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A back injury is serious business. According to the World Health Organization, between 60 and 70 percent of people will experience non-specified lower-back pain in their lifetime. Upon experiencing back pain, most lifters toss squats out of their program, as loading weight onto your injury-prone back is a surefire way to, well, get injured.
Not so, according to Dr. Stuart McGill—Professor Emeritus of Spine Biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario Canada. He says that as long as one can maintain a safe and stable spine while squatting, pain and the risk of injury shouldn’t be a problem. This is achieved through bracing your core, and therefore stabilizing your spine.
Bracing your abs is as simple as breathing into your stomach to expand and tighten your core. While squatting, you would breathe in with the weight resting on your back before descending into a squat. Maintain this braced position throughout the entire movement, breathing through your nose. If you lose core tension, reset at the top of the lift.
To reinforce proper bracing and to strengthen all of the core muscles involved in stabilizing your spine—rectus abdominis, obliques, and spinal erectors—McGill has prescribed three movements that he’s dubbed, the McGill Big Three. Besides bracing during these exercises, McGill also recommends performing high-reps for each.
“People with low back pain lose their endurance capacity,” McGill says. “Endurance exercises of the core using low loads and high reps, rebuilds slow twitch muscle fibers and promote spine stability.”
Keep reading to learn all about McGill’s Big Three and for some of the best squat variations to try if you’re hitting the gym after a back injury.
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