Weighted dead bugs are one of our top picks when it comes to strengthening the core.
By adding weight to the standard dead bug exercise, the weighted variation allows you to keep progressing the movement.
Weighted dead bugs are incredibly effective at activating the abdominals and obliques, whilst also being easy on joints. This makes them a universally beneficial movement for all sorts of workout programs… from professional athletes looking for a competitive edge, to over 50’s simply looking for a low impact strength training plan.
In this exercise guide, we provide a clear overview of how to do weighted dead bugs properly (including the best types of weights to use), the muscles worked, benefits, and potential alternatives that will help achieve similar goals.
What is a Weighted Dead Bug?
The weighted dead bug exercise is a progression from the standard bodyweight dead bug exercise. It involves holding weights in your hands to add extra load to the movement, which requires your core muscles to work harder. It also helps to engage the lats, shoulders and arms more too.
It would generally be recommended to only progress to the weighted variation once you’ve mastered the standard dead bug exercise. If you can do 12 reps x 3 sets comfortably, then this would indicate you might benefit from the weighted variation.
You can choose any sort of weight to create the additional resistance. Holding a barbell plate/kettlebell with both holds, or holding a dumbbell in each hand, are probably the two most common and effective ways.
If you have good grip, you could also hold a small barbell plate in each hand by pinching them.
You could also use a resistance band or cable pulley machine too.
You’ll find you really don’t need to add much weight at all to push your muscles into the next gear. To begin with, we’d recommend selecting the lightest dumbbells/plates/kettlebells you have access to and working your way up.
Slow, Smooth and Controlled Movement
Whatever equipment you use to add additional weight to dead bugs, the most important thing to remember is to ensure the movement is slow, smooth and controlled. You also want to avoid using any sort of momentum to help lift the weight.
How to do Weighted Dead Bugs
To do a weighted dead bug:
- Start by lying on your back in a supine position. You may want to use a yoga mat for comfort.
- Holding a weighted object in each hand, for example, a dumbbell, extend your arms vertically, keeping them straight.
- Bending your knees at a 90 degree angle, lift your legs off the ground, hinging at the hips at 90 degrees.
- Try and flatten your back onto the ground to avoid arching your back during the movement.
- Really squeeze your abdominals and keep your core tight.
- Breathe out and lower your right arm and left leg to the ground. As you lower your leg, extend at the knee so your leg is straight.
- Pause for a moment before returning to the extended position. Bend your knee again as you lift your leg.
- Repeat with your left arm and right leg.
- Repeat for repetitions.
Coach’s Tip – Try and keep your ribs down during the movement. To do this, perform the movement as you breathe out and keep your back flat against the floor.
Dumbbells, Bands, Plates, Kettlebells?
You can use all sorts of weights to create additional resistance. We find dumbbells are the easiest and most effective… but you can experiment with other equipment and see what works best for you. If you choose to hold a kettlebell or barbell plate with both hands, you won’t benefit from the alternating movement path that dumbbells allow for.
Weighted Dead Bug Benefits
Powerful Core Strengthening Exercise
Ultimately, dead bugs are one of the most effective bodyweight exercises for strengthening the core… and adding weight to this movement means you can progressively overload the muscles and keep challenging them each workout.
When we refer to “core” muscles, this isn’t just about getting an elusive six-pack… your core includes all the muscles and ligaments around your torso, including the transverse abdominis (which are often neglected in core workouts).
Strengthening this part of the body plays a vital role in supporting better movement in the upper and lower body.
It also helps protect the spine by creating more stability in the mid-section.
Alternative for Those with Arthritis
Arthritis in the hands and wrists can often feel incredibly limiting when it comes to strength training. It can be hard to put any meaningful pressure on these joints (which means exercises like push ups, high planks, and the like, go out of the window).
Dead bugs help offer a potential alternative that doesn’t require the wrists and hands to support someone’s own bodyweight, which might make it a more suitable exercise.
Check with your Physical Therapist or Doctor first, but we’ve found this is as effective as a core exercise gets, whilst putting very little pressure on joints.
Our wrist-friendly workout has other exercises to try too.
When it comes to training your core, there are lots of different movements that will engage your abdominals and obliques. Some of these movements are safer than others. For example, regardless of how effective GHD sit ups are, there’s enough evidence to suggest this movement could cause injuries for those who don’t execute the movement exactly how it needs to be done (our guide on GHD sit up alternatives highlights this in more detail).
