Four bird dog variations to strengthen the lower back

February 13, 2016

Anyone who's ever trained with us knows we are big fans of strengthening posterior chain muscles with special focus on the lower back because it’s a common area of weakness. So why not target it and prevent injury while increasing function?

After all, you can't do anything without a healthy back, so it only makes sense to take care of the part of your body that you bend approximately 2,500 times a day. Below are four ways to accomplish this goal with a natural progression from basic to most difficult. Give them a try and strengthen one of the most important parts of the human body.

Traditional bird dog

This exercise is an excellent low-impact option for building baseline strength in the lower back because it's simple, effective and almost never causes pain, even for those with previous back injuries. To get started, simply get on all fours with your hands and knees at shoulders' width. Extend one arm and the opposite leg like a pointing bird dog away from your body. Once you are fully extended, pause for a split second and descend back to the starting position. Don’t allow your body to lean to one side, and you’ll get a great lower back workout. When you finish, repeat with the opposite arm and leg. I use basic bird dogs as the foundation of strength, and when my clients can do 20 or more, I graduate them to modified bird dogs.

Modified bird dogs

Modified bird dogs are an excellent way to increase the intensity because they require you to hold your body off the floor and support your weight. To perform a modified bird dog, get into a push-up position with your feet spread shoulders' width apart and your hands on the floor directly under your shoulders. Instead of doing a push-up, pick up your right leg and bring your knee toward the front of your body until it's about 4 inches from your right elbow, pause for a moment holding your leg off the ground, then return your foot back to the starting position. Now pick up your left leg and bring your knee up toward your head until it stops about 4 inches from your left elbow, pause, then return the leg to the starting position and repeat for the desired amount of reps.

Bosu bird dogs

To make the bird dog movement more difficult, we like to advance our successful clients to Bosu bird dogs because they not only require lower back strength but also incorporate balance and coordination. To try this exercise, place a Bosu ball on the ground with the half circle part of the ball face down. Get into a plank position with hands placed on the outside rim of the Bosu. Position your body so your toes are on the floor and your shoulders are directly over your hands. Bend your elbows slightly and lift your hips and glutes slightly upward while tightening your abs and midsection.

Now slowly pick up your right foot and bring your knee forward toward your elbow under your body as far as you can, then pause for a moment and return your foot back to the floor and repeat with the left leg. Continue this pattern for the desired amount of repetitions for each leg or until you are fatigued, then rest and repeat for two to three sets.

Bosu bird dogs with knee parallel to the floor (pro)

After you have mastered Bosu bird dogs, try advancing to the next level by changing one detail to make the exercise much more difficult. Start off the same way with the Bosu ball on the ground and your body in a plank position but this time instead of bringing your knee under your body you turn your leg parallel to the floor with your knee facing away from your body and toward your elbow until you can’t go any farther, pause at the top and return your leg back to the floor and alternate legs for the desired amount of reps. This is much harder because your body is forced to hold the weight of your leg up while contracting several muscle groups to bring the leg forward.

So before you include machines or other traditional weighted exercises designed to target the lower back, take the time to build a strong lower back by doing basic body weight movements that isolate the targeted area and build a foundation of strength without risking injury.

Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out for training tips, news and inspirational stories.


Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter