So you have a client who has suffered a back injury? They are in the gym with you ready and raring to go, and as their trainer, you don’t even know where to start?

Or consider this – you are training an athlete who’s been in the game a little longer, or maybe you’re like me, wanting to be the one old dog who can learn new tricks?

Here is a short article on a combination of stability movements for the core that can help towards rebuilding, rejuvenating and bulletproofing our trunk… One of the most important factors in keeping us in the fight.

If you have screened clients and know where to turn with regards to mobilising what’s tight and restricted, and activating and strengthening that which is weak.

In your warm up. Here is the first step for recovering some core stability.

Enter Stuart McGill’s Big 3 

Dr Stuart McGill is a professor of spinal mechanics and has devoted his entire career to understanding the effects of force on the spine. He has worked with nearly every type of athlete and type of injury possible. He has literally experimented on hundreds if not thousands of spines in a clinical setting.

So, when you want to know how to help the rehab process of the lumbar region of the spine then look no further than Mr McGill. Yet still, to this day, I don’t see trainers using them enough in the gym setting. I see the McGill Big 3 used almost everywhere else, and countless variations of them. But they are still uncommon in big box gyms. Listen, you don’t need to have back pain. You can use these, and variations of them, in every single warm-up for every client. Bulletproofing those trunks, so that we can help people to perform at their best and push their own boundaries.

His Big 3 recommended exercises are as follows. This is the order I teach them in.

  1. The McGill Curl-Up (a safe lumbar supported crunch)
  2. The side plank, with the feet, scissored not stacked.
  3. The Bird Dog yoga position.

I have had the experience of other’s misfortune in this matter! In my professional life I’ve spent time working with clients who have had back and hip injuries as severe as a broken T12 and snapped femurs, and I have had the pleasure of seeing these badass ladies push beyond what they were capable of before getting hurt. Also slipped disk and torn QLs among many others have reared their heads over the last few years. All of these cases I have used and still use these exercises as part of warm-ups or as activators, or just solid core stability exercises. I have also used them on myself over the last 6 months to come back from bad lower back inflammation due to lifting heavy and running again.

What I’m trying to tell you is they work. Now, time to explore the McGill Big 3 in a little more detail.

The McGill’s Curl-Up

For me, this is one of my favourite trunk activators.

A modified and subtle crunch variation. The idea is to train core stability without spinal flexion. The client lays down in a periscope position. Then he or she packs the lower back with their hands. The hands fill where there would normally be an arch in the lower back. The fingertips will slightly cover the top of the hips/glutes.

One leg is drawn back, so the heel is near the glute. The other leg lays straight out in front of you. The command is to brace the core, gently elevating the elbows and upper back from the floor. The ribs head towards the hips. The lower back flattens down onto the hands. Hold this solid brace (imagine you were about to be punched in the tummy) for 10 or more seconds, and then change over legs and fire up the core with the other. Keep the chin tucked but don’t crane your neck and focus on creating a stiffness throughout the trunk.

The Side Plank

I’ve written about the side plank before. It is a magic bullet for internal hip rotation. Sometimes all the mobility in the world will not help due to the shape of your hip socket. But if there is a restriction in internal hip rotation, the side plank, done properly, can give an automatic increase in range of motion. This is massive for lifting and running as well as back pain.

McGill points out that if it’s a back pain client, then the feet should be scissored apart, the top foot in front and the bottom behind. Cue the client to place the elbow under the AC joint of the shoulder, in whatever is a comfortable position. The shoulder blade packed (think rolling your shoulder back and keeping the shoulder blade flat, as if you were tucking it into your back pocket).

Then elevating the hips and creating tension in the underside of the body by bracing. Think of the elbow coming closer towards the feet and vice versa, even though they are and will remain in a static position. Keep breathing (preferably in a diaphragmatic fashion!) And place the top hand on the bottom shoulder. Keep the glutes tight, and the pelvis in a neutral position. Hold each static position for 10 seconds on each side.

There are many ways to progress, but to regress, we strip it down to the half side plank which is from the knees.

The Bird-Dog 

This yoga move/position is a great way of promoting lumbopelvic dissociation. This is independent motion about the hips or lumbar spine without it affecting the kinematics of other joints. When people are suffering LBP (lower back pain) it’s often coming from a lack of lumbopelvic dissociation.

The Bird-Dog is performed in the quadruped position (prone, on all fours.) The first thing we need to consider is bracing the core, and therefore reducing the arch of the lower back. Creating a more neutral spine and actively reducing the level of anterior pelvic tilt. The head must be neutral to the rest of the spine, and not with a tucked chin or raised head. From there you may find the client struggles to even perform the arm raises without losing this position you have created. So you may just want to start by promoting the independent limb movements. When you have progressed to pushing the feet back behind the glutes without losing the neutral spine position, then it’s time to move the arms and legs into an alternate position. Personally, I like to have them focus on the braced core and spinal position. I cue squeezing the fist tight in the outstretched hand and holding the top position for 5-10 seconds, rather than doing reps where the pattern falls apart. You can teach this over a smaller swiss ball to help stabilize a client who really struggles with engaging the core whilst in movement, and often a dead bug may be a better place to start. There are loads of progressions, but I’m trying to keep it simple.

The carry-out is simple. For clients and friends/loved ones promote drilling mobility and core stability for the long haul. I literally just performed these on my kitchen floor, and it took me about 3 minutes. So 3 minutes a couple of times a day. Alongside mobility, stretching, or activation – whatever is needed – the McGill Big 3 can take someone out of pain, and better still get them moving like we should, like nomads on the plains of Africa… Not ageing robots from a bygone sci-fi flick.

Do them, and yourselves, a favour by starting somewhere… With stability!

Stay strong,

Coach Fletch.

Author - Fletcher Dalrymple - Personal Trainer & Mentor

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