McGill Big 3: Why it doesn’t work for you

Mcgill Big 3: Why it doesn’t work for you

The McGill big 3 doesn’t work! I see it every day. “McGill’s big three doesn’t work for me; it worsened my symptoms! It does nothing; it makes my back hurt! Or, they are too easy and didn’t do anything. In this article, I’m going to discuss why the Big 3 doesn’t work for you and there are three primary reasons I see in my work with clients and back pain. 1. Improper form and technique, 2. you haven’t removed the causes of your pain, 3—inappropriate application.

Improper Form

Improper execution and form are likely the culprits for those who ‘aren’t getting anything out of the big 3.’ I see it all the time; even when people claim to be coaches and masters of the movement themselves, they are highly bastardized. As I explain in the video, they aren’t held for the appropriate amount of time (up to 10sec), and sometimes are done so poorly that they are winding up one’s back pain. For example, one standard technique error for the Birddog is the leg being too high in the air, causing movement in the lower back instead of hip extension, which is meant to help lock in and stiffen the core. Fortunately, the side plank is pretty easy to execute, but the curl-up, not as fortunate, is by far the most bastardized. I have included a good technique video for you to refer to in this article.

Haven’t removed the cause

Another common mistake people make when criticizing the big 3 is that their pain isn’t improving, and they expect the big 3 to take away all their pain magically. Now, in some cases, stabilizing the core and giving the spine some bolstering support can take away the pain. But for those more deeply pained, a more robust and thorough approach will be needed, i.e., an assessment (comprehensive) and removing the causes of pain. This could be a posture, a movement, an exercise, or a position that keeps them pained. It could be as simple as lying in bed for too many hours a night or the way they wash the dishes and take out the trash repeatedly. In my experience, to beat back pain, you must remove the cause. This is a foundational pillar that I learned personally from Dr. McGill. This was the biggest game-changer in my back pain story. I was constantly brutalizing my back with poor posture and spine hygiene.

Improper application

Improper application is a common enemy for those who want to regain their robustness for life. They haphazardly apply the big 3 when it’s convenient or when they feel like it until they start feeling better, then return to the old program that injured them. The improper application could be too much of the big 3, too little, or even using them when they are inappropriate. Every back injury is unique – some people are in such great pained states that anything winds up their pain. In Back Mechanic, we suggest those in severe pain rest and consider doing virtual surgery. In short, virtual surgery is taking a reprieve and pretending as though they had surgery on their back and treating their day as such; resting and recovering.

Final thoughts about the McGill big three and their effectiveness

There are many reasons why people don’t recover from their back injuries. And this is not my purpose for this article. My intent for this article is to shed some light on why the big 3 gets a bad reputation at times and also clarify why I see many people struggle. Once they read in context in Gift of Injury or Ultimate Back – readers tend to understand the big three and how to correctly apply them in their pain-free pursuits. The problem comes when someone takes an exercise they don’t understand or really know and just blindly uses them. The blind leading the blind is a great way to describe some of the dissents you read about from so-called back pain experts.

There is hope for those in back pain who have run into nothing but dead ends and are losing hope! I will do my best to help you – I know your pain; I’ve been there. 

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Brian Carroll

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Brian is a retired world-class powerlifter with over two decades of world-class powerlifting. From 1999 to 2020, Brian Carroll was a competitive powerlifter, one of the most accomplished lifters in the sport's history. Brian started off competing in bench press competitions 'raw,' then, shortly into the journey, he gravitated toward equipped lifting as there were no "raw" categories then. You only had to choose from single-ply (USPF) and Multi-ply (APF/WPC). Brian went on to total 2730 at 275 and 2651 at 242 with more than ten times his body weight in three different classes (220, 242, 275), and both bench pressed and deadlifted over 800 pounds in two other weight classes. He's totaled 2600 over 20 times in 2 different weight classes in his career. With 60 squats of 1000lbs or more officially, this is the most in powerlifting history, regardless of weight class or federation, by anyone not named David Hoff. Brian realized many ups and downs during his 20+ years competing. After ten years of high-level powerlifting competition and an all-time World Record squat at 220 with 1030, in 2009, Brian was competing for a Police academy scholarship. On a hot and humid July morning, Brian, hurdling over a barricade at 275lbs, landed on, fell, and hurt his back. After years of back pain and failed therapy, Brian met with world-renowned back specialist Prof McGill in 2013, which changed his trajectory more than he could have imagined. In 2017, Brian Carroll and Prof McGill authored the best-selling book about Brian's triumphant comeback to powerlifting in Gift of Injury. Most recently (10.3.20) -Brian set the highest squat of all time (regardless of weight class) with 1306 lbs – being the first man to break the 1300lb squat barrier at a bodyweight of 303 lbs.
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