Building Core Stability With The McGill 3


Fewer body parts are as essential to short-term and long-term fitness as our core. When you build your core effectively, you properly realign your body muscles and make all exercises count more towards your long-term fitness goals.

Misalignments in musculoskeletal structures are one of the major causes to trigger pain, like lower back pain, neck pain, and shoulder pain. This happens when different muscle groups are out of sync with the rest of the body due to poor posture, inappropriate weight bearing, etc.

Low back pain, for instance, usually happens due to a misaligned spine. And if you try stretching and strengthening exercises, they might end up exacerbating your low back pain because they often don’t improve your core alignment by creating stability.

Stuart McGill’s Big 3 exercises are clinically designed to help you build a stable core, bringing all the different muscle groups into proper alignment with your core. They include the curl up, side bridge, and bird dog exercise. These three exercises are essential and can help your core-building efforts and bring about lasting solutions for your shoulder and lower back pain.

What Are The McGill Big 3?

The core provides us with our basis of stability when we move, giving us the ability to maintain a balanced position despite moving or being moved. Consider our core muscles as guy wires and our spine and pelvis as a radio tower. The guy wires help maintain an erect radio tower, despite its weight and external forces pushing/pulling it in any given direction. Our core muscles work in the same way to control our spine and body from being turned when pulled from one side, keep us upright when carrying a backpack, and from falling over when we’re rocking around on a train car.

When it comes to core stability, fewer names ring a bell as Stuart McGill, Ph.D. For over 30 years, Stuart McGill has researched spinal biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, publishing dozens of articles and developing dozens more core-building exercises.

The condensed version of the McGill method is known as The McGill Big 3 – three clinically designed exercises that not only strengthen the core but also improve other factors affecting good posture such as muscle endurance and core flexibility.

These exercises can relieve and prevent back pain, while also enhancing overall fitness and physical performance. They’re carefully crafted to help strengthen and stabilize your muscles and realign your neuromuscular structures without straining your spine. They’re also great primers to create stiffness of your core to brace up for lifts, long-distance runs, and other exercises.

In essence, The McGill Big 3 transforms your core into a pillar of strength, fully aligning it with the rest of the body and easing off lower back pain. With all aspects of creating stiffness for your stable spine and becoming fully aligned – from the front to the sides and rear end – you can easily maintain the appropriate posture needed to send back pain packing.

The McGill Big 3 are also endurance exercises, conditioning you to hold up appropriate postures for prolonged periods. Users can still feel the effects of the exercises hours after working out, carrying their improved postures throughout the day.

That makes The McGill Big 3 ideal for preventing muscle overload and overuse due to poor postures held throughout the day. Proper examination is still needed to treat chronic upper body pains properly. But by improving your spinal stability, you can prop up the support structures surrounding the pain area, minimizing the impact of core misalignment and core instability.

According to Stuart McGill, the core, by nature, is rigid and designed for minimal motion. That’s why people miss the point when they try to beat lower back pain with stretches like Russian twists and strengthening exercises like situps. The core needs to be stabilized with a neutral spine, not flexed, to retain its natural attributes.

The McGill Big 3 are all about keeping the core in a motionless state for as long as possible.

How Do You Brace for The McGill Big 3?

The McGill Big 3 have a markedly different focus and execution compared to traditional core exercises. Your experience with traditional core exercises will not count much here, nor does it matter anyway. It’s just a matter of time and consistency and how to brace for these exercises.

When bracing for The McGill Big 3, you don’t bend, twist, or fold in or fold out any part of your core – you synchronize your core with all the muscles connected to it. Think of an athlete taking a punch to the stomach to build abs. They drive their core and trunk into each other and then position upper body groups into their neutral position. Their abs become a pillar of strength, ready to weather any storm without impeding breathing and other natural functions.

The McGill Big 3 bracing techniques are also great primers to lots of other exercises, including lifts and presses, thereby stiffening up your core to give you a stable spine throughout your workout. And the stabilizing effects can be felt for the rest of the day.

