I first heard about Stu McGill on a podcast about the rehabilitation of high-performance athletes. He was describing how some world class performers trained to get back into top form after injury. He was reaching peak academic nerd-speak with ‘muscle activation’ this, ‘motor pattern development’ that, when he mentioned his “Big 3” for the everyday back pain sufferer. My ears perked up as he distilled all physio stretches into just three simple exercises.
As a professor and researcher at the university of Waterloo (Canada), McGill is an expert in the field. At his Spine Biomechanics Laboratory, he focuses on a few core objectives involving how the back functions, how it gets hurt, and how to fix it and prevent further injury.
The four quadrants of muscles that support the spine are the rectus abdominus at the front, the obliques at the sides and the extensors at the back . As McGill states, ‘true spine stability is achieved with a “balanced” stiffening from the entire musculature’ within the load tolerance (pain threshold) of each individual. The “Big Three” exercises strengthen these muscle groups and help to increase endurance during lifting, pushing or pulling.
Remember to never over-exert yourself doing these movements and if pain persists, please check with your physiotherapist to ensure that proper form is being used.
Stu McGill’s ‘Big 3’ Exercises
1. Modified Curl-Up
Laying on your back, one knee is bent and one knee straight. Your hands are placed under the arch of your lower back and begin by bracing your abdominal muscles and bearing down through your belly. While keeping this brace, breath in and a breath out. With your spine in your neck and back joined together, pick a spot on the ceiling and focus your gaze there, lift your shoulder blades about 30° off the floor and slowly return to the start position.
2. Side Bridge
Laying on your side, prop yourself up on your elbow with your elbow directly under your shoulder to avoid straining. With your legs straight, place your top foot on the ground in front of your bottom foot. Place your top hand on your bottom shoulder – be sure that your upper body does not twist or lean forward, brace abdomen, squeeze through your butt muscles, and lift hips up off the ground. Hold for 8-10 seconds, repeat 3 times. As the exercise becomes easier, increase the number of repetitions as opposed to the length of time.
3. Stirring the Pot
This exercise starts on your hands and knees, with your hands shoulder width apart directly under your shoulders, and knees hip width apart directly under your hips. Brace through your abdomen and squeeze your gluteals. Ensure you can maintain this while you take a breath in and out. Lift your right arm in front until it’s level with your shoulder, squeezing the muscles between your shoulder blades as you do so. At the same time, extend your left leg straight back until it is level with your hips, squeezing your gluteals, and keeping your hips square to the floor. Return to the starting position in a slow and controlled manner, and perform the same action with the left arm and right leg. That is one repetition. Perform 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions.
McGill also advises full-time desk jockey’s like me, who have a ‘flexion intolerant back’ to not focus on range of motion with back exercises. His Big 3 have just as much to do with which exercises you shouldn’t do, than with what you should do. McGill makes us keenly aware “that the spine discs only have so many numbers of bends before they damage”. In a nutshell, he bluntly states that it’s better to do less of the thing that’s hurting you, flexion in many cases, rather than take medications to treat a strained back, or worse, protruding discs.
As always, check with your health care expert before attempting these exercises to prevent further injury…and take care.