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Get to Know "The Big Three" Core Exercises for a Healthy Spine

Most Canadians have experienced lower back pain or dysfunction at some stage in their lives. This nagging pain may have kept them from the activities they enjoy and affected their quality of life. While many back injuries may be caused by trauma, lower back pain or injury may occur because of poor spinal stability or improper mechanics of the spine. It may even be caused by subtle repetitive movements or positions that cause damage over time. The good news? With a bit of time and effort, you can help reduce the chances of spinal injury or pain with “the Big Three” core exercises.


The Big Three is a group of exercises that have been used as an injury prevention program by many occupational and sporting groups. These exercises are based on years of scientific evidence gathered by a leading expert on the subject, Dr. Stuart McGill. Dr. McGill is a professor at the University of Waterloo and expert in spine function and injury prevention and rehabilitation, and the author of two books: Low Back Disorders and Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance.

The Big Three exercises focus on endurance rather than strength of the core. Strength of the spine is not associated with optimal lower back health. In fact, McGill has discovered that many of his lower back patients had been injured by poor training programs intended to increase strength. Many fitness professions design programs using sit-ups, which result in high loads on the spine and can mimic a common injury mechanism that results in herniated disks.

The Big Three focuses on structures that make up the core, including:

  • Muscles of the abdominal wall
  • Muscles that control spinal extension 
  • The quadratus lumborum muscle

Also included are two multi-joint muscles that pass through the core, linking it to the limbs, shoulders, pelvis and arms. These are:

  • The latissimus dorsi and
  • Psoas muscles


Did you know the core is designed to PREVENT motion, rather than initiate it? So why do trainers encourage exercises such as the crunch that don’t train muscles to move the way they are used every day—exercises that may result in injury? McGill has found a simple answer: “For most fitness professionals, the link between injury and exercise needs to be better developed.” Having a strong core keeps the back safe by reducing the possibility of injury; however, it must be trained properly and safely. Good technique in sports demands that power be generated at the hips and transmitted through a stiffened core. A strong core allows for more strength in the periphery of the body, allowing for optimal power and efficiency.

The exercises featured in the Big Three are explained below. They are a good starting point for those who wish to boost their core stability for optimal spinal health and injury prevention. They are designed specially to spare the spine, yet challenge the core and enhance the motor control system responsible for spinal stability.

Click here to view the Big Three!

More on Injury Prevention and Back Health

Another key element for injury prevention is to remove the source of pain or potential pain. This may be caused by a perturbed motion or motor pattern. It may also be caused by improper lifting or strength imbalances as well as poor posture. Exercise professionals such as physiotherapist, athletic therapists and kinesiologists have a trained eye when it comes to the body and how it moves. They offer postural assessments and may be able to spot some of these dysfunctions in the body. For those with spinal injuries, please seek a medical professional before starting an exercise program.

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