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The McGill Big 3 – Low Back Exercises

Avatar for Hadyn Luke Hadyn Luke posted this on Monday 1st of November 2021 Hadyn Luke 01/11/2021

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The McGill Big 3 – Low Back Exercises

If you’ve ever experienced lower back pain you’re not alone: NHS England says that four out of five of us will experience back pain at some point in our lives.

Prevention is better than cure – and one of the recognised approaches to strengthening the lower back and avoiding back pain is the McGill Big 3.

Who is behind the McGill Big 3?

Dr Stuart McGill is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He has spent many years researching spine biomechanics and has written several textbooks and more than 240 peer-reviewed scientific journal papers.

His work aims to understand the function of the lower back, what causes injury to it and how to prevent injury and rehabilitate an injured back.

What did McGill discover about back pain?

Dr McGill’s conclusion was that endurance training is the key to avoiding back injury rather than flexibility or strength. This is achieved by maintaining the right kind of movement throughout each day.

For this reason, the exercises he developed for the core and lower back focus on endurance movements to promote core strength and spine stability.

What are the McGill Big 3?

The three exercises featured in the McGill Big 3 are as follows:

  1. Modified curl-up
  2. Side bridge
  3. Bird dog

How to carry out a modified curl-up

  1. Lying on your back, bend one knee while extending the other.
  2. With your hands underneath your lower back and keeping your back in a neutral position, brace your abdomen then lift your head, shoulders and chest up together. Avoid tilting your head back or tucking in your chin.
  3. Hold this position for 10 seconds then lower your upper body back down slowly to the floor. Repeat for three sets of 10-12, swapping so that the opposite leg is bent for 50% of the lifts.

How to carry out a side bridge

  1. Lie on your left side, with your left elbow under your shoulder, forearm on the ground and left hand on your right shoulder.
  2. Your legs can either be straight with the top foot on the floor in front of the other foot, or you can lie with your feet pulled back and knees at a 90° angle.
  3. Without twisting or leaning forward, brace your abdomen and lift your hips off the floor.
  4. Hold this position for 10 seconds then lower slowly.
  5. Repeat three times on each side of the body.

How to carry out a bird dog

  1. Lower yourself on to your hands and knees with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
  2. Bracing your abdomen and keeping your spine neutral, raise one arm forward and extend the opposite leg back.
  3. Once the arm is level with the shoulder and the leg is level with the hip, hold for 10 seconds.
  4. Lower the arm and leg then repeat on the other side, carrying out three sets of 10 repetitions.

When starting out, you might like to use the reverse pyramid scheme of reps and sets, starting with a high number of repetitions for the first set and reducing the repetitions for each of the following two sets.

As you become more comfortable with these exercises, you can increase the number of reps or sets.

How often should the McGill Big 3 be performed?

Dr McGill’s recommendation is to perform these exercises three times a week. They can be incorporated into a warm-up routine or added in between conditioning exercises or compound lifts.

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