The weighted dead bug, however, is much safer as it doesn’t require any movement of the spine or neck. The focus is on keeping your torso as stable as possible, which helps reduce the risk of any injury to the back.
Prevent Lower Back Pain
A stronger core is a key factor in reducing lower back pain.
Combing weighted dead bugs and other exercises from this quick ab workout, with glute training and stretching the hip flexors (try the samson stretch and psoas march), you can create better stability and mobility in the hips, lower back and core.
The movement itself also puts little to no pressure on the lower back during the exercise either.
By strengthening the core muscles, weighted dead bugs help to better stabilize the hips and spine, leading to better postural alignment.
As well as having aesthetic benefit, better posture also helps to avoid putting additional pressure on the lower back, which can lead to pain and discomfort.
Improve Core Stability
Dead bugs, and weighted dead bugs, are really effective ways at strengthening the spinal erectors and transverse abdominis. These muscles play a vital role in helping to improve stability in the core, lower back and hips.
This ability to maintain stability in the core is incredibly useful for functional movement and longevity.
Not all core exercise will develop stability like this. Sit ups, for example, involve moving your torso as you contract your abdominals, which is a very different movement pattern to dead bugs, where the torso is staying stationary, whilst other muscles move.
The benefits of coordination training aren’t to be under-estimated.
In fact, for over 50’s, improving balance and coordination is another vital pillar for longevity.
The requirement of moving your opposite arm and leg (contralateral movement) means you need to stay concentrated on coordinating this effort.
Most athletes will also need a good level of coordination to complete basic skills in any sort of sport.
Shoulder and Hip Mobility
Weighted dead bugs also help to improve shoulder and hip mobility, as you raise and lower your arms and legs.
You can also use dead bugs as a test of your existing shoulder and hip mobility level. If you’re struggling to lower your arms to the floor, for example, this may suggest you’ve got limited mobility in the shoulder (or tightness in the lats), which could be a source of pain or discomfort.
If you’re looking to improve hip mobility, our guide on the best hip mobility exercises includes a whole host of movements to try.
Weighted dead bugs primarily work the abdominals (rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis), obliques and lower back.
The exercise will also help strengthen your arms, shoulders and lats, especially compared to bodyweight dead bugs that doesn’t involve holding additional weight.
Weighted dead bugs will also help develop better shoulder and hip mobility.
The bird dog exercise is another one of our favourite movements for strengthening the core.
This exercise shares a very similar movement path to dead bugs, except for the key difference that you adopt a quadruped tabletop position, as opposed to lying on your back.
We also really like including a row into the bird dog exercise as a way to improve rowing technique and allowing you to strengthen a lot of muscles in one, safe movement.
Planks have become one of the most popular core exercises.
It’s harder to add resistance to planks safely, which is way we really like weighted dead bugs.
We prefer low planks, where you rest on your forearms, as opposed to your hands. This puts less pressure on the wrists, which is a common complain many have with doing planks.
If you enjoy trying to hold a single exercise for a long time, then planks are the ultimate exercise to do this.
Side Plank with Extension
As well as the low plank, a side plank is another effective core building exercise.
Side planks help to double down on engaging the obliques (the muscles on the side of your torso). This leads to better stability and rotational strength.
You could add resistance to side planks by extending your arm upwards and holding a weight, such as a dumbbell.
Decline Dumbbell Pullover
The dumbbell pullover shares similar upper body biomechanics to the dead bug. You are required to pull your arms over your head in a supine position (lying on your back). We tend to prefer the decline dumbbell pullover as it allows for greater range of motion.
Pullovers are more focused on strengthening the chest and lats, however, they still require the core to be activated and engaged to create stability during the movement.
This could be a good alternative for those who want a movement that can engage lots of muscles at once… for example, during quick workouts.
Once you feel confident with dead bugs, adding additional weight to the movement by holding dumbbells or another type of weight, helps to further challenge the muscles and keep you progressing.
They can also be used as a way to work towards weight-bearing bodyweight exercises, such as plank variations.
In terms of common mistakes people sometimes make with weighted dead bugs, arching your back, going too fast, or selecting too heavy a weight, are the 3 culprits to avoid.
Featured image and video demonstration credit – James Gardner Personal Training