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Build Your Core and Save Your Low Back- Kasey Esser

Build Your Core and Save Your Low Back

I don’t know about you, but I’m so happy it is getting lighter out in the morning and staying lighter out at night.  It may only be an extra half hour or so right now, but it is definitely getting me excited for spring.

In Los Angeles, I don’t feel like you can really call it spring (I walked around with my friends last weekend outdoors in a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops for crying out loud), but hey we still experience darkness out here!

Our confusion with the “seasons” out here was highlighted when the Winter X-Games were on the other weekend and Jess was taken aback because it wasn’t winter…right?

Her quick snap back to reality reminded her that it obviously was…in pretty much every other part of the country.


And I’m sorry, but if any of you follow us on Facebook, it’s just hard not to brag about the weather sometimes.  Give us a break, we are excited.  After a year, I promise it will stop.


Actually, that’s a complete lie, it’s not going to stop.  You will just have to stay our friends and remember how much less smog you breath in on a daily basis.


Build Your Core and Save Your Low Back- Kasey Esser


With March and more daylight quickly approaching, it’s time to start thinking about your stomach again.  Some of you may have added a pound or 2 over the past few months (or years).  You also may have developed some lower-back pain (again, over the past few months, but it has probably been brewing for a few years).


Regardless of what has happened, you need help getting a stronger and better-looking core.  If you are in pain, then you need something that accomplishes the core strength stuff while not flaring up your lower back.


Enter the bird dog.


I know, the name is odd and I’m honestly not even sure what it means (I’m assuming it’s because it replicates a dog trying to fly?  Please confirm in the comments section, if you know).  If that’s the case, then is a cat dog where you set up on all fours and turn your head and repeatedly lick your shoulder, shooting fellow gym-goers dirty looks if they approach you?


Build Your Core and Save Your Low Back- Kasey Esser


Anyway, weird name notwithstanding, the bird dog is one of my favorite exercises for improving overall core function without causing low-back discomfort.


I work with a lot of people who have or are currently dealing with low-back pain and I have not had one person complain of pain while doing this exercise.


I wanted to devote an entire blog to the movement, because I feel it is very under utilized, not to mention I have rarely seen it done correctly.


Dr. Stuart McGill, the man behind all things low-back health, includes it as part of his “Big 3” exercises for core function and low-back rehab.


That’s a pretty strong endorsement!


The bird dog is great exercise for the low-back because it doesn’t place it under a lot of compression, as would be seen in the typical crunch.  Plus, it forces you to stabilize your core, which will help out your low-back and ensure that great six-pack you are making in the kitchen won’t break when the wind picks up above 10mph.


I also like the bird dog because it teaches proper hip extension and glute activation, which carries over well to more compound, upright movements (think squats, deadlifts).  I could go on and on with benefits, but I think you get the picture,

The bird dog is freakin awesome!


On the surface, the bird dog actually looks like a pretty simple exercise, but when you really focus on doing it right, it is a beast!  Below is a video of me demonstrating;


The key is to GO SLOW!

If you think you are going slow, go slower.  If you don’t feel this exercise, it is because you are going too fast.


You will notice I kept my toes tucked to my shins at the start and kept that foot position as I extended the leg.  This is essential for keeping that glute engaged.

When I was at the Perform Better conference a few weeks ago, Dan John (big-time strength coach, to say the least), said, “if you don’t keep the toe tucked, you lose everything for some reason.”


As you extend your arm and leg, imagine a rope is pulling your middle finger straight ahead and the sole of your foot straight back.  I like this cue, because a big error that I see with this is the “scoop”.  This is when the arm and leg lift up, instead of pull apart.  This throws the low-back in hyperextension and defeats the purpose of the exercise.


I don’t like starting people right off the bat with a full bird dog, so I am going to show you a few progressions that you can use to groove the pattern and get the feel of everything.


The first thing I want you to do is just extend one arm.  Again, imagine a rope is pulling your middle finger straight ahead.


Progress to just extending one leg.  Learn what it feels like to keep the toe down and the glute engaged.


Do 5-8 reps on each arm and each leg.


From there, you can practice the full bird dog.  Some disagree on whether this is best done for time or for reps, but I like using reps better.  I just feel it’s better to constantly be challenged by movement than just holding a static position.

When you feel like you have the movement down, you have not reached the ceiling.  There are a few progressions that you can throw in to keep things interesting.


Try out an Alternating Bird Dog.  This will require you to really keep your weight centered and not allow shifting from side to side.  If you thought you were going slow before, you will really have to be patient now.


Keep the reps in the 5-8 range.  I feel like it is really tough to keep technical perfection beyond this point.


You can take the alternating version and go even further with a progression that mimics what you would see on the rotary stability screen of the FMS.  In this variation, you start by bringing your knee to your hand, then your knee to your forearm, and then finally your knee to your elbow.


It will make more sense when you watch the video;



Aim for 3-4 cycles tops on each side.


You are now armed with knowledge of one of the best overall core and low back exercises out there!


Take-Home Point:

Depending on your ability level, add in a version of the bird dog into your normal core routine, 2-3x per week.  Get really good at it and reap the rewards of a stronger core and a healthier lower-back. 


After all, who doesn’t want to act like a dog trying to fly while getting fit??

Let me know how it goes for you in the comments section!


Be your best,


Kasey, CSCS


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