Movement Tip: The McGill Curl-Up

When it comes to the topic of low back disorders, Stuart McGill is considered the top authority. His research and methods have assisted countless people. He’s authored many books such as Low Back Disorders and Back Mechanic that go into detail regarding many low back issues and how to treat or avoid them.

Low back pain is one of the most common conditions that I see, and in many cases the lack of spinal stability is due to weakness through the core region.  An easy fix is to incorporate some basic movements into your daily routine, to keep your core active and strong. Stuart McGill has a series of movements often referred to as The Big 3 that include the Curl-Up, Bird Dog and Side Plank. In today’s post I’m going to outline the Curl-Up. This movement focuses on the anterior (front) abdominals and Transversus Abdominis (TVA).  It is generally the first movement performed (after performing your Cat-Camel to warm-up to reduce spinal viscosity) of the series.

I’ll usually see this movement being performed with too much trunk flexion.  The rectus abdominis (6-pack) is the primary muscle used for trunk flexion and because this movement involves some flexion through this area, it’s easy to dominate with it.  However, the TVA is the deep muscle that provides the most spinal stability and it wraps around the torso creating a cylindrical like compression when engaged.  This is the muscle that we would like to be the most involved with this movement.  To trigger this engagement we need to focus on the compression with only some flexion.  To do this, try imagining a corset cinching tight around your waist.  Your TVA muscle is essentially a built in corset.  There will be a slight draw in of your navel (belly button) toward your spine, and then a small amount of flexion is added in the form of the curl-up to maximize the contraction.  So the curl-up isn’t the primary goal, it’s maximizing the contraction of the TVA which requires more cinching and some flexion.  When you add the curl-up portion of the movement, if you notice your stomach bulge out, so your navel is no longer slightly drawn in, you’ve lost that cinching engagement and are now primarily using your rectus abdominis.  If this happens, regroup and start over.  You may need to start out just working on the cinch without even adding any flexion, or if you can manage some flexion, you may need to start with some assistance from your elbows adding some support on the ground.

Below are the instructions and notes to perform this movement. Please watch the video for the full description. Enjoy!

  • Lie on your back on the floor with one leg bent about 90 degrees so that knee points up to ceiling and place hands under the arch of your low back with palms down so that finger tips touch one another.  If placing your hands in this position is uncomfortable, you may use a rolled towel as a bolster.
  • Engage core by thinking of cinching a corset tight around your waist, holding in your pee and poop, and bracing as if you will be punched in the stomach. There should be a slight draw in of your navel and you should still be able to breathe with this engagement.
  • Slowly raise your torso off the ground just enough that shoulder blades are hovering, maintaining a fairly neutral spine from head to tail bone with only slight flexion.  Think of being long and cinching around waist as opposed to crunching.  Hold position for specified time.
  • Slowly return to start position and repeat.  Switch bent leg each rep or set.

**Note: Only raise torso as far as you can control your core and stability.  If you begin to crunch and your low back arches excessively (loses contact with your hands), or you notice your stomach pushing out instead of slightly drawing in, back off a little until you can control the movement throughout.  You may need to assist with a little pressure into the floor from your elbows until core becomes strong enough to support without.

Recommended Variables to Start:
2-3 sets with 60 seconds rest in between, 3-5 reps, 5-10 second isometric holds at the top of each rep.

This video/article is intended to assist those who have consulted with their health practitioner regarding their specific condition and received this exercise as a prescription. Please consult your health practitioner before performing any exercise on your own.

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