Bird Dog Technique (McGill Big 3): Core Stability/Core Endurance Training for Lower Back Pain

The ‘Bird Dog’ is one of the three exercises that make up the ‘McGill Big 3’, a routine created by Dr. Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo and founder of the McGill Method.

The Bird Dog is the foundation of the McGill Big 3, and in my opinion, is the most important of exercises for introducing stability training and fitness to the back-pained individual.

It is also an incredibly challenging core drill when performed this way, regardless of your fitness level, and is an excellent exercise to activate the entire core while sparing the spine of high compressive loads.

This exercise also targets the hip extensors and teaches proper hip and shoulder motion while maintaining a neutral spine. It challenges lumbar and thoracic musculature and is a major contributor to desensitizing low back pain by creating a ‘super stiffness’ of the entire core.

Bird Dog Technique:

Begin by starting in a quadruped position on the ground with your hands stacked directly under your shoulders, knees directly under your hips, and toes dug into the ground. The hands, knees, and feet should be about hip distance apart.

In this position, brace the abdominals and stiffen the trunk by taking a breath in and then proceed to extend the opposite arm and leg at the same time. No motion at the spine should occur.

Make a fist with the hand of the moving arm and only raise the arm until it is parallel to the ground. Extend the leg until the hip has reached full extension. You should feel your glute contract on the working leg. Do not raise the leg any higher than this as it will promote lumbar hyperextension, which could be a pain trigger for a person with an injured lower back.

There should be tension in the entire body as both the arm and leg extend, and the posted arm and leg on the ground should be pushed down into the ground, so as to keep the body erect and stable. The head and neck should remain neutral without any movement occurring in the neck.

In this extended position, hold for a slow count of 5s-10s, and then proceed to ‘low sweep’ the arm and leg back towards the ground without creating any movement at the spine.

The spine should NOT go into any flexion at the lumbar region during the low sweep to the ground. All motion should occur about the shoulder and hip.

Perform a set of 6-10 reps on each side and then switch sides. Each side is measured and referenced by the moving arm. Always perform your weaker side first, and if need be, do extra repetitions on the weaker side to remove any imbalances.

Remember to emphasize abdominal bracing and a neutral spine throughout this exercise, and all parts of the McGill Big 3. Poor form during the Bird Dog would include hip hiking or any form that causes postural deviation (twisting, flexion, lateral bending, or hyperextension) to the spine.

DO NOT perform fast reps! This is an endurance and motor control drill and there is zero point in performing extremely fast reps. Also, because of the intent for activating the entire core musculature and promoting a ‘super stiffness’, all reps should be performed on one side first for a greater time under tension and challenge.

About the “McGill Big 3”:

The McGill Big 3 should be a staple in any lumbar spine rehabilitation program when the client is ready to introduce training/fitness beginning with core stability and core endurance.

The McGill Big 3 (curl up, side plank, and bird dog) are unique in that they are superior in their ability to spare the spine of added compressive and shear forces while building muscular fitness and maintaining stability and control of the natural curve of the lumbar spine.

They are able to prevent painful joint micro-movements (buckling injuries) for several hours by creating a ‘super-stiffness’ of the entire core muscles. This super-stiffness acts as a bracing mechanism for the spine, the same way guy wires act to brace a tall tower.

The McGill Big 3 also builds core endurance (through time under tension), which is essential to adding activities back into your lifestyle that previously may have caused back pain.

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