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Core Stability Exercises for Back Health

"Bird Dog" Exercise

Why is core stability important?

The core helps take pressure off of the spine and protects against forces exerted on the body during everyday activities such as reaching forwards, taking the stairs, carrying groceries, picking a bag up from the floor, and walking at a fast pace. Keeping the abdominal wall mildly contracted helps ensure sufficient spine stability and is crucial for injury prevention.

Tips on how to engage the core the right way:

– “ABDOMINAL BRACE” is what happens when key core muscles in your abdominals, lower back, and buttocks all contract together. The abdominal brace has been proven to enhance stability of the spine and lower back (Kavic & McGill, 2004). When all these muscles work together a “super stiffness” occurs – all three layers of the abdominal wall, the back extensors and the gluteus muscles are activated to protect and stabilize the spine and discs.

– To increase your spine’s stability, take a deep and long breath in before you perform any task or exercise, and breathe out while performing the action/movement part of the exercise. While you breathe out, “stiffen” or brace your trunk and gluteus muscles to reinforce the stability of your spine.

Here are a few exercises that can improve your core and help you maintain a healthy back:

1. The “Bird Dog” is an exercise designed to work the back muscles, along with the other core muscles. This exercise is key for stabilizing the spine and connecting the lower and upper back.


Key Points:

– Start on your hands and knees
– Keep your back and neck in a neutral position
– Moving slowly and with control, lift one arm up off the floor and extend it out in front of you. Resist the tendency of the back, hips or shoulders to twist or shift to either side.

– Bring your arm back down and place your palm back on the floor.
– Repeat 10 times on each side before switching sides.
– As you progress, you can work towards:
– Raising your arm for 5 seconds without any rotation or shifting of the spine, hips, or shoulders.
– Extending the hip and alternating lifting the legs.

"Bird dog" leg extension exercise - hands on mat

– Alternating between lifting the opposite leg and arm. This is the most advanced move, and you should pay special attention to the position of your body as you perform it.

"Bird dog" leg extension exercise - alternate arm extended

2. The “McGill Curl-up” (1) is a safe way to activate your lower abdomen without placing stress on your back.

Key Points:

– Place a mat or towel on the floor, and lie down on top of it on your back. Your left leg should be straight on the floor and your right knee should be bent.
– Place your hands palms down on the floor underneath your lower back (don’t force your back to flatten – let it arch naturally).You can place one hand behind your neck for support.
– Take a deep breath in and elongate your spine on the floor.
– As you breathe out slowly raise your head and shoulders off the floor without bending your lower back or spine. Hold this position for 3 to 4 seconds, breathing out the entire time.
– Do 8 to 10 repetitions on one side, and then switch legs so that your right leg is straight and your left is bent.
Never hold your breath!

McGill Curl-up - lying flatMcGill Curl-up - half curl


1. Kavic N, Grenier S, McGill S. Determining the stability role of the individual torso muscles during rehab exercises. Spine, June 2004;29(11):1254-65.

The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.