Want to Get Stronger in the Gym? Develop Core Stability

One of the leading back experts in the world is Stuart McGill, PhD. He has spent his career, spanning more than 30-years, researching spinal biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada. His core stability program, known as the Big 3, is one of the most often performed core exercise programs. His routine is so good, we are going to show you what’s involved.

What is Core Stability Anyway?

When the body is inactive, muscle weakness occurs along with joint laxity which can lead to instability according to Dr. McGill. Core stability is the ability of the stabilizers in the lumbar-pelvic area to maintain the correct trunk and hip posture during static and dynamic movement. The stabilizers refer to the following muscle groups that make-up this important area. These are the transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques, and lumbar multifidus. Also playing a critical role are the spinal erectors and rectus abdominis. The key muscle in terms of spine stabilization, however, is the deep transverse abdominis. Why is all this important? Simply stated, if the area is strong, you move better. In essence, when the body has a stable base for the four extremities to perform from, the nervous system allows for greater force development to occur.

What is the McGill Big 3?

Through his research, Dr. McGill determined the combination of the following three exercises were most beneficial for developing core stability. Understand we’re talking muscle endurance here (not strength). The three exercises in his program include the side bridge, a version of the curl-up and a bird dog exercise. Each of the exercises are performed from their basic or beginner level before progressing, over time, to more advanced versions of the exercise. The key to each exercise is locking in with abdominal “bracing” prior to the start of each exercise and maintaining it throughout. Dr. McGill explains that the abdominal brace “enhances stability.” This is done by placing two fingers on both sides of the navel. Your fingers should be a few inches away from the navel, resting on the obliques. Now tighten the abdominal area and you should feel the fingers raise up a bit.

Side Bridge
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McGill Curl Up
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Bird Dog
SIDE BRIDGE

The bridge or called a side plank by some, is a basic core exercise and is ideal for developing endurance in the core stabilizers like the internal and external obliques. It is also a great exercise to help strengthen the quadratus lumborum, an exercise that helps not only with low back pain but is important for pelvic stabilization too. The side bridge pictured above is considered more of a progression from a basic side bridge performed with knees bent and the arm positioned on hip not raised as seen in the picture. Lift hips off the floor and pause for 10-seconds and repeat for desired repetitions.

CURL UP

The idea behind this type of curl up is to protect the lumbar spine by keep that area flat. This is done by placing the hands under the lumbar curve. Begin by performing abdominal bracing. Once the scapula clear the floor pause for 10-seconds and return to the starting position. Look up towards the ceiling at all times not down at your feet.

BIRD DOG

This is one exercise you may have done while in yoga class. The starting position for the McGill version is to actually not raise the arm. First, perform abdominal bracing. Begin by just raising the extended leg only. The opposite arm can be raised over time as you advance to the next progression. When this becomes easy to do, bring the extended arm down touching the knee of the opposite leg. Hold arm and leg extension for 10-seconds, return and repeat. Perform on both sides.

How Does all this Build Core Stability and Get You Stronger in the Gym?

The easiest way to start thinking about all this is in the vein of “transferring” power throughout the body when training. An underdeveloped or weak core will create a “leak” or an escape of stored energy via the trunk during exercise. We want to utilize 100 percent of this stored energy. An example would be lifting a barbell, dumbbell, medicine ball or kettlebell off the floor and pressing it overhead. When the core stabilizers are not up to par, and abdominal bracing is not utilized, these types of movements become extremely difficult to perform. Further, even if somehow you’re able to perform such an exercise, lacking core integrity, you’ll likely end up using poor body mechanics and a future injury is likely. Stay Strong and try the Big 3 as either a new core routine or as a warm-up prior to strength training.

Exercise Prescription

Exercise Sets & Reps.
1A. Side Bridge 6, 4, 2
1B. Curl Up6, 4, 2
1C. Bird Dog 6, 4, 2
*Perform in a circuit format – 1A, 1B, 1C – for 6 repetitions per set followed by 4, 2 repetitions for subsequent sets.

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