Stuart McGill, a Professor of Spine Biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, Canada, directs a laboratory that investigates spine injury mechanisms, rehabilitation, and performance enhancement. Doctors from all corners of the globe refer their most challenging patients to him. The National Strength and Conditioning Association recently interviewed Dr. McGill about a subject near and dear to our hearts: The Core.
McGill on the Under-Performing Core
McGill believes that core weakness links pain with performance. He argues that body-building programs fail to optimize core performance. To effectively train the core, you need to use a three-dimensional approach. Consider the workings of your spinal vertebrae. It is designed to bear loads, but it must also be flexible.
“A steel beam that is straight and stood on its end is stiff, and can bear loads that try to compress, shear, and twist it. So the beam can bear load but it cannot move. A flexible rod that allows movement will bend and buckle under load, but absorbs shock. Our spines do it all—they bend and allow the lungs to fill with air, and even allow us to dance.”
The greater the load we place on the spine, the greater the need for the core musculature to protect it. Here’s how it works. When your muscles contract, they create force and they create stiffness. The stiffness stabilizes the joint and protects it from injury. This stabilizing process allows the spine to bear load without buckling.
“On the performance side, “core stiffness” is mandatory. It is absolutely essential to carry heavy loads, run fast, and change direction quickly. It determines the rate of speed for movement of the arms and legs.”
Core Stiffness, Speed and Strength
McGill uses the example of a 340-pound National Football League lineman to illustrate the connection between core stiffness, strength and speed The player was trained in the weight room on Olympic-style lifts and power cleans. Whilst coaches thought he was in good shape, chronic back pain plagues this player. When measuring his cutting speed — the ability to take five fast strides forward, plant a foot, and cut to the right – the testers discovered numerous inefficiencies. His pelvis drops on the swing leg side, whilst his spine bends laterally, triggering a twinge of back pain.
He performs all of his strength training exercises with both feet on the ground. Thus, he has never trained his core muscles to work in a three-dimensional setting. This weak link is limits his performance and trigger stress and pain. McGill addressed the issue with loaded carrying exercises, which increased lateral spine stiffness in his core.
“His pelvis and spine produce appropriate proximal stiffness (proximal to the hip joint) so that more velocity of all of the muscles that cross the hip joint works on the distal side of the joint resulting in faster leg speed. Further, the spine does not bend, the stress concentration at the joint is eliminated and the pain is gone.”
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