Q&A with Godfather and Professor of Spine Biomechanics: Dr. Stuart McGill (2016)
Today the Fitworld Exposed site is honored to say that we have a very special guest who goes by the name of Dr. Stuart McGill. If you haven’t heard about him then you have seriously been living under a rock. He is professor of spine biomechanics and he is literally known worldwide for helping numerous athletes and other countless individuals. He has written a couple books about back pain and one of the ones that he is really known for is his “Back Mechanic (Step by step McGill method to fix back pain)” which is a book that all serious trainers should have at their disposal. He has revolutionized the fitness world with his genius facts and philosophies about the human body and he is really ahead of his time in my opinion.
Today we will be going over some training and lifestyle related topics along with fitness products that a lot of people are curious about. Bro-science is good from time to time but for the most part you want to learn from the best. Stuart is the go-to guy to look for when it comes to lower back health, training and longevity, he is the Godfather.
The questions below are in no particular order, but I am sure that we will all learn a lot with what he has to say!
Lets get started.
Why did you decide to specialize in the spine as opposed to something like the shoulders or knees?
I did not find the spine – it found me. I was applying for a PhD in systems engineering when I met professor Bob Norman at the university of Waterloo who was doing spine work. I switched to work in his lab.
After becoming a professor myself I was asked to see back pained patients and I began my education as a consultant.
Is it true that the spine is weaker and more vulnerable to injuries when training in the early in the AM as opposed to training at night?
The answer is generally yes. You are taller when you rise from bed as discs suck up fluid throughout the night. This extra fluid causes higher pressure in the discs so that it takes less additional load to damage the vertebral end-plates. Also, for spine bending, the fuller discs have 3 times higher wall stresses which means the stresses that can lead to disc bulges are higher. Generally wait and hour or so before bending exercises. Studies have shown reduced back injury rates in industry when spine bending is avoided in the morning.
Lets talk about heavy direct ab work. I personally think that direct ab work is a good thing and most people do not train their abs hard, in fact they will really baby their abs. I am not a big advocate of going ultra heavy on direct ab work for extremely low reps (1-5) or low time periods (ex: 10 second planks) either, but what is your take on people who do planks with 45lb plates stacked up on their mid back? Also tell us what would be a good way to train your abs extremely hard directly when you are more advanced and how to load these exercises in a safer manner (you don’t have to name all of them)?
The answer is, “It depends”. For a person with a back pain history triggered with spine flexion movement, the way they train their abdominals is critical. We have restored several MMA careers, for example by eliminating the heavy abdominal movement exercises with plank variations such as stir the pot. In fact the US military found that eliminating the dynamic bends associated with situps and replacing them with various plank variations reduced back issues. Then the soldiers who eliminated the situps, when they took the mandatory fitness test they scored better on the situp test and had less back pain. But to really answer the question I would need to know the training goal. Is the goal appearance or performance enhancement. If it is performance enhancement then training the springs and energy storage ability may be far more important than strength. I have given many options for more challenging exercise programming in my book Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance.
Whats your take on lifting belts for overall low back safety? The thing with belts is that they do allow you to lift some extra weights and a lot of guys who tend to train with belts end up being stronger than guys without belts because they have been overloading their body so even when they take off the belt they can still use some pretty respectable weights. Some people say that they are safer because they allow you to push your abs into the belt. I personally think that people should strengthen their low back, abs, obliques and stuff of that nature in order to get an extremely strong core plus it also helps a lifter get more out of less weight too. So the big question is, are a lot of these lifters who are using belts day in and day out going to be suffering in the future or are there ways for certain lifters to use weightlifting belts to their advantage without suffering as many consequences down the line?
You have several questions here and they are big ones. For me to answer I need much more information. But generally a belt will help the lifter lift more as belts add stiffness and restorative torque to assist spine and hip extension. They assist with more intra-abdominal pressure to stiffen the torso to resist buckling collapse. There was never solid evidence that belts assisted industrial workers to avoid back injury. There is some evidence in workers that when they stop wearing a belt their injury rates go up. I have written quite lengthy discussion papers on this as well as chapters in my books. The bottom line is belts help increase the load lifted. But is the lifter lifting to win or to be healthy – their answer to this will guide their decision.
