Mcgill Big 3: Proper execution

McGill Big 3 Proper execution

The McGill big 3 consists of the Birddog, the side plank, and the curl-up. Many of you started seeing me talk about and discuss these exercises ten years ago. Ten years later, I’m still doing them and am a huge proponent of them for those coming back from a back injury. But, their benefit is not limited to just those back injured. These exercises are some of the most ‘band-for-your-buck’ you will ever have in your program. I treat them as a daily warm-up before training and my daily maintenance, as you have read in my book Gift of Injury. For specifics on the big 3 and the science behind the why, I suggest reading Back Mechanic and Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance.

McGill big 3 Magic

Many people wrongly assume that the McGill big three will magically take everyone’s back pain away. At the same time, this may be true for some, while others must work to get out of the pain (read Back Mechanic). Other times, they are too pained for the McGill three and need regressions discussed in the second video above.

McGill’s big three poorly executed

When training the core, especially if the person is back-pained, the pristine execution of the McGill big 3 is of the utmost importance. But, unfortunately, I see so many different bastardizations of the big three. And this makes it hard to know if the people I talk with are doing them correctly; this is why I have to work with them in person or virtually to ensure they are doing them correctly. So, if you are reading this and are unsure if you are doing them correctly, keep reading and watch the video above.


Specific cues to remember for the Birddog are: Pushing the earth away, driving the heel back, toe down, and making sure to hold for a time; no more than 10 seconds, but usually 7-10. Of course, depending on the current condition. If you are not stiffening the core, making a fist with your hand, pushing the earth away with your hand on the ground, and getting a hip extension, you’re missing out. Worse, the incorrect form can cause those back pained to have flare-ups. Just one of many reasons people will say, “the big three don’t work.” Get a new coach if your coach has you point your leg and arm without a timed contraction and proper cueing. The Birddog should be challenging. Think posterior core with the BD.

Side plank

Side plank-specific cues are: Stiffen the core before starting the plank, and don’t let your hip and oblique sag. Hold for 5-10 seconds, but you can hold these longer depending on the goal and where you are in training. When you progress to the roll, keep the ribcage and the pelvis as one, don’t twist it. For those new to the side plank, I suggest starting on the knees, mastering, then progressing to the full side plank (on the sides of the feet), and then moving on to the roll. Again, think lateral core with the SP.

McGill curl-up

The McGill curl-up is the most commonly done incorrectly (along with the Birddog). Cues for the Curl-up are: Stiffening the core by pushing into the obliques laterally (not drawing TA in). And the most prominent cue is not raising the head and neck too much when doing this but slightly tucking the chin. It should be minimal movement. For those that have had proper coaching and the action still bothers the neck, I would opt for the dead bug. But, most likely, you have too much-head movement and are stressing the neck.

In closing, when done correctly, the McGill big 3 benefits those looking to create proximal stiffness to unleash distal athleticism. It’s also a commonly pain-free exercise and starting point for those wanting to return from a back injury.

Please reach out if you are confused and have had a hard time executing these movements and would like to book a virtual coaching session. And, of course, for those who need coaching to return to sport or get their life back, please reach out.


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Brian Carroll

Brian is a world-class powerlifter with over two decades of elite and pro-level powerlifting under his belt. Coming back from a devastating back injury in 2012 that broke multiple bones and that most experts said he would never recover from, he has returned to the pinnacle of world-class lifting (while 100% pain and symptom-free) and is now dedicated to helping others avoid the same mistakes that he made in the past through private and group coaching in Jacksonville, FL. Brian’s impressive recovery has given him the opportunity to teach and deliver talks to physical therapists, chiropractors, medical doctors, professional strength & conditioning coaches and experts from all facets of sport, on how to avoid injury, while building anti-fragile strength and resilience in athletes.
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