The Big Three

The Big 3 for Core Stability

“Three, oh, ya it’s the magic number.  Ya it is, it’s the magic number…”

Thats a Blind Melon song that has always stuck with me.  Great tune.  Anytime I’m using a Big 3 type prescription to help treat someones pain, I quietly think of this song. Giving someone 3 exercises is fairly common.  Too many, and its impractical to perform, 1-3 is typical.  When I say Big 3, I mean 3 key core stabilization exercises for a healthier more durable spine. I 100% stole the term from Stuart McGill, but I prefer a more variable plan that sticks to the same ideals, DNS + McGill would be a fair descriptor.  We could describe it as an exercise each for the muscles of the front, sides and back. It could be called a plan for core stability, but I consider it a well balanced start point that we can build upon in the future.

The number 3 comes up a few times when talking Big 3. If we think about the three planes of motion. We live in a three-dimensional world.  Front and back,  side to side, rotation; our spines must control forces in all planes. Our spines are the most durable when it is in a supported, strong neutral range; known as centrated. This is the position where the joints have maximal articular contact area.  It’s ideal for transmitting forces.

In DNS we would describe, again, 3 stabilization patterns in much the same way, sagittal, ipsilateral and contralateral (more here or below), and be obsessed with maintaining this centration.

Core Stabilization

Core stability is a term that gets thrown around more than it is defined or understood. I’m here to FIRMLY define, and help you understand it. Core stability is “the ability of the lumbar spine to resist a change in position” when under pressure.  The key part here is “resist change in position.” Can the spine hold still, act as a rigid conduit of energy, or platform for muscles to pull from? Or does it buckle under the loads?

*Sometimes we want the mid/upper rib cage to stay put and be firmly connected to the pelvis; sometimes its awesome if the thoracic spine can move about the stable lumbopelvic area. It depends.  In sport and life its very common for the rib cage to act as a mobile portion (think X factor in golf swings), but the lumbar spine staying more neutral.

Our lumbar spine musculature create stabilization with co-contraction.  This means the pull from the muscles on either side (antagonist/agonist) is a balanced, maintaining centration against the forces its up against. You can think of a ships mast, with ties or guy wires on several sides stabilizing it.  Our lumbar architecture is quite similar.

In lighter activities such as dancing, or picking up small items, a healthy spine can freely bend and serve as a power generator even.  This might not be true with an injured spine, and certainly not in a heavier or more powerful task.  In the heavier load tasks, the spine must act as a rigid rod, upon which the muscles of the extremities push and pull on to create powerful motions. You can push a rod, you can’t push a rope.

Your  lumbar spine will have to resist bending or twisting.  The bigger the load or task, the more resistance it must provide.  Think of a fishing rod.  When you’re fishing for a little trout you benefit from having a nice flexible rod.  You would need a much stiffer stronger rod to fish for a big marlin.  Our spines have to resist movement in the three planes discussed. Often times at multiple planes at once. A good “core stability” program should highlight from all three sections, hence the term BIG 3.

  1. Front/Back-Sagittal Stabilization
  2. Side/Side-Ipsilateral Support
  3. Rotation-Contralateral Support

In a well prescribed Big 3, you’d have one exercise from each section based on your current levels and future needs.

Sagittal stabilization: Anti-Flexion/Extension

Sagittal stabilization is first achieved in the developing baby around 3 months of age. We see it in action in any forward or backwards bending task as well as squatting, deadlifting, lunging, or holding something.  As sagittal stabilization does develop first, and we live in a sagittally oriented world (front and back, or bending up and down) I’m generally adamant about it being of highest importance.

Here are a few ways that we might train this pattern, from least to most challenging.

DNS 3 month supine

This 3 month position serves as the foundation for endless advancements.  Start on your back, legs supported on a chair, knees around the height of your belly button and wider than your hips, with the feet closer or touching.  Practice holding the rib cage down, and breathing into your belly and creating good intra-abdominal pressure. Lift your feet off the chair, maintaining a stable spine. From here we can add distal movement of the arms and legs while maintaining a strong barrel.

Wall Bug variation

From the 3 month position, but this time near a wall.  Use your hands on the wall to pressure your ribcage down, keeping the back firmly against the floor.  Keep that floor contact as you alternate touching each heel to the mat.  The closer you tap the heel to your hips the less challenging. Keeping your knees around the same angle is ideal.  Tap the heel, not the toe.

The goals here is to create a juxtaposition of a stable belly/chest with fluid athletic arms and legs that can freely move against the stiffened spine.

McGill Curl-up

Hook lying position, one knee bent, one knee extended, with your hands behind your low back. Without flexing your neck, lift your head and upper shoulders off the mat and hold for 4-5 breathes.  Make it more challenging by lifting your elbows.

In multiple biomechanics studies this is constantly the best way to train the rectus with minimal spine loads.