My sister had a scoliosis surgery for her mid to upper back about a year ago. The rehab went very well and now she is more active plus she is starting to train. She is constantly asking me (along with a handful of other females) what my take is on the “Waist Trainer”. If you don’t already know, the waist trainer is pretty much it looks like in the photo below and the big goal of this product is to help individuals get a smaller waist overtime.
I personally told her that I didn’t think it would be a good idea, but then again I don’t have enough data to make such a strong statement so I told her that I will get back to her on her question. So Stuart, whats your take on this product for females who have had a scoliosis surgery and what is your take on this product for very healthy females? Is it all hype, are the people advertising these things liars and are the females who are getting results off of them going to be paying for it in the long term?
I really don’t know of any long term study on this. On one hand they may act as a belt to support a scoliotic spine, yet on the other I would not risk corrupting a muscle recruitment pattern in a healthy person.
What role do the obliques play in squats and deadlifts without getting too technical? Also how important are the obliques for improving and helping you maximize performance in these lifts?
It is difficult to not get technical because there are a lot of issues at play here. In a static context, the obliques act as guy wires to support the spine and prevent buckling collapse. In a dynamic context they assist in corrections needed to steer forces through the linkage on these lifts. If a walkout is required from the rack, the obliques together with quadratus lumborum and the opposite gluteal muscles facilitate the step-back. This is another injury mechanism that some do not train to prevent. Heavy carries really addresses this weakness. Heavy carries are non-negotiable, mandatory exercise drills for these athletes.
What are some good oblique exercises that you would recommend for someone trying to improve their deadlift numbers? What is your take on side bends?
Generally side bends are an expensive exercise as they do not challenge the muscles very much and load up the spine. Side planks get more muscle activation with less spine load leaving more training capacity for other good things. Then rotational planks, rolling between front and side planks with dynamic elbow drops should be sufficient for many athletes. Once again, loaded carries are also non-negotiable for lifting athletes.
I do a lot of heavy box squatting variations (ex: wide box squats, safety bar box squats, front box squats…etc) and I can go over 405lb. I also do all of my squats belt-less as well and I can do them all pain free even with heavy loads. I know that in the future I will eventually be box squatting over 500lb to a parallel box for low reps, but are some ways to make heavy squatting a bit more “spine-friendly” as far as breathing/bracing is concerned so that I won’t have to pay for it as much in the future?
I think you are asking for spine friendly technique cues. I need to ask two questions: what are the training goals and is a box squat the best tool to get you there? And second I would need to observe you squat – then I would know how to make them a better exercise.
I personally do a lot of 45 degree back extension and horizontal back extension variations from program to program and I will use a variety of rep ranges. On the volume days I will do sets of 10-30 while on the intensity days I will typically work in the 5-8 rep range. Do you feel like the lower back should be trained directly with higher reps above 10 or do you think that the lower back should also be trained very heavy even on back extensions when trying to get it really strong?
It depends on the person. It sounds like you are training like a bodybuilder and not a strength athlete. To get really strong we need high neural drive in postures that train the whole neuromuscular system. So for me to answer your question I would need to better understand you, see your technique when you train, and then understand your total training program for your training goals, volume, recovery and balance. Then I could tune your strength development.
When I do my deadlifts and rows my lower back will tend to round a tiny bit when I am doing my top end sets. When you are lifting heavy the form won’t always be textbook form, but how much lower back rounding is actually acceptable on deadlifts? Should the lower back ALWAYS be completely straight or is a little bit of rounding alright and nothing to worry about too much?
It depends on injury history, load and volume, age, your spine and hip anatomy. Some can round and other must never if they want to lift. Maybe you are young and have not trained past your biological capacity. Maybe you are old and have adaptations with a substantial margin of safety.
There has been a lot of controversy on the Hip Thrust and Glute Bridge exercises done with a barbel. What is your take on these lifts? Some trainers say that its fine with light weights but once you start loading them heavy then it won’t be the best lift for your glutes because you will most likely feel more of the load in your lower back.
What we have measured is that gluteal activation increases with the barbell load up to a point. Then after that other muscles substitute. But as with everything coaching cues matter. Coaching how to activate the gluteals, and manipulate the sharing of load with the hamstrings are important.
What are the dangers of sleeping on your stomach if you have anterior pelvic tilt?
It depends. If it causes discomfort don’t do it, or better yet diagnose the pain mechanism, and directly address the mechanism. Perhaps that is how you were made. But again, I would need to understand pain triggers and stresses with standing, sitting and laying postures.