In the short term, you may be aiming for higher max lifts, lower body fat or better personal records, but over the course of the next 20 or 30 years, you really just want to keep moving and doing the things that you love. And when it comes to physical, active longevity, a resilient core is imperative. Building your core may or may not result in a visible six-pack, but it will allow you to handle just about any lift; maximize every throw, kick or punch; and improve any and all life activities. This is where the McGill Big 3 come in.
When it comes to research on the core and lower-back rehabilitation protocols, no one is more well-known than Stuart McGill, Ph.D. McGill has spent the past 30-plus years at the University of Waterloo studying spinal biomechanics, and he is now sharing his methods with others. “Having a stable spine with core stiff ness and muscle endurance will help protect against low-back pain and enhance performance,” says Nicola Folino, the first McGill Method certified trainer based in Ontario, Canada.
McGill preformed hundreds of clinical studies and narrowed down the endless list of core exercises into the three that consistently proved superior for developing core stiff ness and endurance 360 degrees around: the curl-up, the side bridge and Bird Dog. The McGill Big 3 demonstrated the ability to spare the spine from damaging forces while also building muscular stability and control, ingraining proper neuromuscular patterns and stiffening the body in preparation to lift heavy, jump high or go the distance.“
The Big 3 create a ‘hoop’ of stiffness around the spine that reduces and prevents painful micro-movements, and the effects last as long as two hours after these exercises have been performed,” Folino says.
Core Control Center
Though most of us are obsessed with our six-packs, your core also includes the abdominal wall, quadratus lumborum, psoas and erectors. Furthermore, its primary function is not as a flexor (time to abandon those crunches) but rather as a stabilizer, allowing you to resist unwanted movement in order to protect your spine. For example, a stable core helps you regain balance if you trip and enables you to stay upright and straight when carrying a load on one side. Core stability is also important when executing heavy lifts such as squats or deadlifts and improves your ability to change directions quickly, as well as to accelerate and decelerate.
A stable core also acts as a force conduit, and the muscles of your core co-contract — or brace — so you’re better able to execute your task. Let’s say you want to do a heavy push press, deliver a stronger punch or throw a ball. Power is generated in your hips and legs, is transmitted through your core, and is released through your shoulders and arms. If your core is inactive, a lot of that lower-body power goes to waste, but a properly braced core eff ectively transmits that force and results in a bigger lift, a harder punch or a longer throw.
Ready, Set, Brace
Learning how to brace your core takes a little doing. First, disregard the outdated training cue to “draw in” your bellybutton, which engages your transverse abdominis like a corset to pull everything toward your center. Bracing, on the other hand, requires all the muscles that support your trunk to opt in and engage in order to stabilize your spine, and instead of drawing things in, you’re somewhat pushing things out: Imagine you were getting ready Houdini-like to take a punch to the gut. You’d contract all the muscles around your torso — even your pelvic floor — to “stiff en up.” In this position, you should feel very strong and stable — able to resist a strong gust of wind or a shove from any direction — but should still be able to breathe comfortably.
Any lift or exercise you perform should be done with some level of bracing in mind, and you can practice leveling up your brace like a dimmer switch, starting with a mild, then a medium and then a hard brace. This also goes for the McGill Big 3, each of which should begin with a proper brace. Use them as part of your warm-up to create stiffness and stability right out of the gate. “This sets your spine in a position where it’s able to help you perform,” Folino says. And since the stabilizing effects can last for several hours, the rest of the day you’ll walk around with an ironclad core, should anyone decide to slug you in the gut or (less exciting) you trip on a curb and have to prevent a face-plant.
The Big 3 Descending Pyramid
- Do this as a stand-alone core session or as a pre-lift warm-up.
- Begin with the Level 1 option for each move and use a 6/4/2-rep format (see tables). As you get stronger, add reps until you can do 12/10/8 for each exercise, then level up to the next-hardest option and begin again with the 6/4/2-rep scheme.
- Perform each exercise slowly, holding each rep for eight to 10 seconds.
- For the side bridge and Bird Dog, complete all sets on one side, then switch. Rest 20 seconds between all sets.
Level 1: Lie faceup with one knee bent, foot flat on the floor, and the other leg extended straight. Place both hands underneath your lower back, then brace your abs and lift your head and shoulders 1 to 2 inches off the ground. This is a very small motion, flexing from the thoracic spine (upper back) just enough to engage your rectus abdominis. Hold eight to 10 seconds, then return to the start. Switch legs halfway through the set.
The curl-up is a very small movement, and to an onlooker, it should barely look like you're doing anything at all.
Level 2: Execute the move in the same manner as Level 1, but this time, lift your elbows as well as your head and shoulders. This requires your rectus abdominis to do all the work without the assistance of your elbows pressing down into the floor.
Level 3: Begin as with Level 1 but extend your right arm overhead. As you curl up, reach your right hand toward the ceiling and raise your left leg, bending your knee 90 degrees over your hip. Switch arms/legs halfway through the set.
To help maintain a neutral spine and protect your back, use your hands underneath as sensors: If your back is flattening out, you’re lifting too high. Reposition yourself and make the movement smaller.
Level 1: Lie on your side with your elbow underneath your shoulder, your knees bent 90 degrees and stacked, and your hips sitting slightly behind you. Place your free hand on your hip, brace your core, and use your glutes to extend your hips and press them forward — not upward. Your body should naturally come into a straight position from your shoulder to your knee. Hold for eight to 10 seconds, then hinge at your hips to lower to the floor, touch down lightly and repeat.
Level 2: Begin as with Level 1 but extend your legs and cross the top leg in front of the bottom. Perform the move by extending your hips and balance on your bottom elbow and feet. To descend, bend your bottom knee and set it down first, then hinge your hips to “sit back.”
Level 3: Get into the Level 2 position with your top arm lifted in line with your shoulder, elbow bent. Pivot at your feet and turn your top shoulder to rotate your body forward as a single unit as if you were going to transition into a front plank. Turn until your arm comes underneath you just above the floor and inside your supporting arm. Open back up and return back to the start.
Side Bridge Tip
To move as a single unit, stiffen up on all sides and don’t let your rib cage dip down or lift up too high throughout the entire move. Do it in front of a mirror to make sure your body is aligned properly.
Level 1: Begin on all fours with your hands directly underneath your shoulders and your knees directly underneath your hips. Brace your core and then make a fist with your right hand, retract your shoulder blade and slowly extend your right arm and left leg away from each other until they are parallel with the floor. Flex your foot and press your heel rearward to engage your glutes and hold for eight to 10 seconds. Return to the start without touching down — “sweeping the floor” — and go right into the next rep. Do all the reps on one side and then switch.
Level 2: Execute the move as with Level 1, but while in the extended position, draw very small, synchronized squares with your fist and heel, moving in opposition, with all movement coming from your hip and shoulder. Complete four to five squares, sweep the floor and repeat.
Level 3: Execute the move as with Level 2, but add a small ankle or wrist weight or use a light resistance band for an extra challenge.
Bird Dog Tip
Your core should be engaged 360 degrees around during this move and no muscle should be relaxed: Your shoulder blades should be retracted, your arm muscles should be engaged isometrically, your posterior chain should be activated, your quads should be contracted in your working leg, and your glutes and internal hip stabilizers should be engaged in both legs.