The Intelligent & Relentless Pursuit of Muscle™

An Interview with Dr. Stuart McGill, Part I

An Interview with Dr. Stuart McGill, Part I

I'm not a betting man, but I'd put money down that you've heard of Dr. Stuart McGill. Whether you're a professional athlete or someone who just wants a stronger core, you probably know of him. And if by some chance you haven't heard his name, I guarantee that many of the core exercises you're currently doing have been influenced by him.

In 2002, McGill released his landmark text Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation and it changed the way coaches, bodybuilders, athletes, and non-athletes approach core training. With his books, articles, seminars, and more than 30 years of clinical research with everyone from elite athletes to disabled workers, Dr. McGill established himself as the premier voice for core development.

But like anyone who achieves a high level of power and influence, eventually your name can end up on a hit list. Over the last few years there's been a trend to turn away from, even blatantly criticize, what Dr. McGill tried to teach us.

On one hand, science is about critical thinking, so questioning his methods is healthy and necessary. It's the only way to intelligently initiate progress. On the other hand, his message often gets watered-down and words get put into his mouth.

One notion about Dr. McGill is that he's "anti-flexion" with regard to the spine. Critics like to say that McGill overly emphasizes the plank and avoids any spinal flexion exercise because it will inevitably torpedo your intervertebral discs across the room and splatter them onto the wall like a Jackson Pollock painting.

Okay, maybe not that extreme.

But one thing's for certain: McGill is the latest victim of the straw man technique. If you're going to argue with a professor who has over 300 peer-reviewed publications, you better bring your A-game.

Having known Dr. McGill for years, and being one of the fortunate trainers who's worked next to him, it was always tough for me to hear these criticisms because they were usually based on things I was pretty certain he wouldn't say. Sure, he might agree that some statements could apply to certain populations under certain conditions, but many other accusations were just plain wrong.

That's why I was relieved when McGill said he wanted get some things off his chest. I could tell the typically mild-mannered doc was a bit aggravated by all the Internet chatter. He's spent his life testing, experimenting, and collecting data in order to help us train smarter. But his principles got lost in a sea of misinterpretations.

So with any luck, this interview will clear the air and re-establish Dr. Stuart McGill's true message. Then you can make an intelligent decision and determine if his approach is right for you or your clients.

Chad Waterbury: Okay Stu, I'm going to get right to the hot-button issue: spinal flexion. You and your research team have been branded as the scientists who are anti-flexion. What's your take on that?

CW: Now, in order to delve deeply into this topic it's important to define what flexion really means. Surprisingly, it can relate to different mechanisms of action. Let's start with that difference.

CW: Speaking of people who aren't weak, strongmen and powerlifters sometimes round their back while pulling a max deadlift. So this leads people to think that it's acceptable to lose the inward lumbar curvature since some of those strongmen don't get debilitating back injuries.

CW: Nevertheless, a guy who pulls a big deadlift could reduce his risk of injury if he maintained a more neutral spine. Correct?

CW: Let's clarify what you mean by delaminating collagen. In layman's terms this means a weakening of the disc structure.

CW: Now the guy has a nagging injury.

CW: Sounds like a terrible way to convince a guy to deadlift or squat with proper technique. And this is why you always have to consider the risk versus reward relationship. Most guys can pull more weight if they round the spine, but it's extremely risky. The slightest extra move during flexion movement action could be debilitating.

Let's talk about bone for a minute. Trabeculae are thin plates and struts of calcified tissue in the innermost layer of bone. Research suggests that increased loading, such as with heavy weight training, can increase bone density by up-regulating trabeculae.

So the vertebrae in a heavy squatter are much stronger than in a non-lifter because he has more dense trabeculae inside the vertebrae. Not only does trabeculae make your bones stronger, but it also serves to maintain the joint shape that's critical for optimal distribution of the load.

Since most T Nation readers have years of heavy lifting under their belt, and their bones are much stronger, are they less susceptible to disc injuries caused by lifting heavy loads?

An Interview with Dr. Stuart McGill, Part I

CW: Okay, so heavy lifting strengthens the bone in your spine to deal with more heavy load compression. Does this increased bone strength make people less susceptible to the risk associated with low load flexion exercises such as a full crunch?

CW: Stu, there's some controversy with regard to maintaining lordosis while in the deepest squat position. Some say it's acceptable and not harmful to allow the pelvis to posteriorly rotate in the hole, thus allowing the athlete to squat deeper. I don't allow any loss of inward lumbar curvature with my athletes based on what you've taught me. What risks are associated with this posterior pelvic tilt at the bottom of a full squat?

CW: I agree. If an athlete wants to train the thigh musculature through a greater range of motion, single leg exercises should be incorporated into the program.

Moving on, I know it's not exciting to talk about genetics since they're factors we can't control. However, genetics do play an important role in this argument for or against repeated spinal flexion, correct?

An Interview with Dr. Stuart McGill, Part I

CW: So what about the people that didn't choose the right parents? They have a damaged disc that's causing pain, a loss of strength, and an inability to train with optimal intensity. Can we say the problem is delamination? If so, how long does that type of injury take to heal?

CW: If someone has an injury, what steps do you typically take in your lab/clinic to correct it?

An Interview with Dr. Stuart McGill, Part I

CW: Excellent, Stu. That's essential information for any physical therapist or corrective exercise trainer. Speaking of twisting injuries, there seems to be some debate on your position regarding dynamic rotational core training. Care to elaborate?

CW: So how do you recommend that T Nation readers train core rotation?

CW: Yes, that's the risk we take whenever we recommend an exercise. What might be ideal for one guy could be problematic for another. But throw us a bone and give us some recommendations.

Don't miss part II of the interview with Dr. McGill where he talks about core training for MMA athletes, what he thinks about the concept of doing a thousand sit-ups every day, and much more!