Hard Style Plank

The world record for a plank is around 7 hours!  That’s because it’s easy to sag into your joints in a traditional plank.  In the Hard Style Plank, I want you to be in a plank position but clinch your glutes hard.  This will help align your pelvic floor with the diaphragm creating a centrated spine. Then grab the floor with your forearms and pull the ground towards your toes, hard.

Contralateral Support: Anti Rotation

This pattern starts to develop around 4-5 months of age.  It appears in development when the baby is on the belly, and supports on one hand while reaching with the other. It serves as the foundation for future crawling, walking and running movements.  Contralateral support means that the opposite arm and leg are serving in a support roll.

Think of a crawl, swim,or how our arms swing and move during walking or running.

DNS 4.5 Month Prone

On your belly in the “chalk outline” position.  Practice dialing your pelvis and up knee down into the mat, and press into the elbow.  “Float the head” off the table, you’re not looking up. Feel your midback be long and strong. Avoid letting the spine collapse and pressing your belly into the mat.  Practice bringing more of your body off the mat. This can be advanced by removing the up knee side hand, or by turning the rib cage towards the up knee side.

Bird Dog

From a hands and knees (Quadruped) position reach opposite arm and leg away from the body. Maintain a tall steady still spine.  Push the foot low along the ground, getting long before it gets high.  Don’t sag into the supporting shoulder, stay tall.  Don’t hyperextend that elbow, stay slightly bent with the arm dialed into the body.  Almost pull the floor towards your knees. Hold for 3-4 breath cycles. When first learning, fix the spine position between every rep.  As your skill improves, lower the arm and leg, lightly sweeping the floor and return to extended position.

Bear Dog

From the same quadruped position, dig your toes into the mat.  Press your hips backwards and upwards at about 45 degrees, maintaining the same spine position. Don’t feel like you’re lifting your hips purely vertically, this means your spine bent significantly. Then work towards doing a bird dog from this position.

Ipsilateral Support: side to side motion

Ipsilateral support means that the same side arm and leg are serving in support rolls.  It follows a baby, in the above three month supine position, purposefully reaching across the midline of their body as they learn to roll.  This is a rolling action (but requires flank musculature stiffening the spine).

This pattern appears in any throwing, kicking, rolling, swinging motion in sport.

DNS 5 and 7 month positions

Start side lying, slightly tipped backwards, resting on the rib cage. Place your down arm and leg at 90 degrees in front of you, with the elbow and knee also around 90 degrees.  Envision your torso, pelvis to collar bones, as a barrel.  Lock your barrel in a strong neutral position (same as 3 month but sideways) then roll the barrel up onto the shoulder and hip joints. Depending on your body shape you should have your torso off the mat, at least feel tall and supported on the shoulder/hip.  Feel how you can roll the barrel without bending or twisting it as you roll over your big ball and socket joints.  Don’t let the top shoulder move forwards more than the hips, keep your barrel neutral.  A stretch in your down posterior hip should be the limiting factor in how far you can go. Feel your elbow and knee get ‘’heavy on the mat’’ when you’re going forwards

Then move onto the elbow/forearm, down hip still flexed to ~90 degrees, and you will ‘roll’ your ‘barrel’ over the hip (like in the 5 month position).  You should be sitting at about a ~45 degree angle.  Your shoulders and hips should be ‘square to each other.’ The shoulder should be supporting you at this angle, you shouldn’t be ‘hanging’ from your shoulder.  From here you can roll further, staying tall, and coming off the hip and onto the knee, like you’re getting up.  The top leg dictates the difficulty.  With the leg behind you, it’s easier.  As the leg is brought forwards it becomes more challenging. Once again here, once we have the position and movement down, we can move and load the free arm/leg in a variety of ways.

Side Plank Progression

Kneeling is the easiest entry to this position.  Start up on your forearm in a side sit position, your hips up around 45 degrees, knees comfortably bent.  Make your spine long, repositioning your elbow as needed.  Have the shoulder stacked strong into the body, not your body hanging from the shoulder. Drive your hips forwards and up, making this side plank.  You may need a few reps to get a feel for where your elbow should be.

Now go legs extended with the top foot in front.  The goal is to hold this strong for 90 seconds.  Since that is incredibly boring, I say get to 30 seconds.  Once you can do that, then start doing plank rolls. Keep the ‘barrel’ together, hips and shoulders locked strong together.  Then roll your belt buckle (and chest) towards the mat, maintaining strong support and bring it back to side plank, or plant in full plank and take it to the other side.

I often say that a better spine cannot be given to you, you’ll have to take it and  I can help you.  A Big 3 type program is probably safe and a perfect start point for you.  The principles are a locked stable spine, and fluid athletic extremities.  We look at support in the sagittal plane, on same side, and on opposite side.  Training the muscles of the entire mid section.

Give us a call if I can help you get started

Zach Vahldick


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