However, it’s advisable to begin slowly, then ramp up the intensity as you become more comfortable with your routine. And make sure to do an abdominal brace every time before starting off with any of the Big 3 exercises.

How Do You Do The McGill Big 3? 

First, a word of caution. The McGill Big 3 are not a solution for lower back pain. As such, it’s always advisable to consult with a physical therapist before engaging in The McGill Big 3. The source of the back pain needs to be properly accessed first to determine whether you can tackle these exercises or not. Stuart McGill strongly recommends that the activities that triggered the back pain be identified and avoided as a preemptive step.

Now, without any further ado, let’s dig into the Big 3. Here’s all you need to know:

1. Curl-up


The curl-up is similar to traditional sit ups and crunch exercises but protects the spine from excessive motion. You can use it to build your six-packs and other frontal core muscles without flexing or folding you spine.

Step-by-Step Guide

  1. Lie flat on your back with one leg fully extended and the other leg with the knee bent.

  2. Tuck your two hands under your lower back to retain the natural arch of your spine.

  3. Brace your abs, then raise your head, shoulder, and upper spine in perfect unison an inch or two off the floor. Don’t tilt your head slightly back or tuck your chin, then hold for 8 – 10 seconds. It might not seem like much on the surface, but it’s just enough to stimulate your rectus abdominis significantly while your lower spine stays neutral.

  4. Return to the starting position, then repeat with the other knee raised. Do equal reps for each knee.

  5. After a few reps, you can take things up a notch by simultaneously raising your elbow along with your head and shoulder. With this, you take out the elbow support, increasing pressure on your abs. Do equal reps for each knee.

  6. After a few reps of step 5, return to the starting position in Step 1 but this time with your right arm extended overhead. When raising your head, raise your outstretched right arm towards the ceiling and bend your knee 90 degrees over your hips. Do equal sets on different sides of the body.

Curl Up Tips

Use your tucked hands as a gauge for your spine’s positioning. If you feel your back flattening out, then you’re losing your spine’s arc probably because you’ve raised your head too high.

Start out with the 6/4/2 descending pyramid rep set beginning with level 1 reps. Then ramp it up to 12/10/8 to further strengthen your abdominal wall.

2. Side Plank


The side plank is also big on stabilizing your core, but it’s also one best-suited for soothing shoulder pain. After a hard long day’s work, the side plank can help you ease the burden on your shoulder, literally diffusing tensions from your shoulder blade and across your upper body.

It’s one of the most popular of The McGill Big 3. But if you’re not already familiar with it, here’s all that it entails:

Step-by-Step Guide

  1. Begin by lying on your side with your forearm on the floor and elbow tucked under your shoulder. Bend your left leg up 90 degrees, with your hip stacked behind you.

  2. Grab your hip with your free hand. Brace your core, and drive your hips forward (but not upward) to raise it slowly from the floor with support from your glutes. You should be holding out a straight position with your shoulder in tangent with your knees. Keep it up for 8 – 10 seconds.

  3. Slowly return to the starting position by lowering your hips gently, then repeat. Turn to other side of the body and do a few reps.

  4. Begin with the starting position in Step 1, but with the lower leg extended and the upper leg crossed directly in front of it. Extend your hips to support your bottom elbow and feet, then lower your lower body by extending your bottom knee. Finally, hinge at the hips to “sit back.”

  5. To take it up a notch, begin with the starting position in Step 4, but raise your top arm and keep it in a straight line with your shoulder but with your shoulders slightly bent. 

  6. Brace your feet and rotate your top shoulder to tilt all of your body forward uniformly. Stop when you’re just short of a front plank, with your free arm coming in just underneath you between your supporting arm and the floor.

  7. Hold for 10 seconds, then gently revert to the starting position and repeat. Switch to different sides and perform a few more reps. 

Advanced Option

You can learn to increase the holding duration over time. Hold for 60 seconds for maximum impact. You can also raise the intensity by keeping your legs straight instead of bending them when lowering your lower body.

