Take a minute and think… what is the most common injury sustained by people in the gym, or even just during daily life? I’m sure everyone reading this knows someone that has injured their low back in the gym, or by doing something as simple as picking up their child or moving a couch. Not only is lower back pain common among weightlifters, but in a study done by the Mayo Clinic, it was found that back problems are one of the top 10 reasons for hospital visits in general.
Many people that sustain back injuries are wrongly advised to simply take time off, or in extreme cases, to undergo surgery. Simply taking time off does not address the reason that a person hurt their back in the first place. When they go back to working out, they are less conditioned after having taken a break, and are more likely to experience another injury. There may be cases where surgery is a viable option, but many studies now show that recovery through rehabilitation is the same in a person that did not have back surgery, as someone that has had it.
Dr. Stuart McGill is a professor, and researcher at the University of Waterloo. He has written several books about the spine research that he has been involved in, including “The Back Mechanic,” and “The Gift of Injury.” He has made many contributions in helping others to prevent and rehab spinal injuries, and is especially well known in his work with various athletes. One such athlete was Brian Carroll. Brian is an elite power lifter that had a fractured sacrum, and L4-L5 and L5-S1 that had many vertebral fractures and bone bruises. Through working with Dr. McGill, Brian made a full recovery without surgery, and competed again at an elite level.
Through many years of studying the spine, Dr. McGill has found three specific exercises that efficiently work all areas of the core without placing excessive stresses on the parts of the back that may be aggravated due to injury. Dr. McGill also avoids movements that cause a significant amount of spinal flexion, such as abdominal crunches, movements like that actually recreate the type of lower back flexion that tend to cause lower back injuries. The three exercises that are a part of his clients rehab have come to be known as the “McGill Big 3.” These three exercises are:
- The Curl Up
- The Bird-Dog
- The Side-Bridge
The Curl Up
Step 1: Lie on your back with one knee bent and the other straight. Place your hands under your low back.
Step 2: Pick your head off the ground only a few inches and hold that position for 10 seconds. The goal is to perform this curl-up without any movement in the low back.
Step 3: After a 10 second hold, relax your head back down to the resting position.
How Many Reps to Perform
Dr. McGill recommends a descending rep scheme in order to increase stability without over fatiguing the body. An example would be to perform 5 reps, then 3, and finally 1 (each with a hold at the top). Rest about 30 seconds between sets and repeat. As you become better conditioned, reps can begin to increase. A simple progression would be to increase each set by one rep making it 6-4-2, and so on.
Step 1: Get on your hands and knees (quadruped) with your back in a neutral position.
Step 2: Being careful to not allow any lower back movement, kick one of your legs backwards while simultaneously raising the opposite arm until both your arm and leg are fully extended.
Step 3: Hold the extended position for 10 seconds before returning to the starting quadruped position, and then switch sides. Perform the same rep scheme as previously explained, beginning with 5 reps per side.
The Side Plank
Step 1: Lie on your side, with your elbow directly underneath your shoulder, and your legs bent to help support your body weight (a more advanced position can be done by straightening your legs). Place your free arm on your side.
Step 2: Raise your hips so that only your knee and arm support your weight.
Step 3: Hold this position for 10 seconds before returning to the ground. Perform this exercise for the same amount of reps and sets as the other two exercises.
Perform these exercises, with the recommended sets and reps, at least one time daily, and watch your back health begin to improve. In my own training, I have found it to be effective to use these exercises as movement prep before I begin my workout. Be sure as well, to be mindful of your form, practice proper bracing while lifting and also be aware of your posture and spinal position throughout your daily activities.
7 Point Nutrition
Always consult a physician before starting any exercise or nutrition program.