Stuart McGill is a world renowned spine researcher. His goal is to help people recover from and avoid back pain. Given tall people are at increased risk of back pain, his introduction is particularly warranted here on Tall Life.
Whether or not you’ve heard of him, there is a good chance Stuart McGill and his team have influenced how you exercise. Consider sit-ups for just one example. While sit-ups were once a recommended exercise, they aren’t anymore; their consequences for the spine, thanks largely to McGill and his team, are now common knowledge.
The issue with sit-ups is that they load the bent spine, and this has a tendency to herniate the intervertebral discs. This is a rather painful, debilitating, and slow-healing injury. McGill has also pointed out that many other activities such as lifting and sitting are hazardous when done with a flexed spine. Similarly, too much bending and twisting in some Yoga poses can be problematic, and may require modification as he demonstrated in a recent Yoga workshop I attended.
McGill also has a few things to say about bigger boned people, which typically includes tall people. Specifically, he points out that a thicker spine experiences more stress when bent a given angle (same for twisting). You can test this out with two different size wooden dowels, noting that the thicker one snaps at a lesser angle. It follows then that tall people should be particularly diligent about avoiding too much bending and twisting in Yoga poses or elsewhere.
Though not specific to tall people, many other aspects of McGill’s work can be extrapolated to us similarly. For instance, since too short of manufactured objects encourage us to deviate from neutral spine posture, we should learn to adapt. This of course is the backbone of this website.
In place of harmful practices, McGill has provided a variety of recommendations. The most well known is his Big Three Stabilizing Exercises. These are the Curl-up (an alternative to sit-ups), the Bird Dog, and the Side Plank. The idea with these is to improve muscle endurance and control, as these tend to be at fault for most back injuries, rather than a lack of static strength and mobility.
By removing the cause and training the body to better maintain the neutral spine posture, McGill explains, injury can both be prevented and recovered from. Without these, passive treatments and surgery aren’t likely to fix things.
McGill’s recommendations come from over three decades of research. Within his state of the art labs, he and his team work from both ends of the problem—studying how living people perform and then replicating injury patterns on cadaveric spines.
McGill’s work is published in many journals as well as the three books below. The latest, Back Mechanic, is intended for the average reader.
Besides research and publishing, McGill, being a professor at the University of Waterloo, of course also teaches. Beyond these standard professorial duties, McGill also advises governments, corporations, and legal experts as he is called upon in court cases involving accidents, back pain, insurance, and the like. Then there are the many workshops he gives around the world. And on top of all this, he also has a clinical practice where he helps individuals get past their back pain. As you might imagine, these are rather important individuals; McGill typically works with high performance athletes including those from the NHL, NBA, NFL, and UFC leagues.
How I ended up getting help from him then—well that was my step father's most gracious doing. Over several sessions, McGill examined my mechanics and then showed and educated me on how to make improvements. This, combined with what I learnt in his first book, Low Back Disorders, helped me combat my own back pain. It is this ordeal with and recovery from back pain that inspired me to build this website and write my book, Tall Life. So, thanks Professor McGill!