Side Plank Tips

If you’re having a hard time with the exercise, starting with knee motion can help make things easier. Also, to move your body in total unison, contract muscles on all of your sides and hover your rib cage at a slightly elevated height during the dip.

3. Bird dog


While the other Big 3 exercises focus mainly on core stability, the bird dog is designed to enhance mobility while also improving spinal stability. It engages muscles that extend the spine in addition to the main core muscles.

The high point is when you drive your lower back really hard to offset the pull of gravity on the raised leg.

Step-by-Step Guide

  1. Start with your hands and knees position on the floor, and place your hands directly under your shoulder and your knees under your hips.

  2. With your core braced and shoulder retracted, mold a fist with your right hand and slowly extend it forward while simultaneously extending your left leg backward, until they’re both parallel to the floor.

  3. Drive your right foot down and your heel rearward to activate your glutes, and ensure your raised hip is in a straight line with your torso. You should be feeling a heavy drive down your gut. Now hold for 8 – 10 seconds.

  4. Return slowly to the starting position, then repeat. Switch sides equally after a few reps.

Advanced Option

Draw circles and squares with your extended arms and legs while your spine’s natural curve remains intact. You’ll feel increased pressure on your core once you start with the movements. To further increase the intensity, you can add a small weight or a light resistance band to your extended wrist and ankle.

Bird Dog Tips

The Bird Dog is a simple move with wide reaching impact on your body’s muscles. You should feel engagement in just about every fiber of muscle from your head down to your toes. Your shoulder muscles should be completely engaged – you need to retract them in the starting position, and if you’re feeling stiff shoulders, use the advanced option.

Down in your lower body, your raised hips should activate your quads, glutes, and hamstrings to raise optimal support for both legs.

How Often Should I Do The McGill Big 3? 

As earlier stated, if you have low back pain it’s suggested to engage in The McGill Big 3 with supervision from a physical therapist. A physical therapist will help determine not only if The McGill Big 3 are an ideal solution for your back pain but also how often you should do it to get the best results.

If you’re in the clear for these exercises, the best recommendation is using a reverse pyramid set, starting out with a higher number of reps and then gradually decreasing it to get a firmer grip with the exercises. With this, you can develop the endurance needed to hold proper postures for prolonged hours, all without stressing or straining your muscles.

For the first set, you can start with 8 reps on both sides of the body, then decrease by a factor of two, from 8 to 6, and then 4. As you develop more endurance, you can increase the reps in the pyramid set, and then progress to reps of advanced options.

Take it nice and slow all through the way. Hold each rep for 8 – 10 seconds and repeat the same number of reps on each side, then break 20 seconds between each set.

Here’s a more detailed table showing the recommended number of reps for each exercise in descending pyramid sets:

Curl Up

(6, 4, 2), (8, 6, 4), (10, 8, 6)

Side Bridge

(6, 4, 2), (8, 6, 4), (10, 8, 6)

Dog Bird

(6, 4, 2), (8, 6, 4), (10, 8, 6) 

You can use this scheme to tackle your lower back pain and tighten up your core, but it’s also ideal for warming up and bracing for many other exercises. As such, you can integrate it as an important part of your daily routine.


The McGill Big 3 are your quickest route to building core strength and stability. By helping align your core with other parts of your body, it can go a long way in helping relieve lower back pain, shoulder pain, and pains in other parts of the body.

The McGill Big 3 are simple and easy on your lumbar spine, providing a pain-free, stress-free regimen for developing your core. You can easily build the muscular endurance you need to maintain core stability and proper body posture throughout your day. They cause little or no strain on the spine while mounting maximum pressure on the core muscles.

At Fit Club NY, we combine our cutting-edge fitness expertise with The McGill Big 3 to deliver result-driven fitness solutions to our clients. We’ll help you root out the cause of your lower back pain before recommending a tailored action plan to place you on a path to pain relief.

Need a solid core free from pain? Contact us today to begin your journey to quick results! 

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