I think most people fall into one of two categories: those who tend to round their back and those who tend to arch their back a lot. Okay let’s accept that there’s also a third category who live nicely in between.

If you’re the back archer type, then I’m guessing you’re also someone who feels their back more than your abs when you do a lot of ab exercises. Yes? If that’s the case, then check out this article either now or after reading this one. I suspect it will speak to you.

I’m going to get right to the point. I am here to claim that the best abdominal exercise for people who arch their backs a lot is the dead bug. Here’s what it looks like for those who don’t know it:

Now here’s the interesting thing about dead bugs: They are incredibly hard for people who tend to arch their backs, and they’re pretty easy for people who don’t. The difference in difficulty that this exercises poses between two people of similar strength and fitness level but differences in their typical back posture is astounding.

And thus it’s my favourite for the back-archers and we basically never use it for others.

If you already use them yourself or for your clients, then you may find the following coaching thoughts interesting.

1. Someone finds it easy.  If I give this exercise to a client (which means they are a back archer), and they find it easy, then I know with about 99% certainty that they’re not quite doing it right. When this occurs, the first thing I do is put my hand under their low back while they do them. More often than not, I’ll feel their back lift off my hand within a few seconds or as they lower their limbs to the floor.  When I cue them to keep their back pressed against my hand, it’s amazing how much harder the exercise becomes.

2. Limited range of motion in the shoulder or upper back. If someone lacks range of motion it will interfere with their ability to do a proper dead bug.  Not sure how your (or your clients’) range of motion is? Lie on your back (knees bent, feet on floor) and lift one straight arm above your chest and then lower it overhead such that your thumb touches the floor above your head without bending your elbow. If you have limited range of motion you either won’t be able to do this  or you won’t be able to do it without arching your back.

What does this have to do with dead bugs? One of the first dead bugs progressions is to extend opposite arm and leg during the dead bug, usually finishing with arm and leg straight and hovering above the floor.  How is that going to happen if the person doesn’t have the range of motion to get the arm to that position? The answer is that it’s probably going to happen with back extension. Except the whole point of this exercise is to stabilize the core to prevent back extension, but now we’re asking someone to do this who can’t even get their arm into the position we want without back extension. That’s not going to work.

I suggest two solutions for that in the video above. One is to do the dead bugs letting the arm extend out more to the side as in this video:

And the other is to coach them to get their hand to the floor by bending their elbow.

3. Taking it up a notch. Even though dead bugs are hard for the people who should be doing them, once they get better at them, it’s nice to be able to give them an option that challenges them even more. (As I wrote that, I felt a confirmation that I really am in the right profession).  I have two ways that  I really enjoy doing that. And when I say I enjoy it, of course I mean that I enjoy making other people do these two exercises.

Dead bugs with cable resistance:

I figured this one out very recently. There’s something about adding resistance to the foot that seems to have an effect such that the body reacts to the pull by holding its ground and thus we end up with a dead bug that is strangely harder and easier at the same time. It’s pretty cool.

The other option that is just plain harder, is what I call a dead bug with hand to knee press. I don’t have a video for this yet (watch for one on my instagram account in the next few days), but basically you set yourself up to do a dead bug with the opposite arm and leg reach, and while you do that, you press the hand that’s not reaching into the knee of the leg that’s not reaching. Press it hard! In fact think of it as pressing the hand into the knee and the knee into the hand. Try it and let me know what you think.

There you have it. Probably more than you ever wanted to know about dead bugs.

Or maybe you’re as much of an exercise and movement geek as I am, in which case you thought it was perfect – or maybe even could have been more detailed?

More about coaching exercise:
If you are a geek like me when it comes to movement, then I think I have something that will interest you. It’s a series of emails about exercise form and coaching. Basically I send an email every 3 or 4 days where I go into detail about how to coach an exercise, covering:

  • when to use it (and when not to use it);
  • typically form issues (and corrections to address them);
  • progressions (and regressions); and
  • whether the exercise is a good idea, bad idea, or neutral for a person with shoulder, back, hip, or knee issues.

Interested? Click here to sign up.

Do you live in Ottawa and are now thinking “huh, I think I could use a trainer who thinks like this“? Use this form to email me and let’s talk about working out with us at Custom Strength.

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Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who is unashamed of her geekiness.


  1. The idea to use an exercise ball in the dead bug is a great idea! I have a few clients who arch their backs. I will try this with them.

    Your videos are always spot on. Thanks!

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