Monday, June 13, 2011

Birddog Progression: How to Spot Common Mistakes

Today, I want to cover one of my favorite core exercises: the birddog.  Now I know many of you assume that this exercise is only for beginners, but if performed correctly, it can be difficult for even an advanced trainee.


The birddog exercise is great because it allows you to train many qualities at once.  It is also a great choice for clients because it has multiple progressions that allow you to adjust it to a person’s needs.  Lastly, tt will smoke your "core" if executed properly.

I am sure most of you are familiar with how to perform a birddog progression, but if you are not then I have listed a common progression that I use at IFAST.

All of the birddog progressions begin with the person in quadruped with a neutral spine and with shoulders over hands and hips over knees.  From here there are multiple progressions, which I will list in order of easiest to most difficult.
1)   Pick one hand up by only bending at the elbow - there should be no shoulder rotation. 
2)   Pick one hand up by keeping it relatively straight and reaching it out in front of you.
3)   Keep both hands down and reach one leg behind you.
4)   Pick one hand up and reach the opposite leg back.
5)    and so on
You can also make the progressions harder by using a band or ankle weight to add resistance.
Stuart McGill also talks about making patterns with your arms and legs when you reach them out.  For example, if you reach one arm forward and the opposite leg back then you can make rectangle patterns with those limbs in the air.  This is another way to make the exercise more difficult.

Now, let's look at common mistakes I often see people make when performing the movement.
Common Mistakes:
-Lack of neutral spine.  Person may be hunched over (upper back rounded) or have excessive extension in their mid or low back. 
If you cannot identify what a neutral spine should look like, then place a PVC pipe or dowel on the person’s back.
Also, make sure to to feel for erector tone.  The erectors should be fairly relaxed, while the obliques should be contracted to ensure a proper neutral spine position. 
To help facilitate the obliques, try "raking" them as described by Stuart McGill.  McGill writes, "taking your hand with a wide grip, placing your thumb lateral to the rectus abdominis and the fingertips lateral to the other rectus - you are gripping into the oblique muscles.  Do not grip the rectus abdominis.  Now "rake" the abdominals, asking the individual to 'fight with your abdominal wall', and 'contract'.  Irritate the obliques by squeezing your thumb towards your fingertips, raking the fascia" (185).  If done correctly, you should feel the obliques stiffen up.

-Shoulder blade “wings” or does not lie smoothly against the rib cage.  Cue them to “push away” as I described in my last post on DB Rows.

-Using a high-threshold stabilization strategy.  What I mean by this is that the person looks like he or she is trying to squat 500 lbs-straining and contracting all of their muscles to help them out.  This is not correct.  The person should be able to “own the movement” by holding the end range for diaphragmatic breaths.  
-Knees not underneath hips and/or hands not underneath shoulders.  It is not uncommon to see someone rock their weight towards their hips if their shoulder stabilizers are weak, and vice-versa. 
-Knees out excessively wide.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it increases the base of support and will make the exercise easier.  Therefore, before progressing a person onto a more difficult progression, I would bring the knees in so that they are roughly hip width and see if their performance is still solid.
 -When performing a birddog exercise that involves pushing a leg back, it is common to see:
     -Hip of the down knee ADDuct when pushing the opposite leg back.  This is
      often due to a lack of hip ABDuctor strength.  Therefore, you need to cue them
      to “push their body away (ABDuct) with their down knee.  If this does not
      work then I would try RNT.  This would involve placing a band around their
      waist or just using your hand to push them into their mistake.
     -Pelvis rotates.  You will sometimes see people "open" their hips up towards
      the ceiling as they push their leg back.  This helps to keep most of their weight
      centered over the down knee and prevents them from having to use their hip
      external rotators from isometrically controlling their pelvis in the ideal, neutral
      position.  Basically, it makes the exercise easier on them, but it is not what we
     -Spine bends sideways.  This is usually a sign that the person is using their
      quadratus lumborum (QL) to try and abduct their hip instead of their hip

Here is a video demonstrating some of the mistakes described above:

So, please go do this exercise correctly, and I think you will be surprised at how difficult and effective it can be.  

Have a great week!!


McGill, Dr. Suart.  Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, Fourth Edition.  Backfitpro Inc.  2009. 


  1. For a second, I almost misread #3 as "pick both hands up."

    The bird dog's terrific. Done from a push-up position increases the challenge tenfold.

  2. haha yeah no hands would definitely make it harder.

    Good point about the push-up position!

  3. They find their stomach a major trouble spot, the reason that they all appeal to certain abdominal exercise and fitness trainings that will help strengthen and tone their abdominal muscles.

  4. Once again, Zach, the practicality of your blog post is profound. You need to get your messages out there more. I usually cop out from making video due to the time it takes in editing etc. so it's always highly appreciated when sometime takes the moments to put them together. I also feel like many are just talking about the joint by joint and not actually coaching it. Blog's/Video's like show we have true ownership over the joint by joint principles. Keep it up Coach Zach!

    All the best,
    Coach Sam

  5. Thanks a lot Sam! I really appreciate it! I am glad you see the relevance in my posts and know the importance of coaching. I am trying to help other people see movement and coach it correctly. It is one thing to know the joint by joint, but it is another to be able to see that it is happening and coach it.