The McGill Big 3 Exercises For Core Stability + How To Do Them Properly

If you have low back pain or want to increase your functional core strength to prevent potential back pain in the future, the McGill Big 3 exercises could be just right for you.

The McGill Big 3 exercises serve as both rehab and prehab back exercises.

So, what are the McGill Big 3 exercises? How do you do the McGill Big 3 exercises? What is the purpose of the Stuart McGill Big 3 core exercises?

In this Stuart McGill Big 3 exercise guide, we will discuss what the McGill Big 3 exercises entail, their purpose and benefits, and how to do the McGill Big 3 exercises for low back and core strength.

More specifically, we will look at: 

  • What Are the McGill Big 3 Exercises?
  • Benefits of the McGill Big 3 Exercises
  • How Do You Do the McGill Big 3 Exercises?

Let’s get started!

A bird dog, one of the McGill Big 3 exercises.

What Are the McGill Big 3 Exercises?

The McGill Big 3 exercises are three specific core exercises put together by Dr. Stuart McGill of Waterloo University to help treat low back pain and improve functional core strength to prevent low back pain. 

Over the past few decades, Dr. Stuart McGill has authored numerous books on treating low back pain and dealing with back injuries.

He has written various scientific journal articles, blog posts, and other helpful entries about his research and clinical findings in treating and preventing back pain and back injuries.

Some of Dr. McGill‘s notable books on low back pain and building a healthy spine and healthy back include Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance and Back Mechanic, as well as in countless professional journal articles.

McGill’s Big 3 low back exercises, also considered to be the McGill Big 3 core exercises, represent Dr. McGill‘s findings about the most effective core strengthening exercises to prevent back pain, heal or treat low back pain, and build a healthy back.

A person holding their back with low back pain.

Benefits of the McGill Big 3 Exercises

There are several key benefits of doing The Big 3 core exercises.

Ultimately, the Stuart McGill Big 3 moves help build core stability by focusing on isometric contractions so that you can properly support your spine during both static postures like sitting and standing as well as during dynamic movements like walking, running, lifting weights, and exercising in general.

In this way, the Stuart McGill Big 3 exercises serve as both rehab and prehab back exercises.

The particular core exercises that make up the McGill Big 3 rehab exercises can be performed when you already have a low back injury or back injury in general and want to help facilitate healing and return to healthy everyday function and exercise participation.

We often have a tendency to forgo physical activity when we get injured for numerous reasons.

For one, if you are in pain even when you are lying down, resting, or just trying to do everyday activities, it can be highly unmotivating—if not very counterintuitive—to think that exercising may actually help you feel better and heal your injury.

A person holding their back in pain.

Secondly, if you have low back pain or a back injury, you may feel unsure about what types of exercises you can safely perform without exacerbating your pain or worsening your injury.

This anxiety and lack of knowledge about how to exercise with back pain can lead to the default decision that it is better to rest and do nothing than risk doing the wrong exercises that may potentially cause greater harm.

This is where the McGill Big 3 back rehab exercises truly shine; they were specifically designed to be safe and helpful in cases where you have low back pain.

An important disclaimer is that you should work with a physical therapist or talk with your doctor before doing the McGill Big 3 workout exercises if you have a serious back injury, are unsure how to do these exercises properly, or have potential contraindications to moving your spine, getting on and off the ground, etc.

However, with mild to moderate nonspecific low back pain or back injuries where you have been cleared by your physical therapist to do the Stuart McGill Big 3 core rehab exercises, a truly valuable benefit is that they are “road tested“ by an experienced professional to be safe and effective for treating existing low back pain in most cases.

A trainer helping an athlete.

When you have an injury, being inactive can actually prolong the recovery in certain cases because it can lead to tightness in the muscles and connective tissues, and it reduces circulation.

While not all types of exercise will be possible when you have a low back injury, a McGill Big 3 benefit is that these particular core stabilization exercises can help you do some safe movement to prevent the consequences of being completely inactive, thus potentially supporting the healing process for your back pain.

On the other end of the spectrum, even if you are not using the McGill Big 3 PT core exercises to help with rehabbing an existing injury, these core stabilization exercises can be highly effective at preventing low back pain and injuries in the first place.

The McGill Big 3 Core exercises are designed to improve core activation, core stabilization, and the ability to properly brace your core, all of which can help prevent low back pain down the line.

A bird dog exercise.

How Do You Do the McGill Big 3 Exercises?

As the name describes, the Stuart McGill Big 3 PT exercises or a set of three core activation moves that Dr. McGill has found to most efficiently build 360° functional core stability without causing excessive stress on the parts of the back that may be aggravated due to injury. 

