Column: McGill’s Big Three


Commentary by Seth Tucker

It is important to maintain a balance of mobility and stability throughout the body, depending on which part are you are addressing. The spine is interesting, as the upper section is better for flexion and extension, that is, curling forward or arching back, while the lower portion is better for stabilizing while allowing for rotational movement. This is well illustrated during a squat when it is important for the upper back to adequately extend or arch back to prevent your shoulders from rounding forward and your upper body from collapsing in. While at the same time your low back, or lumbar spine, should maintain a stable, neutral position throughout the squat. It also is necessary to be able to perform some level of flexion and extension through the low back, and there are several exercises that demand this, especially in a practice like yoga.

When it comes to improving stability in the spine, renowned back expert Dr. Stuart McGill has established practical solutions and exercises to protect and stabilize the spine during athletic movements or simply day-to-day life. The McGill Big Three is a set of three exercises designed to improve stability through the spine for any activities that put load through the back, whether that’s picking up the laundry or squatting twice your bodyweight.

Each movement should be done as three pyramid sets, which consist of a descending repetition count, adjusted for experience level. For example, one set of eight, one set of six and one set of four repetitions.

The McGill Curl-Up

Lay on your back with one leg extended and one leg bent at the knee with your foot on the floor. Place both hands under the small of your back to maintain a slight natural arch and sense when you are beginning to round your back. Raise your head slightly off the ground while engaging your abdominal muscles as though you are preparing for a blow to the stomach. This is not a crunch but simply lifting your head an inch or two while still keeping your face toward the ceiling. Hold this position for 10 seconds, then lower your head back to the ground and repeat for reps.

The Side Bridge

Lay on your side while supporting your upper body with your forearm by placing your elbow on the floor underneath your shoulder. Bend your knees to 90 degrees by pulling your feet back behind you. Lift your hips off the floor by engaging your abdominal muscles. You should have a straight line from your shoulders to your knees without sagging the hips down/back or arching up/forward excessively. Hold for 10 seconds and then lower your hips back to the floor. You can make this movement more difficult by straightening your legs and supporting yourself with your feet instead of your knees. Repeat for reps.

The Bird Dog

Get down on your hands and knees with your hands directly under your shoulders and knees directly under your hips. Your head should be in line with your back and hips to keep your entire torso parallel to the ground. Extend your right arm out and your left leg straight out behind you. Both limbs should be at or just below parallel with the ground. Keep your hips and shoulders parallel with the ground through the whole movement. Hold the top of the position for 10 seconds, then slowly lower to the starting position. Alternate sides for reps.