If you think of a tree (our body) and its branches (our limbs), in order for the branches to withstand mother nature and all her elements (everyday tasks, sporting movements, walking/running etc.), the tree trunk needs to remain stable. In this instance, a ‘bulletproof core’ is required, as is required by the human body when performing and executing everyday tasks and sporting movements such as; walking, lifting objects, running, weightlifting movements etc. But, what is the core? Where is it located? and how do we improve the stability of our core to reduce the risk of injury and provide the foundations to express force when executing subsequent movement tasks or sport specific movements [1,4].
Curl – Up
This first exercise targets the musculature of the abdominal wall, located on the front (anterior) and the sides (lateral) of the body. The primary function of this muscle group is anti-extension, whereby they actively resist extension through the spine;
Lie on your back with one knee bent (inside of foot parallel to the opposite knee).
Head on the floor, with both hands underneath the lower back (to ensure a neutral slightly arched position is present).
“Chest to the sky” – bring your head and chest towards the sky and pause for ten seconds, the aim is to perform this movement without any movement in the lower back.
After addressing the anterior core muscles, the side plank is used to target the lateral muscles; the internal/external obliques and the quadratus lumborum, whose function is anti-flexion, whereby they actively resist side flexion or bending of the spine;
Lay on your side, with your legs knees bent and your upper body supported through your elbow, placing your free hand on your opposite chest or shoulder.
Raise your hips so that only the bottom knee and arm are supporting your body.
Keep your body/ in a straight line, and try to prevent your hips from dropping.
When compared to the other two exercises, the bird-dog has a little more movement in regard to its extremities, however the aim of maintaining a neutral hip position and a stable core during movement is still ever present. This exercise targets the muscles of the posterior chain namely the back extensors whose function is anti-flexion, whereby they actively resist flexion through the spine – quite the opposite of the anti-extensors used during the curl-up.
Assume an ‘all four’s’ position, with the spine in a neutral position (slight arch, not completely flat).
Without allowing any movement to occur in the lower back, extend one leg back through the hip while.
As you extend one leg, simultaneously extend the opposite arm out in front of you, until both extremities are fully extended and hold.
Finally, in regards to rep schemes for the big 3, Dr. McGill advocates for using a descending pyramid rep scheme with 10-second isometric holds, in order to enhance stability without fatiguing and over- working the body. E.g. five reps, then three and so on (each with a 8-10 second hold). With 20-30 seconds rest between each set – As this rep schemes becomes easier, it is advised to increase the number of repetitions rather than the duration of the isometric holds, in order to build endurance [2,4]. If you’re new to training or your athlete has a young training age, the big 3 are an excellent addition to a session, whereas, with more advanced lifters or athletes the use of the big 3 at the latter stages of a warm up are equally as advantageous [1,2,4].
In summary, the core musculature and its function in maintaining neutral spine alignment, optimal trunk position (eliminating pelvic tilt), and the transfer of loads along the kinetic chain (everyday tasks and sport-specific movements) are integral and shouldn’t be overlooked. The integration of the relevant core stability exercises (McGill big 3) within a holistic programme, are proven to be advantageous, however, they have their place among other modalities (mobility, corrective exercises, muscular endurance etc.) that should be integrated where suited based on yours or your individual needs. Like all training, foundations need to be laid and everyone needs to ‘earn the right’ before progression is introduced.
Remember; “If your only tool is a hammer, everything will begin to look like a nail”. Richard Walters
1. Bliven, K. C. H., Anderson, B. E. (2013) Core Stability Training for Injury Prevention. Sport Health 5(6): 514-522.
2. Horschig, A 2018, The Mcgill Big 3 for Core Stability, viewed 19 July 2020, <https://squatuniversity.com/2018/06/21/the-mcgill-big-3-for-core-stability/>
3. Panjabi, M.M. (1992) The Stabilising System of the Spine. Part II. Neutral Zone and Instability Hypothesis. Journal of Spinal Discord. 5: 390-396
4. McGill, S.M. (2010) Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention. Strength and Conditioning Journal 32(3): 33-46
5. McGill, S.M. (2009) Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance (4th ed). Waterloo, Canada: Backfitpro Inc. pp. 84-86
6. McGill, S.M. (2009) Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance (4th ed). Waterloo, Canada: Backfitpro Inc. pp. 112-113, 188-197