The importance of the Bird Dog for your Low Back Pain Rehab or Core Workouts

May 14, 2024

If you, like many of my clients, suffer from low back pain, but still want to be able to develop core strength, stability and endurance, then Bird Dog could be an important addition to your routine. In the tutorial above I talk about why it’s so important as well as some of the ways I see people getting it wrong.


Why is Bird Dog important for low back rehab?

Bird Dog is useful and important for 3 reasons: 

  1. It's helping you develop something I call joint awareness.
  2. It's a high stability exercise – developing good quality stability.
  3. It's a low compression exercise - so it doesn’t put a huge amount of stress on the spine.


What do we mean by joint awareness?

If you want to be technical, we should be calling this proprioception, but I just want to keep it simple here. That’s why I’m calling it joint awareness. This means what is your body doing when you ask it to perform specific exercises? Where are you feeling the movements? Are you able to work individual joints independently?

If you were to do a bicep curl, for example, would you find it easy to keep your elbow still and bend only your elbow as you engage the bicep. For some this is easy, for others not so.

For those new to training, it may be important to concentrate on a succession of simple exercises before progressing to those more complex ones. Bird Dog is multi-joint - it's hip, shoulder, elbow and knee. Not only that, we have to think about the rotation of the hip, the weight shift of the hip, the rotation of the torso and the shoulders. That’s a lot!

And because it’s a lot to think about, we might see flaws creep in. The hip might come up too high, or not high enough. You might round your spine as you lift or shift your weight in the wrong way. And while this doesn’t sound great, it gives us the perfect opportunity to become more aware about the movement of our joints.


So how do we correct the flaws that happen as a result of a lack of joint awareness?

We have to first concentrate on the neutral position. The straight line going from the heel to the hip to the shoulder, and make sure we’re keeping the head in line, not lifting it up. I talk a lot about this from around 02:35 in the video. Showing you how to become aware of the shifts in weight that may happen, and how to correct them. If you’re interested in the science of why this happens I touch on that too.


A high stability exercise

When you come down into the Bird Dog position, you’ll automatically, and immediately, be working on the stability of not only your spine, but also your shoulders and hips to ensure you’re not rotating or moving in a way you shouldn’t. Or not adding unnecessary stress to the spine.

The beauty of this position is the work it enables you to do on the thoracic extensors – they’re the muscles covering most of the rib cage as well as most of the tendons down the lower back. These are responsible for extending and stabilising the lower back. For an explanation of the science behind this – including a description of moment arms and their role in both Bird Dogs and back extension - head to around 04:40 in the video.

For a summary in brief, though, the most effective way of improving stability in the lower back is by switching these thoracic extensors on and off as we switch between different positions, lifting each side in turn. This is because we’re also able to work on engaging the lats and all of the glutes, creating a host of muscles that learn to work together rather than isolating each and working individually.


Why exercises that promote low compression of the spine are better

Let’s think for a minute about what would happen if we were to do   on a back extension machine. The purpose of the exercise is to hinge at the hips and then lift up. This, however creates a huge amount of compression around the spine – much like if you were wringing out a sponge with your hands.

This compression can be measured – in fact we’ve seen up to 6,000 newtons of compression on the spine when people undertake back extensions. For someone with a low back disorder this can be costly. With the Bird Dog we're only lifting one side at a time, which means the compression is much lower - essentially around half, or 3,000 newtons. So if compression is a problem for you, and a likely cause of your lower back pain, then using the Bird Dog could alleviate this.

For core training, I see the Bird Dog as almost a perfect exercise. It's supporting joint awareness, it's stabilising multiple joints.  And if you’re someone who is trying to rehabilitate their back after a low back disorder,  Bird Dog can start rebuilding the torso into a place where you are at a much reduced risk of injury or re-injury. You can then also move into core strengthening, core stabilising type exercises as long as you are performing Bird Dog in the right way.

If you want to build strength and endurance in your lower back, take a look at my how to build low back strengthen endurance 12 week online program.


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