I tried the three main exercises of a spine expert, and they did more than strengthen my abs

Millions of people around the world suffer from back pain. Core stability training is one thing you can do to prevent, facilitate or repair this, and you don’t need any equipment to get started.

As someone who spends hours every day sitting in front of a computer screen with questionable posture, I decided to look for some more core-strengthening exercises to squeeze into my routine.

My hunt led me to the “McGill Big Three”, a collection of three of the best core stability exercises for developing strength and protecting your back, as identified by spine experts and BackFitpro’s Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Stuart McGill.

These exercises are; the curl up, working the muscles on the front of your stomach, the side plane, working the muscles on the side of the stomach, and the bird dog, activating the deep core muscles that are in the back of the abs.

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How to make the McGill Big Three

  • Curl up x6

  • Side table x6 for each side

  • Bird dog x6 for each side

Perform each exercise for six repetitions. During each repetition, hold the top position for 10 seconds while performing power breathing (as shown in the video above).

If you are doing the unilateral movements – the side plank and bird dogs – then do six repetitions on each side.

If you want some extra credit or feel that your core muscles need more, you can add a second set of four repetitions each and a third set of two repetitions for all exercises.

1. Curl up

Fit&Well writer Harry Bullmore does a modified curl upFit&Well writer Harry Bullmore does a modified curl up

Fit&Well writer Harry Bullmore does a modified curl up

Sets: 3 reps: 6

  • Lie on your back, then lift your right knee toward the ceiling so you can plant your right foot on the floor. Place your left hand under your lower back to help achieve a neutral spine posture.

  • Push your right hand into the side of your abdomen, take a breath that moves your fingers laterally (to the side), then strengthen the heart.

  • Keeping your back straight, lift your head slightly off the ground, then complete 10 seconds of power breathing. Relax and return to the starting position

My takeaways

I already include a good amount of core stability exercises in my regular CrossFit workout, and I like to think that these have helped me keep back pain and injuries at bay.

However, most of my go-to core moves involve a lot of gear. I was excited to find out if there were other effective, equipment-free exercises I could do at home. The curl up quickly gave me my answer.

It was the exercise that took me the longest to get the hang of; playing around to make sure my hands were in the right place, my spine remained neutral, my breathing was on point and my heart was engaged properly.

This exercise is intended to target the muscles in the front of the stomach, and despite the need for such limited movement, I could really feel it in my rectus abdominis (or six-pack muscle).

2. Side table

Fit & Well fitness writer Harry Bullmore performs a side plankFit & Well fitness writer Harry Bullmore performs a side plank

Fit & Well fitness writer Harry Bullmore performs a side plank

Sets: 1 reps: 6

  • Lie on your right side, then push yourself so that your weight is spread between the side of your right foot and your forearm. Keep your hips square and try to keep your body in a straight line from your feet to your head. If this feels hard, you can drop your knee to the floor.

  • Hold this position for 10 seconds, then return to the starting position and repeat.

My takeaways

Ah, the side plank. This exercise has been bruising egos for decades, with its disarming simplicity and surprisingly complicated execution leaving even experienced exercisers shaking after a matter of seconds.

Fortunately, there are scaling options (bring your knees to the floor or place your unsupported hand on the opposite shoulder). However you decide to make the move, it’s worth the effort.

Doing this exercise in the past, I held it for 45-60 seconds, because I thought that 10 second intervals would be something of a walk in the park. But, coming after curl-ups and twinning with power breathing, I found the side plank surprisingly difficult.

My obliques (the muscles that run on either side of the abdominal area) were firing on all cylinders by the fourth repetition, and I finished the set with a grimace as my forehead began to bead with sweat. An impressive result after only six repetitions.

The obliques play a major role in maintaining posture, supporting the spine and resisting twisting movements, so strengthening them is a good way to improve health.

3. Bird dog

Fit & Well fitness writer Harry Bullmore plays a bird dogFit & Well fitness writer Harry Bullmore plays a bird dog

Fit & Well fitness writer Harry Bullmore plays a bird dog

Sets: 1 reps: 6

  • Start on all fours with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. Brace the heart, then extend the right hand and left leg in front and back respectively. Do not extend the leg so high that it causes you to lose your neutral spine.

  • Hold this position for 10 seconds. Then, keeping a neutral spine and both limbs off the floor, slowly move your right hand and left knee. Repeat on the other side.

My takeaways

If someone tries to tell you that bird dog is too easy, chances are they didn’t do it right – running for repetitions, losing tension in the core or letting their spine slide out of neutral positions.

This is another one that took some tinkering to get right. I first adjusted my extended leg to almost parallel to the ground, but found that keeping my foot closer to the ground had more of the desired effect, maintaining a neutral spine and recruiting the deep muscles that stabilize the spine, such as and the transverse abdominis.

On his University Squat YouTube channel, physical therapist Dr. Aaron Horschig explains that this is because lifting the back leg too high causes the back to extend and over.

“I want that foot just a couple of inches off the ground. [This way] we are able to keep the heart in a better position. We keep our hips moving as they should, because the hips directly influence the spine.”

Will I make the “McGill Big Three” again?

The bang for your buck offered by this routine is immense, so it’s definitely one I’ll be returning to.

It’s completely equipment-free (at most you might want a yoga mat for a little extra cushioning on unforgiving floors) and provides a complete 360° core workout that works a multitude of muscles in the front, shoulders and sides of your abdomen.

A strong core can improve your balance, help you maintain good posture and prevent back pain, according to Harvard Medical School. It’s no wonder Horschig makes these moves every day, and wants his viewers to do the same.

For me, I know I have to keep the heavy core stability work I do in the gym. But I always keep these moves in my back pocket for times when I don’t have access to any training tools, can’t get away from my desk or just like to give my core some extra TLC.

If you’re looking for more core exercises to try, why not give the bug a shot?

If you want to make your abs workouts more comfortable, take a look at our guide to the best yoga mats on the market.

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