To Flex or Not to Flex – Building a Healthy Back and a Strong Core

If you’ve ever taken one of my Pilates classes, you know that I don’t do a number of the traditional Pilates exercises – rolling like a ball, roll over – essentially any exercise with repetitive lumbar flexion. I tell all my clients, and anyone else who will listen, to stop doing crunches or sit-ups. They are doing more harm than good.

Why? Because some things in life are finite and the amount of “bending cycles” you have in your lower back is one of them!

I learned this from Dr. Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo. He’s spent his career figuring out how the spine works and how to keep it healthy and safe.

In his own words:
“Do enough sit-ups, does not matter who you are, you will hurt your discs.  Think of the low back like a credit card, if you keeping bending it back and forth, eventually it will break.  Some people may have more “bending cycles” but the principle is the same for all.”  Dr. Stuart McGill

So, if you’re giving up all that hard core ab stuff, what should you do instead? Believe it or not, the key to a strong core and a healthy back is based on some pretty simple stuff. The best exercises are designed to spare the spine, enhance the muscle challenge, and enhance the motor control system to ensure that spine stability is maintained in all other activities.

Dr. McGill advocates three exercises – the curl-up (not to be confused with the sit-up or crunch), side planks and the bird-dog. To learn how to do them correctly, you can watch Dr. McGill explain them below in this short, 5minute video.  An added bonus is Dr. McGill’s awesome moustache!

Train the Core the Right Way

Dr. McGill has also created a number of videos, books and DVDs. Most of them are pretty intense and created for “savvy lay people and clinicians.” They are not instructional exercise materials. If you’re interested, you can find them on his website

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