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McGill big 3

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Dr. Stuart McGill is a world renowned expert in spine function. He came up with the “McGill big 3” which are 3 exercises he prescribes to enhance core stability in 3 regions: rectus abdominis (6 pack region) transverse abdominis (obliques) and hip and shoulder joints (because everything but your arms and legs are part of your “core”) To keep a healthy spine you want to brace you core and move about your hips which is the foundation of these movements.


Before we can work on stability, we must make sure there is sufficient mobility, or the ability to achieve movement without restriction first. Lower back stiffness usually originates from movement restrictions in the hips or upper back.

Perform 2 sets of 10-20 reps of the following with full range of motion first:

Hip 90 90 rotations (modify by doing in a supine position)

Cat cow (rhomboid focus)

Open book


Once adequate range of motion has been achieved it is time to work on stability. Think of stability as stiffness, the core must be stiff for our arms and legs to avoid any unwanted motion during activity. Bracing your core is the foundation of this, by creating pressure in your core your abdomen becomes like a soda can. You can stand on a full soda can and it won’t break because it is full of pressure, drain that liquid out and it immediately collapses. You can think of your body the same way. Bracing your core is the bodies own personal weightlifting belt.


The Mcgill big 3 are performed as isometric contractions, you are contracting your muscles at maximal effort without any change in position. At 10 seconds per rep, a lot of people will look at me and say “That's it?” The goal is not muscular endurance to hold as long as you can without collapsing, the goal is to recruit as many motor units as possible. Try making a fist with your hand, now make a fist with your hand and squeeze as hard as possible as if you are trying to get all the juice out of an orange. See the difference in how many muscles in your forearm were activated? Same muscle action but a much greater degree of muscle activation. The more muscles we can recruit in any movement the more stable and powerful those actions will be.


Dr. McGill recommends a pyramid scheme starting with 5 reps, 3 reps, 1 rep with 30 seconds rest between sets.

The Curl up

Lie on your back with one knee bent and one leg straight. Pick your head off the ground only a couple of inches, and tuck your chin if your neck is aggravated. The goal is to lift without any movement in your lower back. Pull your rib cage down and decrease the space between your ribs and hips, increasing the pressure in your abdominal cavity.

Modify: Static back hold

To modify the curl up you can perform a basic static back hold. Take a band and press overhead lying down on your back. Tuck your tail between your legs and bring your ribs down- I shouldn't be able to get my hand underneath your lower back in this position.

Progress: Anti rotation curl up

Hold a resistance band from one side to add in resisting rotational force.

Side Plank

On your side imagine you are scooping ice cream with your elbow, that will engage your lats. Your lats run from your shoulders to hips and ye lifting from the lats you will engage your core instead of using your shoulder to suspend you. Lift your hips up high and brace your core.

Modify: Wall side plank

If you are feeling the side plank primarily in your shoulder, you core is not strong enough yet to hold you up. Modify by bending your knees or resting your elbow against a wall.

Progress: Starfish side plank

Raise your top leg to add an additional challenge that will also work on hip stability.

Bird Dog

From on all four’s position, reach out your opposite arm and leg in front of you. The key is to have neutral alignment in your spine, by tucking your tailbone you should not see your lower back caving if you were to look from the side. Flex your toe towards your and kick the heel straight back, engaging the gluteus. Reach your arm out with shoulder blade retracted. I should be able to push down on your limbs and have them resist the movement. A good test is to place a foam roller on your back, it should stay level as you maintain position.

Modify: Single limb

If you cannot stay level, try using just one limb at a time. It is harder than it looks if you are truly engaging your core with proper alignment!

Progress: Look away

To add a proprioception challenge, turn your head away, this will make it more challenge to maintain alignment.


Perform these exercises after mobility and prior to a strength workout to prime the body to maximally recruit and maintain stability during more complex exercises.

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