The Big 3 include the following core exercises:

  • Curl-Up
  • Side Plank
  • Bird-Dog

Before you do the McGill Big 3 workout, you should begin with mobility exercises to help address mobility restrictions both within the lumbar spine itself as well as above and below the lumbar spine (therefore, addressing the pelvis and hips as well as the thoracic spine and neck).

Good options include Cat-Cow or Cat-Camel.

#1: The Curl-Up

The curl-up is often likened to an abdominal crunch or sit-up, but when performing this ab exercise as part of the Big 3, there are some notable form and technique deviations from how people typically do crunches and sit-ups.

These modifications reduce stress on the low back and better engage the deep transversus abdominis, which can help prevent low back pain.

Here are the steps for the curl-up exercise:

  1. Lie on your back with your hands tucked under your low back to help maintain the natural lordotic curve of your spine (the arch upward). You can flare your elbows out to the side and use them on the floor to provide a larger base of support if you have a weak core or significant pain in your back.
  2. Extend one leg out straight and have one knee bent with the foot flat on the ground as with a normal sit-up. If you have pain that is radiating down one of your legs, that should be the leg that you choose to straighten; otherwise, you can do either leg to start.
  3. Engage your abs to lift your head slightly above the ground and hold this position for at least 10 seconds. There should be no movement in your lower back, and you should only be lifting your head up ever so slightly. You do not want to lift and curl up the way that you flex your spine with a sit-up. Rather, keep your spine straight, your gaze upward toward the ceiling, and just lift the head and neck (and shoulders if you can do so without moving your low back at all) straight up rather than straight up and forward as you would during a regular ab crunch.
  4. Hold for 10 seconds and then slowly lower back down. 
People doing curl ups.

Note: As you get stronger or your back pain begins to resolve, you can lift your elbows up off of the ground while keeping your hands in place to provide more of a stabilizing challenge for your core muscles.

This constitutes one rep of the McGill Big 3 curl-up exercise.

This naturally leads to the question: how many reps should I do for the McGill Big 3 curl-up?

There is a unique rep scheme for the McGill Big 3 exercises as suggested by Dr. McGill.

Ideally, you are to perform a descending pyramid rep scheme with your big 3 curl-up reps.

This means that you might perform five reps and then take a break. Your second set might have three reps, and your final step might have one rep. In between each set, rest for 20 to 30 seconds. Remember that one rep of the McGill curl-up is a 10-second hold.

As you get stronger, you can bump up the number of reps in your pyramid, but keep the holds at 10 seconds rather than increasing the length of each hold. This is thought to improve muscular endurance without causing your muscles to cramp up.

#2: The Side Plank

Two people doing side planks.

The McGill Big 3 side plank exercise builds strength in the lateral core, particularly the internal and external oblique muscles, as well as the deeper quadratus lumborum muscle.

This movement helps you build core stability as well as pelvic and hip stability in the frontal plane and build strength in the gluteus medius muscle, which plays a key role in hip and pelvic stability.

Because the pelvis and hips form the foundation for the entire spine, having proper pelvic alignment and stability is crucial for treating and preventing low back pain.

Here are the steps for the McGill Big 3 side plank:

  1. Lay on your side with your knees stacked on top of each other and shoulders stacked on top of each other. If you have existing back pain, you will perform a kneeling side plank, but if you are trying to do the Big 3 to prevent back pain, you can do a side plank from your feet.
  2. Press through your elbow on the side that is on the bottom of your body to lift your hips up until they are in a straight line from your knee to your head. You can place your free hand just in front of your body on the floor to provide extra support and stability if necessary.
  3. Hold for 10 seconds and then lower back down.

As with the curl-up exercise, perform the same descending rep scheme for the McGill Big 3 side plank, increasing the number of reps as you get stronger rather than holding each side plank rep for more than 10 seconds.

#3: The Bird Dog

Bird dog exercise.

The final McGill Big 3 exercises the bird dog, which helps build core stability while the arms and legs are moving, making it a truly functional core exercise.

Here are the steps for the McGill Big 3 bird dog exercise:

  1. Kneel down on all fours with your wrists stacked under your shoulders and your knees stacked under your hips. Make sure to keep a neutral spine the entire time.
  2. Lift and extend your opposite arm and leg straight out in front and behind your body, respectively. Keep your hips and shoulders square to the ground.
  3. Hold for 10 seconds and then return to the starting position.
  4. Then, perform the same movement on the opposite side.
  5. One rep is a 10-second hold for doing both opposite arm/leg pairs.

If you are unable to perform this movement without losing your balance, you can extend an arm and a leg individually or one at a time rather than simultaneously.

Again, use the descending pyramid rep scheme with the Big 3 bird dog move, focusing on the 10-second isometric hold length for each rep without increasing the rep length.

To learn more about strengthening your lower back muscles, check out our guide to a complete low back workout here.

A bird dog exercise.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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