Rebecca Kennedy demonstrates dead bug exercise

How to Do Dead Bugs—Plus 5 Key Benefits to Know

They challenge way more than just the core.

By Emilia BentonJanuary 18, 2024


If you’re only slightly familiar with the dead bug exercise, you may be inclined to believe it’s just a core move. But dead bugs can do so much more—they're not only a core-strengthening move, but also challenge coordination and proprioception. The versatility of this all-around solid exercise doesn't stop there—dead bugs also require focus, which make them a good option to promote mindfulness and build mental strength. 

Dead bugs can help you improve your form and movement in everything from playing sports to performing household chores. Read on to learn more about the benefits of the dead bug exercise, how to perform it correctly, as well as common pitfalls to avoid.

What Exactly is a Dead Bug?

According to Peloton instructor Rebecca Kennedy, a dead bug is a core exercise that experts refer to as a cross-crawl pattern, meaning you’re moving opposite sides of the body at the same time. This also helps with coordination and proprioception, or how you perceive location, movement, and action of parts of the body.

What Muscles Do Dead Bugs Work?

One of the biggest advantages of adding dead bugs to your strength routine is that it works a wide range of muscle groups both in the core and throughout the body. Within the core, this includes the transverse abdominis (i.e. the muscle within your inner oblique), rectus abdominis (i.e. the long, flat muscles in the front of your abdomen), and your internal and external obliques, Rebecca says. 

Other muscles this exercise targets include the hip flexors, which are key for maintaining efficient movement, as well as the shoulders, and back. Lastly, this exercise also works the pelvic floor

Are Dead Bugs Good for Your Abs?

As you may have gathered, dead bugs are a versatile move benefiting various muscle groups, including your abdominal muscles. In fact, one 2019 study that highlighted the benefits of core stability training showed that the dead bug exercise is a solid choice for preventing lower back injury. The authors also noted that proper progression when performing dead bugs can also be effective for lower back pain—although this should ideally be a part of a rehab program under the guidance of a licensed physical therapist. 

There is no “holy grail” when it comes to ab exercises, which means you can feel free to maintain variety in your ab routine, incorporating other moves in addition to dead bugs such as sit-ups and planks, which are also solid moves. According to Rebecca, none of these outweigh each other or are better or worse; they’re all just different.

Dead Bugs vs. Sit-ups 

Sit-ups are quite different from dead bugs, Rebecca says. This is because they focus on full contraction of the rectus abdominis (i.e. your six-pack muscles) and involve a slow release.

“The dead bug position involves lying on your back, which is a great starting point for many people learning to do proper core exercises while maintaining good spine posture,” says Anh Bui, D.P.T., a physical therapist in Oakland, California. “For example, individuals who tend to fall into an anterior pelvic tilt during core exercises (meaning arching the low back), they can use the floor for feedback.” 

Dead Bugs vs. Planks

According to Rebecca, a plank is an isometric exercise, meaning you’re holding the position for a set amount of time. Dead bugs, in comparison, are more of a dynamic move, meaning you’re not holding one position since the move requires moving the legs and arms simultaneously.

Bui adds that dead bugs are a move that, once you master it, can help you progress to a full plank.

How to Do a Dead Bug

According to Rebecca, you can correctly do a dead bug by performing the following steps:

Rebecca Kennedy doing dead bugs

1. Start by laying flat on your back, head down, with knees in tabletop position and arms straight up to the ceiling in line with your shoulders. 

2. Inhale and simultaneously lower your right arm back towards the floor above your head and left leg extending straight away from your midline towards the floor in front of you without touching the floor. 

3. Exhale while simultaneously drawing both your arm and leg back up to start position and repeating on the opposite side. 

“Make sure to maintain contact with your lower back on the floor as your arm and legs move down and up,” Rebecca says.

The Benefits of Adding Dead Bugs to Your Fitness Routine

The dead bug exercise provides a wide range of benefits for both the mind and body, including:

Promotes Mindfulness

There’s a reason dead bugs often are included in yoga sequences, and that’s because it reinforces the mind-body connection as you move through it, Rebecca says. In other words, even though you’re still performing a challenging exercise to strengthen various muscle groups, you still want to maintain a calm and centered headspace. 

Improves Cross-Crawl Patterns 

According to Bui, training via cross-crawl patterns is beneficial because many actions we perform in daily life such as walking, running, reaching, etc. involve engaging the left and right hemispheres of the brain to recruit muscles on opposite sides of the body.

Functional patterns of movement tend to fall in diagonal planes of motion, and by training cross-crawl patterns such as dead bugs, we train the brain to recruit muscles on opposite sides of the body to work in unison which improves gait reflexes and core stability,” she explains.

