This may be one of the most common exercises in the rehabilitation and fitness world. I love it, but it can go very wrong, really quick.
Why is it called bird dog?
Have you ever watched a bird dog on point? When they find a bird (or a rabbit in my dog’s case), they instantly stabilize their body and stand still. From that stabilization and active stillness, they slowly move their legs forward, one at a time (It can take 10 minutes for them to move 1 foot!). At one point in that forward progression, their front leg and opposite back leg are suspended in space.
What it should look like
What it should NOT look like (and I see this all the time!)
- Transverse abdominus and internal oblique: stabilize neutral pelvis
- Lumbar Multifidus: control spinal rotation
- Gluteus maximus: acts as an extender of the hip on the leg side
- Gluteus medius: acts as a stabilizer on the knee side
- Scapular stabilizers: the hand on the floor
- Scapular muscle strength: the arm reaching out
I mentioned a new muscle in this post: lumbar multifidus. This muscle group is so complex and interesting, it deserves a post all its own. For now, here is a very brief explanation of its role during the bird dog exercise.
The lumbar multifidi (plural for multifidus) are segmental stabilizers of the spine. The attachments and insertions criss-cross multiple levels, giving it a very unique look and function. In bird dog, it helps control rotation of the spine to help maintain neutral pelvis. It is a highly important muscle, but often not trained appropriately. We know from research that these little guys like to go to sleep with chronic low back pain. The good news? They can be trained to wake right back up!
I have to start by saying I tried to make a video of the elephant walk. But, because the movement is so finite, it was difficult to see unless my gluteus was directly in your view. I wasn’t willing to go there yet for the purpose of education.
ELEPHANT WALK (lumbar multifidus training)
On your hands and knees, place your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. You should be in neutral spine. Engage your core by pulling your belly button away from the floor. Keeping your right foot relaxed on the floor, barely lift your right knee off the floor without shifting your body to the left. Place the right knee down and repeat on the other side. This is a very small movement and termed the elephant walk by a patient of mine years ago. Once you master it, there is a resemblance to the large mammal. This walk is THE KEY to initiate bird dog correctly.
Initiate the elephant walk with the right leg. Slide the right leg behind you and lift it off the floor, but ONLY TO HIP HEIGHT. Raising it higher than the hip will cause lumbar compression, an unhealthy position for the spine. The leg should shoot straight out from the hip. The glutes, core and multifidi are now engaged together to stabilize the trunk. Extend your opposite arm out and reach your fingers away from your toes. This creates increased stabilization to the trunk. You should feel your entire body engaged in the exercise.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lori Duncan, DPT, MTC, CPT is a respected Physical Therapist, Manual Therapist and Pilates instructor in Lafayette, CO. Lori is passionate about preventive physical therapy and education and is a nationally recognized presenter. She can be reached at [email protected] You can also follow Duncan Sports Therapy + Wellness on Facebook & Instagram for more free tips and information.