If I tell you I don’t like small dogs, I’m lying. I’ll play with any dog in the world. I have some preferences though. Ghost, from Game of the Thrones. Fluffy, from Harry Potter. Anything with shepherd in the name, and any of the gun dogs. These dogs are intelligent, athletic, and I’m excited to have a companion on the trails one day.
Right now, my favorite dog is the bird dog.
No, no, not that one. I’m talking about the exercise. It’s a movement that allows the user to reap a whole lot of benefits, which is why MFF trainer and program designer Coach Fury has included it in our most recent round of classes at MFF.
The bird dog is sort of like the canine family; any single version of it is going to do a whole lotta good for you, but some of them are a little bit more capable than others. Today I’ll share exactly what I love about the bird dog, and how I love to see them done.
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The bird dog. A core training classic, with plenty of room for interpretation. My preference is with low reaches, focusing on keeping the shoulders and hips as stable as possible. This is different from reaching as far as possible, which often creates excess movement through the lumbar spine. Blog post drops in an hour. Let's be more mindful of our core work! #MFF #SeriousFitness #CSCS #NSCA
This exercise is what I like to call a core catch-all. There’s a beautiful balance of stiffness built into the exercise. We’re creating more relative stiffness between the hips and shoulders, so that we move more freely through those ball-and-socket joints, while moving less through our spine. The bird dog may be the ultimate expression of the phrase, “Proximal stability before distal mobility.”
When I coach the bird dog, I hold a pretty high standard for that proximal stability. When we’re walking, working, or commuting, we don’t give that much attention to our spine position. We spend most of our day moving pretty mindlessly. Doesn’t our movement during a workout require a bit of focus?
My peers in the fitness industry often over-complicate things, but the bird dog isn’t something we should be dumbing down. It’s easy to make the bird dog as simple as a contralateral reach. That is, one hand and the opposite foot extend to the walls. There’s nothing wrong with this; for me it’s like a lap dog. It’ll lick your face and give you a good cuddle, but it won’t be learning any cool tricks.
Here’s an example of the bird dog with an emphasis on reaching:
When my leg and arm are reaching their furthest, you can see movement through my lower back. Emphasizing the reach often leads to movement through the lumbar spine rather than the hip joint, and most of us could improve our ability to create relative stiffness around our pelvis. If we’re focused on reaching as long as possible, or higher than our head and hips, it’s likely that this lumbar movement will happen.
Lap dogs are still lovely, but I believe we can have a higher standard. Check out what a well-trained border collie is capable of:
If we’re really emphasizing core control on our bird dog, we’ll see less movement through the lower back, and feel a whole lot more throughout our abs. I find it’s easier to minimize this movement by reducing our reach.
Rather than reaching up or out, try keeping the reaching hand and foot lower to the ground throughout the exercise. Additionally, keeping the moving elbow and knee slightly bent can change the tension in our moving limbs, giving us more control when our hips and shoulders want to start moving. The lower reach and bent limbs can produce a distinctly different bird dog. Here it is again:
Let’s be clear; doing either of these bird dog variations is going to be better than not doing any bird dog variations. My preference is definitely for the version that focuses on minimizing core movement rather than maximizing hip and shoulder movement, and I encourage you to experiment with both of them to find out which one feels better for you.
Give it a shot and let me know what you think!