Core Strength I: Diagonal Leg Lifts
November 24, 2014
We hear a lot about core strength for ourselves, but did you know that core strength is beneficial for your dog, too? Core exercises strengthen the back, trunk, and abdominal muscles. This helps support the back and increase your dog’s balance and coordination, which helps prevent injuries whether your dog is an athelete, a couch-warmer, or anything in between. There are a number of simple exercises you can do at home to help work your dog’s core, which I will introduce one at a time.
It is very important to keep in mind that just like exercise programs in people, these exercises should be introduced slowly and only in healthy dogs without pre-existing injuries. If you have any questions at all about whether your pet is healthy enough to do these exercises, Please call the clinic. Also, you should do these exercises no more than three times per week; just like in people, overworking muscles is counterproductive because it can actually cause muscle weakness and fatigue.
The first exercise, and the one I recommend starting with, is a diagonal leg lift. This is a great exercise for dogs who are just starting out because it is easy and does not require much pre-existing core strength, but will build strength quickly. It is best to start out with the easiest variation of this exercises and for shorter periods of time and fewer repetitions even if you think your dog can handle more. You can always add more difficulty later but it can be hard to recover from overdoing it if you start out too at a level that is too difficult for your dog. Don’t rush!
The diagonal leg lift is very similar to what is sometimes called the diagonal raise in yoga. Start with your dog standing sideways in front of you as illustrated in the following picture. For large dogs, this is easiest to do with you both on the floor. For smaller dogs, it will be easier on your back if they are elevated on something like a footstool, ottoman, table, or chair. It is just important that the surface is large enough for your dog to stand in a normal, comfortable position.
Next, take one rear leg and the diagonally opposite leg. In the following picture, I am taking Squash’s right rear and front left legs. Hold the leg just above the carpus (wrist) and tarsus (hock) to provide adequate support when you lift the legs without causing rotation or torque.
Next, lift the legs slightly off the floor. When you are first starting out, lift the legs just an inch or two for a large dog or a half to one inch for a small dog and hold for just 3-5 seconds. Provide just enough support to your dog’s legs through your hands to help him/her maintain balance but not so much that you are doing the work for him/her. If the 3-5 seconds is too much for your dog, just pick the feet up and put them back down again. Switch sides and repeat. Do this for a maximum of three repetitions on each side, twice per day, three times per week.
When the above becomes easy for your dog, it is time to increase the difficulty. Start by increase the length of time you hold the legs up, adding just a few seconds each week until you have reached about ten seconds. Once this exercise at that duration is easy for your dog, you can proceed to the next step, which is lifting the legs farther off the floor. Do not rush! Even if it doesn’t seem like it, this exercise is very challenging for dogs.
The following picture demonstrates the legs held at the height of the elbow and knee, with those joints in their flexed positions. Your dog might need some intermediate steps between the leg height in the previous picture and this one; as always, customize this exercise to your dog as an individual. Again, provide just enough support to help your dog maintain balance. Also, now that you have made the height more difficult, you need to scale back to the easiest time and work back up to 10 seconds – so restart at just 3 -5 seconds and proceed as previously described.
The most difficult version of this exercise is to fully extend the legs at the height of the shoulder and hip. Squash has a very strong core and can do this exercise at this level for 10-20 seconds at a time, although his legs are too long for me to completely extend them! It is not necessary to do this exercise at this level for most pets, but Squash participates in some sports and benefits from the extra core strength and balance.
As your dog gains strength, you can add some other more challenging exercises which will be introduced in the coming weeks and months. Remember: Start easy, increase difficulty slowly, and always adjust the exercise as your individual dog needs!