Stuart McGill, a professor at the University of Waterloo, has influenced my approach as a physical therapist and the exercises that I give to my Pilates clients to best address their needs.
It seems like the word “core” is ubiquitous, tossed around like grass seed. Who hasn’t heard the admonition that you need a strong core! There’s certainly an endless array of exercises out there that target the core, some causing more harm than good. In my last blog post, “Ditch the Crunch”, we examined the negative effects of sit-ups and crunches and explored an interesting alternative.
Today we’ll examine a great starting point for improving core stability. In light of scientific evidence, the safest approach to improving your core and enhancing spine stability is through exercise that emphasizes endurance over strength.
The following exercises known as the McGill Big 3, emphasize neutral spine posture with abdominal co-contraction and core bracing to create stiffness and promote endurance. Think of it as creating your own internal corset of support. These 3 research-based exercises are an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to approach their core work with safety and proven efficacy. If you are de-conditioned, experience back pain or just want to avoid back pain, these exercises are for you! Watch the video at the bottom of this post to see the exercises in action.
The Stuart McGill Big 3 exercises are:
- Curl Up
- Side Bridge
- Bird Dog
I would insert that the side bridge demonstrated in the video below can be difficult if your shoulder girdle isn’t strong and stable. If that’s the case, just de-weight your hips slightly if able, and over time with repetition, you’ll get stronger and will be able to lift your hips higher off the ground.
You’ll see me in the video below cueing to hold the position for 6-8 seconds. This timing targets endurance. Typically endurance is built first with repeated sets of relatively short holds-no longer than 7-8 sec’s. This is based on recent evidence indicating rapid loss of available oxygen in torso muscles contracting at these levels. Short relaxation of the muscles requires oxygen. The endurance goals are achieved by building up reps rather than increasing the time/duration of each hold. (McGill et al., 2000)
Important note: you should not experience pain with any of the above exercises. Watch for spine deviation or loss of neutral. Maintain excellent technique.
In a future blog, I’ll address the spine, hip and leg stretches that best accompany these core stabilization exercises.
McGill, S.M. 2007, Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation, 2nd edition 12: 213-235
McGill, S.M. et al (2000), Lumbar erector spine oxygenation during prolonged contractions: Implications for prolonged work. Ergonomics, 43: 486-493
McGill, S.M. (2006) Ultimate back fitness and performance, Backfitpro Inc. (www.backfitpro.com)