3 Exercises to make your Back Bulletproof


I recently became aware of Stuart McGill's "Big 3" exercises. McGill is a professor and researcher in Canada who is influential in spine health and function. His "Big 3" exercises can be seen by clicking on the link above.

He describes the point of the exercises as "to build endurance and control around your spine" as opposed to building strength. Immediately I knew that this dude knew what he was talking about - the purpose of the spine is endurance and control. I have heard so many patients say "my doctor says I need to strengthen my back". Bullshit! you need to control it! You know this. Nobody has ever said you should lift with your back. Instead, the spine has to hold you upright ALL DAY LONG EVERY SINGLE DAY. Don't you think you should have "endurance" and "control" of it??

I like his 3 exercises...

But I think I can make them even better... No wait. I know I can make them better. Try his 3 and my 3 (at different times) and see how you feel directly afterwards. I'm confident that mine will prevail in every case. 

Where I think McGill steers in the wrong direction is in stating that the core is needed primarily in stabilizing the trunk while the extremities are moving. While this is certainly true, it fails to take into account the natural development of the core muscles which is useful if you want to understand their full function. The core muscles are developed while babies lift their head to look around, roll over, push up into kneeling, crawl, etc. Therefore, the core muscles first role is to move the spine in all kinds of directions against gravity. 

These 3 exercises will activate the muscles in front, back, and on the sides to hit all aspects of the trunk. They also incorporate actively moving through the range of motion that the core muscles control. 

I've been implementing Feldenkrais methods lately and they work like magic. It's not often you stand up after doing the curl-up exercise (which is McGill's first one) and feel better, lighter, and less tense.  Yet that is exactly what I am promising you with the first of my exercises. 

The Pure PT Big 3

apoligies on the quality of the videos - - I'm still figuring out YouTube. Hopefully the technique of the exercise is still conveyed well, which is the important part ;) 

The first exercise is for flexion. Pretty important as far as your spine is concerned. Typically you want to start your rehab or stabilization exercises in this direction, as it is less inflammatory than extension. 

Here we are coordinating the anterior oblique sling by creating the "X" with right upper trunk and left lower trunk, and vice versa. 

key points:

  • keep your chin the same distance from your chest the whole time
  • pretend the entire upper half of your body is one piece
  • use minimal effort to accomplish the motion
  • if it hurts, don't do it!

Get up and walk around after you have done a bunch on both sides. You'll feel lighter and taller than when you started.

Bonus: Hold the same side knee (i.e. right hand to right knee) and perform the same motion with your left upper trunk flexing to the right.

Here we are coordinating the posterior oblique sling by activating the right upper trunk and left lower extremity at the same time, and vice versa. In case you weren't sure, you should do both sides on each of these exercises. 

... yea so I had nothing to correct on her form ... felt weird. can you tell?

key points: 

  • keep upper trunk as one unit
  • stay in pain-free range

Bonus: while holding your head and leg up, perform circles in the air with your leg. try a few in each direction. 

This one I'm pretty sure I made up. If you can find this anywhere else, please let me know :)

Instead of just holding yourself stationary, we are going to move through the functional range of the glutes while firing the core muscles. 

key points:

  • posterior tilt your pelvis!! if you don't know what that means, you can see me correcting it a bunch on Michelle. Basically you should pull your belly button up towards your face, to reduce the amount of curve in your low back
  • squeeze the glutes hard - that is what the exercise is for, after all
  • keep the neck relaxed and the head straight
  • control the descent, as well as the ascent

as always, please to not exercise into any painful range of motion. if you have any questions feel free to contact us

this article is not meant to diagnose or treat any condition. if you are not sure if you should exercise, please contact your healthcare professional. 

Austin Misiura, DPT, OCS, CSCS is a Board Certified Orthopedic Physical Therapist and owner of Pure Physical Therapy - in partnership with MSP Athletics in Miami