My Favourite Exercise for Beginners
Dead Bugs are in my opinion one of the most important core exercise for a beginner to learn. However as an exercise it is often poorly performed, in such a way that almost all of the benefits of it over any other ‘ab’ exercise out there are lost.
The dead bug is important because it:
- Teaches complete core contraction, which will in turn teach you how to properly brace (incredibly important for weightlifting and calisthenics)
- Provides an opportunity to learn how to breathe from the diaphragm, and also do so while braced
- Strengthens all of the different ab muscles, and works them in coordination with each other
Performing the Dead Bug
Learning Diaphragmatic Breathing:
When you are performing a movement that requires solidity in the torso, learning diaphragmatic breathing can not only prevent the loss of that solidity as normal breathing can, but actually promote it. The diaphragm is a very important part of your inner ‘core’ muscles. If you have space right now, follow along with the following instructions:
Lie on the ground facing up, knees up/feet flat on the floor, comfortably. Place one hand on your chest and one on your belly and try to breathe, moving your belly but NOT your chest. Once you have managed that for a good few breaths and feel comfortable, start breathing like you are sucking through a straw (so make a small o shape with your mouth) and forcefully breathe in without letting your rib cage raise. I repeat, only allow your stomach to move for now. Breathe in forcefully until there is no space left and you are totally full of air.
Once you feel like you definitely can’t breathe anymore, start forcefully breathing out by tensing everything in your midsection. Draw your belly button to your spine and push your ribs down hard, still with that ‘straw in your mouth’ mouth shape. Your lower back should push into the ground too. Keep breathing out and squeeze everything in your stomach tight like you are wringing water out of a damp towel until you are so empty in the lungs that you are basically shaking from breathing out so hard. Try doing that 3 or 4 times.
Using Diaphragmatic Breathing to Brace:
Once you are comfortable with the process, go through another breath. At the very end of a breath, when everything is at its most tense, try to breathe back in to your diaphragm (STILL not letting your chest move). Since you are tensed the breath will be very shallow and your stomach will not move at all, but if you get it right it should feel like your sides and lower back are expanding instead of your stomach. Your spine is strong as STEEL in this position, but this is not quite the process you should go through when you are lifting if you don’t wanna pass out.
Try to learn what that sensation feels like at the end when you are out of air. If you can replicate that ribs down, belly button to your spine, flat lower back position, just by consciously tensing rather taking a full breath, you can go from there and then breathe in a bit to fill your sides and back.
The Dead Bug: Start Position
The very first progression of the dead bug is holding the braced, breath through your back position, with your arms and hips perpendicular to the floor, knees bent to 90. We will call this the start position for all future progressions.
For clarity, it is important that your start position looks like the picture above. Your spine/core must be properly braced. Ribs Down, Belly in, lower back flat, breathing into your back. It should not look anything like the below picture (exaggerated for effect). If it does your core is not properly contracted and your spine is not stabilised.
Once you are comfortable with this for 30-ish seconds, you can move on.
Alternating Limb Drill:
From the start position, flex one arm overhead (taking care not to lose the braced position. If you push your arm overhead so hard that you lose the ‘ribs down’ position, you are going too far or not bracing hard enough) and then extend the opposite leg out (taking care not to lose the lower back flat or belly button in positions). This can be scaled from just a slight extension of both limbs all the way to touching the floor straight limbed. This is where the ‘complete’ core activation begins to work as the alternating limbs works the internal/external obliques as well. (GIF)
Progression of Dead Bug to Hollow:
From here you can progress either adding ankle/wrist weights if you like the alternate limb drill. You could also use it as a tool to progress to the hollow position. I would personally recommend that to anyone wanting to improve their hollow. Taking a few weeks to work on this first and build back up to their previous progression can do wonders.
This can be done by starting to include both arms. This is also a good progression for learning how to raise the arms overhead without compensating in the spine:
Next step is to use both legs. This will give you a pretty good indication if your hip mobility.
Finally, both arms and both legs, moving fluidly from the start position of the dead bug to a full hollow hold, another great core stability exercise. (GIF of all 3)