery session, as part of a cool-down post-workout, or on a core-training day. Using them as part of a cool-down could provide additional benefits since laying on your back and moving in a slow and controlled way can bring your nervous system back to a state of calm, which can reduce the risk of overtraining, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Plus, when you're done with your dead bugs, you can relax on the floor and bask in your post-workout endorphins — who can say no to that?

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles