An Amazing-Feeling Move That Strengthens the Back, Core, Glutes, and Shoulders
I was not an active kid — always picked last for dodgeball teams, terribly uncoordinated, self-conscious about my knobbly knees in gym shorts. In eighth grade, I broke my pinkie finger playing kickball (figure that one out). But in my twenties, a pathetic-sounding reason arose to kickstart me into a regular exercise routine: I kept throwing out my back. A weird stretch after too much time on the couch, a sudden turn of the head, even a sneeze could do it. I got a gym membership (heavily subsidized by my employer, thankfully), met with a trainer for a few sessions to get started, and thanks to a weight-training regimen heavy on the rows, my back started to act right.
Of course, I have to maintain it, and in these inactive pandemic times, it’s more important than ever that I keep my entire posterior chain — the muscles on the back of the body — in tip-top shape. One of my favorite moves that helps accomplish this is the bird-dog.
The basic gist of the move is that you’re raising opposite arm and leg in an all-fours position, and it requires excellent core stability to keep you steady, engages the postural muscles on your back, and challenges both the shoulder girdle (to raise the arm) and the glutes and hamstrings (to raise the leg). You have a few options depending on how your body is feeling: You can raise the arm and leg and hold for, say, 30 seconds or more; you can raise and lower them for 10–15 reps; you can try tiny pulses until you’re too fatigued to continue; you can also raise the limbs and then “crunch” them in, bringing your elbow to your knee, then extending your hand and foot back out, for 10–15 reps. Experiment and see what feels good and gives you the right level of challenge, or mix and match.
One other thing to consider once you’ve practiced the move a few times and understand the basic mechanics: think about lengthening. I used to think barre and Pilates teachers liked to talk about lengthening because it was some kind of bullshit, body-shaming promise that these exercise modalities could make you “longer and leaner,” but no! It turns out, trying to stretch as long as possible during the extension portion of a move like this — feeling a sense of lengthening from your pinkie finger all the way through your heel — can actually activate the fascia in your trunk, which among other things, will help you move with less pain and discomfort.
Here’s the basic move, but again, feel free to experiment with your own version:
- Begin on all fours. Extend your right arm, resting your fingertips gently on the floor in front of you; at the same time, extend your left leg, resting your toes on the floor behind you, heel flexed.
- Engage your core, find balance, and lift your right arm and left leg, feeling a long, lengthening stretch from your heel all the way through your body and to your pinkie.
- Raise and lower your arm and leg together for 10–15 reps, then switch to the left arm and right leg. If you’d like, do another set or two on each side.
If you have sensitive knees, you can fold your yoga mat over for more cushioning, or place a folded blanket under your resting knee. If you have sensitive wrists, you can rest your fist on the floor instead of your open hand, or rest a dumbbell on the floor directly under your shoulder and wrap your hand around the handle.
For more great moves to strengthen your posterior chain, check out this story:
Bare-Minimum Moves for People With No Time to Exercise
If squeezing in a workout feels like a pipe dream, here’s a little something you can do instead
As Elemental’s executive editor and an ACE-certified personal trainer, I’m suggesting a simple move each Monday to start your week on the right foot. Have a great one, and see you next week.