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Stuart McGill's Big Three Back Exercises

author image Debra Atkinson
Experienced radio show co-host, author, and professional speaker Debra Atkinson, MS, CSCS is the Voice for Fitness. With more than twenty-five years experience in the fitness industry she specializes in the business of personal training and helping develop thriving environments that clients, owners and trainers all find rewarding.www.voiceforfitness.com 
Stuart McGill's Big Three Back Exercises
Superficial muscles don't always mean underlying stabilization exists. Photo Credit Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images

Stuart McGill, professor of spinal biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, is one of the world's leading experts on lumbar research. McGill has identified three exercises referred to as the Big 3 that focus on stabilization. The exercises are often used in clinical populations by those in chronic pain. They put minimal load on the back and focus on endurance. The benefit from any exercise is only as good as the technique applied to the exercise. McGill suggests some very specific techniques to accomplish core stability.

The Curl-Up

Stuart McGill's Big Three Back Exercises
This core variation needs tweaking to fit McGill's Big 3. Photo Credit Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images

The curl up varies from a standard crunch. There should be no movement through the lumbar spine. Hands are placed in the small of the back to monitor movement. Elbows are down to begin and elevated as a progression. Maintain the entire spine in neutral, including the neck; lift only the head and shoulders. Compared to a crunch, the curl-up involves very little curl and the upper body and neck stay elongated. There is minimal range of motion. Other progressions involve prebracing the abdominals and deep breathing during the exercise.

The Side Bridge

Stuart McGill's Big Three Back Exercises
Every-day activies provide opportunities for core strengthening through McGill's bracing. Photo Credit Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images

The side bridge, or plank can be performed from the knees if you have limited strength or ability to engage the abdominal wall. Begin by lying on the right side supported by the right elbow, hip and knee. Using support of the left hand, press up through the hips until you are supporting your body between your elbow and your knees. The top hand can rest on the hip. Progressions include moving to the feet, and changing your arm position to reach across to the opposite shoulder.

The Birddog

Stuart McGill's Big Three Back Exercises
Relief from back pain requires an integrative approach based on each individual's causes of pain. Photo Credit Jupiterimages/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images

From a quadruped position, one leg is lifted and then returned, followed by lifting the opposite extended arm. To progress, both the leg and opposite arm are lifted. Making a fist can increases the tension in the extended arm. Further progressions involve drawing a square with both the foot and hand simultaneously. The exercise is performed on alternating sides.


Stuart McGill's Big Three Back Exercises
The sedentary, active, and athletes alike are prone to back pain. Photo Credit Keith Brofsky/Photodisc/Getty Images

Training times begin at 10 second intervals. Build up endurance for stabilization with repeated short bouts, rather than increasing duration. According to McGill, once these are tolerated, progression to a more difficult version of the exercise or other exercises is justified. Bracing, rather than hollowing, during exercise enhances stabilization. To brace, avoid drawing in the navel and instead tighten the entire core, as if you were about to be thrown a punch.

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