Building High-Performance Muscle™

Mister Spine
An interview with Stuart McGill

As a T-mag reader you might be asking yourself, why should I care about my back? I’ll tell you why: How do you plan to get huge and lean for the summer when you're laid up on the couch getting in touch with your "All My Children" side, unable to train thanks to a nasty back injury?

If you want to avoid injuries; if you want to learn the myths about stretching the spine and the truth about the lower vs. upper abs question; if you want to know why good-mornings may not be the best thing to do if you want a good morning; if you're sick of insulting nonsense like "keep your back straight when lifting" and want to learn about the back in a more sophisticated way that actually applies to your training, then I suggest you read on and listen to what Stuart McGill has to say.

He's going to tell you how a lot of training principles simply don't carry over to the spine and that there's a subtle difference between what builds us up and what tears us down. Stuart McGill is one of the world's best when it comes to understanding the back and spine. In short, he gets bad backs back in business.

You’re probably still wondering just who this McGill guy is. Stuart McGill, PhD, is a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and an internationally recognized lecturer and expert in spine function and injury prevention and rehabilitation.

His labs have produced more than 200 scientific publications that address lumbar function, low back injury mechanisms, mechanisms of injury prevention and rehabilitation and, most recently, issues related to high performance. As a consultant, he has provided expertise on assessment and reduction of the risk of low back injury—along with rehab approaches—to government agencies, corporations, legal firms, professional athletes and teams, and is regularly referred patients for consultation.

Put simply, this guy knows his stuff!

T-MAG: What motivated you to get your PhD in biomechanics of the spine?

Stuart McGill:

T: As part of your job you get to supervise graduate students. Currently the head MD for the Toronto Raptors, Dr. Doug Richards, is completing his PhD under your supervision; he must add to your wealth of knowledge, not to mention others you have worked with over the years?

SM:

T: When I think of a guy who has his PhD in biomechanics, I think of a pencil-neck who has never seen a barbell in his life and spends all day in the lab playing with rats and numbers. Are you this geek I’m thinking of or are you a scientist that actually works with athletes and other "real" people?

T: Did you learn about the back solely through your own and others’ research, or did you educate yourself by other means?

T: Are professional athletic teams and basket-case bad backs regularly referred to you?

T: What professional teams or sports have you consulted for regularly?

T: Most weight-training regiments involve working the joints through a full range of motion. You claim the spine is different. Can you explain this?

SM:

T: I think most T-men are not rounding our backs during squats and deadlifts. However, you’ve said that I should not stretch my back like it would be stretched when I bend over to touch my toes in a hamstring stretch?

SM:

T: So you’re saying that there’s not much point in stretching the ligaments of the spine?

SM:

T: "Never" is a powerful word.

SM:

T: So I guess slouching while sitting during rest periods would be a bad thing?

SM:

T: You also talk about abdominal-bracing during most movements. What do you mean by that exactly?

SM:

T: I know some practitioners who talk about tummy sucking to activate the transverse; is that a form of bracing?

T: I understand you don’t like sit-ups in their most popular form.

SM:

T: What if muscle hypertrophy is the goal? Will isometric contractions facilitate this? Assuming my body-fat percentage is low enough to reveal a six-pack, I’m concerned with the visual impact of my abdominals in addition to their functional capabilities. Is there much room for hypertrophy to take place or are we limited in the extent to which we can get our abs to grow?

SM:


Part 2 of this interview will adress the proper elements of ab training, how to brace for heavy lifts, and common mistake made by trainers and trainees alike. Look for it in the next issue of T-mag.


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