Strengthens Your Core

Seeking a stronger core is one of the main reasons people seek to make the dead bug a regular part of their strength routine, and the good news is that the dead bug can definitely help strengthen your core.

“During the eccentric portion of the movement [i.e. when you’re lowering your arm and leg], your core is working to avoid rotation and maintain spinal position,” Rebecca explains. “During the concentric phase [when you’re lifting the arm and leg up) the exercise recruits the hip flexor and core muscles to return to start.” 

Allows for Full Breaths

It’s always important to remember to breathe rather than trying to hold your breath during challenging exercises. Since a proper dead bug will have you moving slowly, it provides sufficient time for full breaths, which is a critical component of core training, Rebecca says.

Promotes Spine Stabilization 

The ability to maintain spine structure and alignment with day to day loading is important because there are various types of low back injuries, and common ones involve decreased space between each vertebrae, Bui says.

“As we get older, the intervertebral discs in between each vertebrae decrease in height which can lead to pain around surrounding joints called facet joints and lead to nerve root compression,” she explains. “Your transversus abdominis is an important core muscle that attaches to the spine and can decrease symptoms with these injuries if properly strengthened.”

4 Dead Bug Exercise Variations

Like many strength exercises, dead bugs can be performed with variations and modifications. To make the exercise more challenging, Rebecca and Bui recommend trying the following four alternative methods:

  • Perform with straight legs.

  • Add in a crunch: Start in a crunch position, lower trunk as arm and leg move away from your midline, and crunch back up as your arm and leg ascend.

  • Isolate one side by placing a yoga block between the opposite elbow and knee while performing the dead bug on one side, maintaining a flat spine and head.

  • If you’re in the second or third trimester of pregnancy(and your doctor has cleared you to do this exercise), lie with your back at a slightly inclined position (bolster behind the back) and keep the knees bent. “Sometimes being flat on the back later in pregnancy can cause nausea or dizziness,” Bui says. “Dead bugs can be a good post-natal exercise, but make sure you start with isometric abdominal bracing exercises first to retrain proper recruitment of core muscles (specifically the transversus abdominus).”

Are Dead Bugs Good for Beginners?

Don’t be intimidated by the fact that dead bugs work so many different muscles. This doesn’t mean it’s a complicated move—in fact, it’s actually a simple exercise that’s excellent for beginners, Rebecca says.

In addition to beginners, dead bugs are also a great option for pregnant and postpartum women, because they teach core activation and spine stability with dynamic movement as you move your arms and legs, Bui adds. Pregnant women can modify the move by placing a bolster or Bosu ball under their backs to elevate it, or they could do a banded dead bug, by attaching an exercise band to a weight behind you to pull on as you perform the exercise. Again, be sure to clear the exercise with your doctor before trying it.

“Learning how to engage the core and stabilize the spine in supine is a great place to start and then you can apply the same concepts to upright core exercises that will translate into [performing] daily activities better,” Bui explains. 

If you’re dealing with any injuries or pain, it’s important to be mindful of that as well, Bui says. 

“If you currently have a low back injury, you may want to modify the exercise by keeping the knees slightly bent,” she says. “If you have a hip flexor strain, you may have pain or discomfort with lifting the legs up and you should modify it by also keeping the knees slightly bent and not extending the leg as far out from you.” If you have an injury or pain, check with your doctor or physical therapist to make sure you can safely perform this exercise.

4 Common Mistakes to Avoid With Dead Bugs

As with most exercises, there are common mistakes you’ll want to avoid both to ensure you’re getting the most for your body while performing the workout, and avoiding injury. The following are some examples of mistakes to keep in mind:

Arching Your Lower Back When Lowering Your Leg

This is the most common mistake people make when attempting a dead bug, Rebecca says. 

“Make sure to only lower your leg to the point where you can maintain the pelvic position and feel the floor against your lower back,” she explains. 

Lowering the Same Arm and Same Leg at the Same Time

Because of the cross-crawl pattern (and benefits that go with that) of the exercise, it should be opposite arm/opposite leg, Bui says. 

Holding Your Breath Throughout the Movement

As previously mentioned, taking full breaths is a critical aspect of core training.

“You should inhale at the start and exhale as you lower the opposite arm/opposite leg,” Bui says.

Moving Too Quickly Through the Move

This is another common mistake that can keep you from maintaining proper form or engaging the targeted muscle groups.

“Speeding movements up often allows for more compensations to be made to accommodate the uptick in speed and makes breathing on both phases more challenging,” Rebecca says. “Keep it slow.”

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