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The Big Three: Athletic Trainer Michael Sole with Exercises to Build Your Core

December 20, 2022
Improving your Core with big three exercises main image depicting person doing bird dog exercise.

Whether carrying a suitcase or lobbing a tennis ball, our ability to do so safely and efficiently depends on our core, the groups of muscles in our midsection that stabilize us and keep us upright. 

Our core is more than our abdominal muscles. It also consists of the diaphragm, as well as muscles on the sides, along and next to the spine and the pelvic floor, says Michael Sole, health and human performance manager of the Health and Wellness Institute at MUSC Health. 

And their importance can’t be overstated. 

“All our movements start with our core,” Sole says. “If we don’t have a strong foundation, we have to make other compensatory movements or make up for those inefficiencies, whether in our daily activities or athletics.” 

Strong muscles in our midsection don’t just happen; we have to work to strengthen them, particularly as we age or become less physically active. 

Sole, who works one-on-one with clients and small groups, recommends what are called the “Big Three,” a set of exercises developed by Stu McGill, a Canadian doctor known as “the back mechanic.” 

“He earned the nickname because of his philosophy that back injuries don’t require surgery if given the proper care and time,” Sole says. “Most of his patients visited him as a last-ditch effort to avoid surgery.” 

Before you dismiss them because they look too hard, consider this: The good news is that they can be done at home, require no equipment, and don’t take a lot of time. You also can start at your own pace and work up to a more challenging routine. 

The three exercises, which Sole uses as warm-ups for endurance and strength-building routines, are the McGill curl-up, the side plank and the bird dog. 

The McGill curl-up

Illustration of McGill Curl-up

  1. The curl-up activates core muscles in front of the body. Start on your back, lying on a flat, hard surface. Put your hands underneath the arch of your lower back. Hold the right leg straight; bend the left knee and put your left foot flat on the floor.
  2. Point your toes on your right leg up so you’re contracting your quad muscles and pressing into the floor. Bring your chin to your chest, raising your shoulders slightly off the floor. Hold for eight to ten seconds and relax. That is one rep. Do a total of six reps, then four reps, and end with two reps for a total of three sets. Pause for three to five seconds between each rep.
  3. Repeat with your other leg.
  4. “You’re using the muscles in your core to push your low back into your hands, and that is what creates that isometric contraction in the core,” Sole says. “The idea is to build endurance. You can start with three seconds and build your way up. “Cross your hands in front of your chest to help hold your shoulders off the ground.”

Side plank

Illustration demonstrating the side plank.

  1. Because everybody starts at different levels, some people can start with their legs straight, while others may want to have their knees bent. Start on your right side with your right arm on the floor and your elbow bent at 90 degrees so you can prop yourself up. You can extend your legs straight out, or you can bend your knees to 90 degrees and stack your left on top of your right knee.
  2. Push your hips up toward the ceiling so they are no longer on the floor and hold for 10 seconds before going back to the floor. Relax and do it six more times. Repeat four times and then two times, taking a 20-second break between each set. Again, you can start with five seconds if 10 seconds is too difficult or starts to compromise your form. Work your way up to 10 seconds. This is all about making adjustments to your own body and skill level. Pause for three to five seconds between each rep.
  3. Switch to the left side. “The key is to have your hips and shoulders in a straight line. Don’t let gravity take over and pull your shoulders and hips down to the ground,” Sole says.

Bird dog

Illustration demonstrating the Bird Dog position.

  1. Start on all fours with your knees under your hips and your wrists under your shoulders. This is called the quadruped position.
  2. Put a folded blanket or towel under your knees for padding if needed but be sure it’s not so soft that it impairs your balance.
  3. Extend your right arm straight forward and your left leg back at the same time. Keep your spine and your neck aligned in a straight line and look downward. Hold this position for one second and build your way up to three seconds. Pause and then return to your starting position. As with the two prior exercises, do six, four, and two reps on each side. Pause for three to five seconds between each rep.
  4. If the bird dog is too difficult at first, start with just moving your arm forward and leaving your legs stationary. Next, extend your leg while keeping both hands planted on the floor.

“This exercise is particularly good for balance, and all three exercises feed into one another and can form the basis of a safe exercise plan customized to your needs and goals,” Sole says.

He reminds anyone starting out not to get discouraged. “Not only will these exercises increase your endurance, but they’ll improve the strength of your deep core muscles, which are the foundation of your hips/low back and core.

"Ideally, these exercises should not take any longer than 15 minutes or so and should be done every day. Incorporating them into your warmup before physical activity, however, can make this more achievable.

MUSC Health’s Human Performance Institute is open to anyone. “You don’t have to be an MUSC patient,” says Sole, who works with individuals from adolescence to their 80s to create individualized plans tailored to their goals.

“We do have some referrals as an extension of physical therapy to get people back to where they want to be, but we also work with individuals preparing for an upcoming event, such as hiking, as well as athletes who want to improve their performance in a specific sports area.”

The Health and Wellness Institute is located at 1122 Chuck Dawley Blvd. in Building B in Mount Pleasant. To make an appointment, call 843-985-0802.