How to do a dead bug

Woman doing plank exercise on mat
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

When it comes to working your core, not all ab exercises are created equal. While planks are popular exercises to add to your workouts, if you suffer from lower back pain, they might not be the best for you. (We’ve hand-picked some of the best exercises if you have lower back pain here). 

One of the best abdominal exercises for targeting the deepest core muscles — the transverse abdominis, which sit underneath the internal and external obliques and rectus abdominis, is the dead bug. As it’s a stabilization exercise, dead bugs also target the spinal erectors, which help stabilize the spine and support the lower back. These are the same muscles targeted during a plank, so dead bugs are a great alternative to plank exercises. (If you don’t hate planks, here’s how long you need to hold a plank to see results). 

But how do you do a dead bug with the correct form, and what are the benefits of adding this exercise to your routine? Read on to find out more. (You can also find out what happened when I did 100 dead bugs a day for a week.)

Looking for more workout inspiration? We’ve hand-picked the best ab workouts you can do from just about anywhere, the best exercise to sculpt your arms using just your body weight, three of the best lower-body resistance band exercises. Plus, find out what happened when we tried the Tom Brady diet for a week

Dead bugs

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

How to do a dead bug 

As this is a bodyweight exercise, all you’ll need to practice this exercise is an exercise mat (we’ve hand-picked the best yoga mats that double as exercise mats for your home workouts here). Start by lying on your back, keeping your lower back pressed into the mat — think about sucking your belly button into your spine. Raise your arms straight above you, and your knees into tabletop position. Slowly lower your right arm to a couple of inches off the floor behind your head, as you do so, stretch your left leg away from your body and lower that to just above the floor. Pause, then return to your starting position and repeat on the opposite side. Keep alternating sides, and aim for three sets of 10 reps on each side. 

Remember, this is not a bicycle crunch (read more on how to do a bicycle crunch here), the entire movement should be done slowly and with control, and you shouldn’t be using speed and momentum to move between reps. In fact, the slower you go during dead bugs, the harder your core will be working, so really slow yourself down during this exercise. 

You also want to be sure you’re not arching your lower back during this exercise. Think about keeping your back pressed into the floor, and if you do notice your back is peeling off the floor during the movements, slow down further, or reduce the range of motion, only extending your arm and leg as far as it can go before your back lifts. 

What are the benefits of a dead bug? 

Aside from strong abdominals being an aesthetic goal, a strong core can help you run faster, lift heavier, improve your posture and reduce lower back pain. As dead bugs are a supine abdominal exercise, meaning you do the exercise lying on your back, they are less likely to put any pressure on your spine or lower back. 

As well as working the abs and the lower back, the dead bug also works on the body’s contra-lateral limb engagement. This basically means teaching the body to move opposing limbs at the same time, while keeping the core and back stable. This is helpful for sports like running, tennis, or baseball, or any activities that involve lateral, or twisting movements. 

Finally, as the dead bug exercise can be done from an exercise mat, with zero equipment, it’s perfect for beginners, or those new to exercise. If you find exercises like planks or mountain climbers are currently too difficult for you, dead bugs are a great way to work on your core strength without being too challenging. 

How can you make a dead bug easier? 

If you find dead bugs too difficult, there’s a chance your core stabilizer muscles aren’t ready to cope with the arm and leg moving at the same time. Start by moving one thing at a time. Keeping your legs in tabletop, lower your outstretched arm to the floor behind you, then extend and lower the opposite leg, then the opposite arm, then the opposite leg. 

How can you make a dead bug harder? 

As dead bugs are a good precursor to planks or a number of plank variations, you can always challenge yourself by moving from dead bugs into planks. If you feel comfortable with the basic plank, why not try side planks, up-and-down planks (here’s how to do up-and-down planks with the correct form), or dropping your hips one at a time while holding a plank. 

Alternatively, you can make dead bugs harder by adding weights to the exercise. Try holding a dumbbell in each hand as you extend your arms behind you (we’ve found the best adjustable dumbbells for home workouts here), or add ankle weights.

For more fitness-related guides, be sure to read our tutorials on how to hide your address details in Strava and how to run with your dog.

Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.