TOOLBOX: As we get into the meat of riding season many riders are beginning to focus on “core exercises” and “maintaining strength”. Let’s take it from the general to the specific with a focus on the classic “Bird Dog” exercise.
The thought of doing core work throughout the season is nice, but as we covered in last months article, if done wrong it just does more harm than good.
This month we’re going to take a look at an exercise that can be used year-round, whether you’re currently following the year-round strength training protocol I talk about in my book, and teach in my Strength Training for Cycling Certification, or if you’re just doing maintenance work and core training.
The Bird-dog is an exercise that has grown in popularity the last 15 years or so, thanks in large part to Dr. Stuart McGill and his research on the topic of lower back pain. Dr. McGill has become much more broadly known for his “big 3” exercises, and their ability to help stave off back pain.
When done properly each of these 3 exercises and their progressions and regressions do in fact help prevent low back pain, they can also serve as huge boosts to performances: But only if done correctly!
Let’s take a look at the 3 biggest and most common mistakes when doing the Bird-Dog.
Your hands and knees are too close or too far apart
This may seem a bit nitpicky, but if we do not have our joints in the correct positions, then the muscles will function differently than we want or need!
Joint position dictates muscle function
This little detail leads to many not seeing the full benefits of many exercises, and even completely wasting their time. In the case of the Bird-dog, if the hands and feet are not set up properly, the muscles of your core (the core being everything between your neck, elbows, and knees) will not be able to do their jobs:
- The obliques won’t be able to learn how to help you resist twisting forces that want to separate your ribs from your hips- sapping power from your pedal stroke.
- The lats won’t be able to help keep your torso rigid and help you in steering the bike with less effort
- Your glutes won’t be able to fully engage, thus leading to even more power loss.
You’re not pushing the floor away
This one is lost on many folks, as it’s a bit technical due to your needing to push away (via the shoulder blades) just enough, while keeping good shoulder blade position. You can see this demonstrated in the video, and while the model makes it look easy, it’s actually very challenging!
When you push the floor away, you’re activating the serratus anterior muscles, which help guide the shoulder blade on the rib cage. While this helps you be able to breathe better and more fully in all 360 degrees, it also helps gain better oblique & glute activation, as all 3 of these muscles are in a system that works together to help you stay strong, stable, and resist separation of the ribs and hips. . . so long as you learn the skill!
Bringing the elbow to the knee
With the entire point of this exercise being for you to learn how to maintain spine-neutral posture while getting movement ONLY from your hip (glutes) and shoulder (mid and lower trapezius), taking your elbow to your knee completely undermines the entire exercise!
As cyclists, who spend many hours a week in a forward flexed position (plus all those hours sitting at the computer) the absolute last thing you need and want, is to turn this exercise into a crunch. For whatever reason, this absolutely abysmal execution of the Bird-Dog exercise persists, causing more harm than help, for tens of thousands of cyclists and back-pain patients around the world.
But I also understand why people who know better, do it incorrectly. When done properly, this simple-looking exercise can, and will, make you work extremely hard and sweat. Now who wants to be seen sweating bullets, and even shaking, as they perform this non-weight-bearing exercise?
Answer: Anyone who is serious about building for performance and better function.
I’ve had highly accomplished professional athletes shaking as they attempt to do the bird-dogs under my direction, after years of improper form, and yes, they shake, sweat buckets, and are incredibly surprised as to how difficult, and effective, this one “little” exercise is when done properly.
If you’re serious about getting stronger, building your resilience and strength, and learning how to move better, then performing the exercises correctly and with focused intent is an absolute must. It doesn’t matter if you’re a hobbyist or serious cyclist, as the body will still work the same. The only difference is how you use it and how far you push your limits!
If you’d like to learn more about how to get the most out of your strength training for cycling, the Strength Training for Cycling Certification course is now open (June 14-24, 2021). This course offers coaches and self-coached riders the exact systems on how to assess on and off bike movements and strength needs, and how to build a cycling-specific strength training program that hits your exact needs, to help you not only ride stronger and longer, but to function better off the bike.