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Saving Your Back, Building Your Core

In the short term, you may be aiming for lower body fat or better strength, but over the course of the rest of your life, you ultimately want to just keep moving and doing the things that you love. And when it comes to active longevity, a resilient core is imperative. Building your core will allow you to improve any and all life activities.

When it comes to research on the core and lower-back rehabilitation protocols, Stuart McGill, Ph.D., has spent the past 30-plus years at the University of Waterloo studying spinal biomechanics. McGill has said that having a stable spine with core stiffness and muscle endurance helps protect against low-back pain and enhance performance.

After hundreds of clinical studies, the endless list of core exercises was narrowed down into the three that consistently proved superior for developing core stiffness and endurance: the curl-up, the side bridge and the bird dog. These three exercises demonstrated the ability to spare the spine from damaging forces while also building muscular stability and control, as well as long-term back health.

The core’s primary function is not as a flexor (think 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 lifting moderate to heavy weighted items and improves your ability to change directions quickly, as well as to accelerate and decelerate.

Bracing the Core

Learning how to brace your core takes practice. It requires all the muscles that support your trunk to 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 would contract all the muscles around your torso — even your pelvic floor — to “stiffen 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 you should still be able to breathe comfortably.

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 practicing the McGill Big 3, each of which should begin with a proper brace.

General Guidelines for Implementing the Big 3

•Perform this routine as a stand-alone core building session or as a pre-workout warm-up.

•Begin with the Level 1 version of each exercise and perform 3 sets of each exercise with a descending rep format of 6/4/2 with each progressive round. See chart below of beginning rep and set scheme layout.

•As you get stronger, gradually add reps to your sets until you can do 12/10/8 reps for the respective 3 rounds with good form and control. Then move up to the next Level of the exercise and start over with the 6/4/2 rep sequence.

•Perform each exercise slowly, with control and proper bracing. Hold each rep for 8-10 seconds.

•When performing the side bridge and bird dog, complete all reps on one side before switching to the other side.

•Rest 20 seconds between each set.

Doing the Big 3

NOTE: if you currently have a back injury, or you have any physical restrictions that could be made worse by physical activity, please consult your doctor first.

1. Curl-Up

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 8 to 10 seconds, then return to the start. Switch legs halfway through the set.

TIP: 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.

2. Side Bridge

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 8 to 10 seconds, then hinge at your hips to lower to the floor, touch down lightly and repeat.

3. Bird Dog

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 8 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.

Notice the description of each exercise begins with words “Level 1.” These are the starting point. You should slowly work through mastering these exercises and increasing the reps following the guidelines. Once you are able to perform 3 rounds, as prescribed, at a rep count of 12/10/8, then you are ready to move to Level 2…and then ultimately Level 3.

If you believe you have mastered Level 1 of the Big 3 and you are ready to try the next level, email me at and I will send the details for Level 2.

If you have any questions or other thoughts to share, I would love to hear from you! Even though we are all separated right now, we are still Better Together.

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