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How to Do the Dead Bug Core Exercise Better!


sandbag training

Jessica Bento, Physical Therapist (Co-Creator DVRT Restoration, Pelvic Control, and Shoulder Courses)

I used them all the time, I would prescribe them to clients without hesitation. Why? In my world of physical therapy dead bugs represent a foundational core stability drill. What may shock you to hear is that I couldn’t really tell you what made them better than many other core drills. They were just so engrained in our training that they were just prescribed because we were suppose to do them.

It wasn’t till I started working with Josh that the value and how I saw dead bugs overall changed quite a bit. If you can’t tell by Josh’s posts he likes to ask a lot of questions (if you are wondering if he does the same in our personal life the answer is yes!) When we would discuss a drill like the dead bug Josh would ask me, “what makes this a great core exercise?”, “where does this fit in with other core drills?”, “how are we thinking of progressing the dead bug if we use it?”

dead bug exercise

All the questions (most of which I could appreciate ) led me to re-examining the dead bug myself. Why was I really using it and what were my goals? What Josh and I came up with is I think very important ways of not just seeing the dead bug, core stability, but training overall.

So What Is Special About The Dead Bug

One of the simplest reasons we start with the dead bug is because it puts us in such a stable environment we can see how the core is functioning with the entire body at the most fundamental level. If we see compensations during the dead bug we instantly have to question how much is occurring that we aren’t catching in more complex environments and exercises?


What do we mean by core stability? The goal of the dead bug is really to keep the pelvis stable as the arms and legs produce load on the trunk trying to pull it forward. The dead bug is NOT meant to be a maximum effort lift because as Josh wrote before, core stability and strength are different. Stability refers to much less conscious action of specific muscles and usually a much lower level of activation.

The movement of the opposing limbs allows us to build in the cross patterning that is so foundational to our movements that we do it in all walking, running, etc. Neurologically, our body is to work in these opposite patterns. That is because our body is wired to have the opposite arm and leg work together.

What’s The Problem With The Dead Bug

The above makes the dead bug a valuable core exercise, so then we have to think about what is our issue in using the movement? If you have ever tried to use the dead bug with someone I think you know quite well the issue. First and foremost, people don’t know what to do when the client can’t stabilize their pelvis. We typically see this in the ribs and/or belly looking like it is becoming larger (if you have a good eye you can actually see the pelvis anteriorly rotate). Once that happens how do you help the person NOT let that happen?

If you were like me, you gave all sorts of tactile cues that really don’t help you anymore then just trying to tell them not to allow this compensation. Sure, I used cues like “find neutral spine” but what the heck does that really mean? How about, “use your core more” man how useless was that?! Pressing or holding the hips didn’t help either. Why? Trying to artificially stabilize them didn’t teach their brain how to coordinate the body to do so.

ultimate sandbag dead bug

DVRT Master, Cory Cripe has helped so many people using these solutions with his clients at Fitness Lying Down. 

I am sure I was like many of you that I knew the dead bug was a good exercise, but I just couldn’t get people good enough at the movement to truly benefit. That is why what we did in DVRT was so important to the way I work with patients as well. When we brainstormed, we knew we had to do something that allow the person doing the dead bug to coordinate the movement themselves. Having seen the improvements in people’s squats when we loaded them in specific ways, we wondered if that would work the same with the dead bug.

The Dead Bug Solution and Progression

While some people may intuitively know that people move better under load, I don’t believe it is a common practice to give people load before they master their bodyweight. While it makes sense that we should control our own body before using load, the reality is that if load is used wisely then it can give feedback and the tension it creates allows us to develop better stability and body awareness. Because bodyweight doesn’t provide any of this, we actually should think of bodyweight many times as being more advanced because you need to have body control already because there is nothing to provide such feedback.

How did we do it though? In the video below I break down our foundations with some progressions…

Whenever we teach these concepts people really can feel a profound difference, but we also get the inevitable question, “do we have to use an Ultimate Sandbag though, can we use bands or kettlebells, or even a medicine ball?”  I can appreciate where the question is coming from but let’s look at the issues with these suggestions….

Bands: We don’t form the same grip that allows us to make a connection to the core. Bands also only provide us horizontal load and no vertical load. The Ultimate Sandbag gives us the grip AND vertical along with horizontal loading which makes it far more effective.

Medicine Balls: Now we have no grip at all, but let’s get to the more interesting part where coaches seem to overlook the details. In order to hold a medicine ball I have to push by hands into the ball. That means I am trying to use my chest and not my lats to integrate the movement and this is COMPLETELY different even though it may sound similar (pushing vs pulling).

Kettlebells: If you have seen videos of us doing dead bugs (like the one below) you know we DO use kettlebells for dead bugs, but they are DIFFERENT than using the Ultimate Sandbag and often seen as a progression. You will see in the picture below that holding the kettlebell versus the Ultimate Sandbag and trying to achieve our connection doesn’t work as well because of the shape of the different tools.

Kettlebells are typically used in our system to lead to more reflexive forms of the movement, but this is an ADVANCEMENT of the dead bug.

dead bug

At first glance, it may seem like I am doing the same thing in these two pictures. However, the kettlebell brings my arms inside of my shoulders and even though I am trying to break the handles apart I can’t achieve anywhere close to the same lat activation that I can with the wider Ultimate Sandbag. Additionally, the kettlebell has no pliability making it difficult replicating what I am doing with the kettlebell. This all becomes a MUCH bigger issue if I was trying to move the weight more over my head which is a progression.

Knowing why you are using the tool that you choose is important, so we can manipulate the upper body by using the different patterns I show in the videos above, or by changing the tool to create a different effect. We can also alter the lower body, there is both the leverage and ability to add resistance in a progressive manner. From a leverage stand point we would go…

-Legs stationary->Heel drop->Leg “kicks out”->Legs Straight

However, we CAN use bands for the lower body, but like everything else it has to be progressive as you see in the picture below. Above the knees is a great “reset” I love to do for the pelvis, the XL perform better mini band is awesome for having an intermediate step, and the most difficult is to have the band at the feet.

What I hope by sharing such ideas is that we end up creating better solutions for you and your clients. Having a better understanding of what an exercise is trying to accomplish and how to build it I think is one of the most empowering things we can do. Having a system is super important and that is what we have tried to provide you with DVRT!

In order to help you get through this tough time we have 20% off EVERYTHING at DVRT including our water bags. When you invest in our DVRT water bags and you will receive the sand fillers and our DVRT water bag manual for FREE. Just use code “save20” HERE 

dead bug exercise