A Day With Dr. Stu McGill

The spine is a delicate structure, one that you don’t want to take for granted. Professionals who work with athletes must possess sufficient knowledge of the spine and how it operates in order to provide appropriate instructions and recommendations. I have personally devoted hundreds of hours toward improving my understanding of spinal biomechanics as I take this topic very seriously. But perhaps nobody in the world understands spinal biomechanics as much as Dr. Stu McGill, professor at University of Waterloo and owner of BackFitPro.com.

In order to fully appreciate Dr. McGill’s vast knowledge and contributions to our industry, you’d need to have either followed his career for the past 30 years, or trace back and examine his findings and discoveries throughout the 80’s, 90’s, 2000’s, and 2010’s. See Pubmed for a list or his CV from late 2011 which is absolutely incredible.

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Dr. Stuart McGill

Last week, I visited Dr. Stu McGill at his laboratory in Canada. Over the course of my stay, we ended up spending a long time chatting about various topics, including:

  • How he accidentally discovered his love of Physics
  • How he stumbled into the field of Spinal Biomechanics
  • His early work with Professor Norman
  • His battles with Professor Gracovetsky
  • The misconceptions and myths he busted early on
  • How he created his spinal modelling method
  • His PhD thesis
  • His early work with powerlifters
  • His transition from being a researcher to more of a practitioner
  • Public misinterpretations of his work
  • Spinal modelling, assumptions, and why EMG is critical for accuracy
  • Various spinal researchers and their advantages/disadvantages
  • How dailly glute bridges have positively affected his life and well-being
  • Case studies of world class athletes
  • Optimal MVIC positions
  • “Butt wink” in the squat and motor control
  • How to determine optimal squat stance width
  • Athletes and MVC versus average Joe’s
  • Mel Siff
  • Vladimir Zatsiorsky
  • Neutral spine and pelvis versus slight APT and slight PPT depending on the situation
  • The universal answer, “It depends”
  • The uniqueness of each individual and the power of the case study
  • Inverse dynamics, co-contractions, compressive and shear loading, and torque calculations
  • Gluteus maximus and gluteus medius biomechanics
  • Disc anatomy and its affect on herniation patterns
  • Genetics and disc physiology and implications for repair
  • Breathing training – when and when not to use with athletes
  • Attentional focus – external vs. internal
  • Pain, the neuromatrix, and movement solutions
  • Characteristics of various types of world class athletes
  • The importance of the hips
  • Head-neck position during deadlifts
  • Strongman strategies for maximizing performance
  • Michael Adams’ important study examining bending stress and end-range lumbar flexion and its implications for exercise
  • Solutions for different spinal problems
  • Recent research in his laboratory
  • The mindset of a researcher versus that of a “guru”
  • Whether or not he ever shaved off his mustache
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Nine cameras around the room capture motion data in concordance with the position sensors on my body, which is fed into a software system that also incorporates ground reaction force data via the force plate I’m standing on as well as muscle activation via the electrodes place on my body and EMG unit that the wires are connected to, and this is integrated into a virtual lumbopelvic model that utilizes architectural, physiological, and anatomical of the core musculature and physics and biomechanics in order to determine the amount of spinal loading.

If you’d like to hear more about these topics, let me know and I’ll try to get Stu on for an interview.

In addition to the fantastic discussion, Stu was nice enough to give me a tour of The University of Waterloo, which was incredible. I did not know that they offered the first Kinesiology program in the world and have the most state of the art labs. I was blown away by the number of laboratories and equipment available for research that I saw. It was insane, and there’s so much opportunity for synergy and collaboration there, which partly explains how Stu has been able to learn so much about the spine over the years.

Stu also showed me around the city, which was very nice as Waterloo is beautiful this time of year. It was great to see the human side of Stu McGill. I observed how polite and courteous he is to strangers (Canada trumps the United States in this area for sure), how much he cares for his students, how great his is to his incredible wife, and his incredible enthusiasm for the spine, the field of biomechanics, and strength & conditioning.

I could highly relate to this enthusiasm as I haven’t met many people who care as much about exercise knowledge than me, but Stu rivals me in this regard. When we were testing, he was down on the floor, changing out weighted plates on the barbell, and getting his hands dirty. I can’t tell you how much I admire that.

He picked me up at the airport even though it was late, made sure I was well fed before he dropped me off, and treated me to breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and refused to allow me to pay). These are all admirable qualities that I wouldn’t have discovered about Stu had I not paid him a visit.

It was also nice to see the “thank you” messages from pro athletes on Stu’s office wall. He’s a “case study” guy who regularly gets sent elite athletes who are experiencing back trouble and is expected to find solutions for their problems, and there’s no better individual in the field than Stu for this role.

Just seeing how Stu conducts his MVC (maximum voluntary contraction – these are positions performed prior to EMG testing that are used for comparison purposes during standard exercise) testing during his EMG (electromyography – a technique for evaluating and recording the electrical activity of muscles) portion was worth the cost of the trip for me as I also do a ton of EMG work myself. Being that Stu has a few decades of experience on me here, it was nice to see the methods and positions he used for testing.

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The barbell glute bridge. We tested 225 lbs, 315 lbs, 405 lbs, and 495 lbs.

What We Tested

And now we get to the nitty-gritty. Though my discussions with Stu were priceless, this trip to Canada was all about one thing – learning more about exercises. Here’s what we tested:

  • Best glute MVC position for the gluteus maximus (Stu and I actually bet each other on this one – we both felt confident that our position would maximize gluteus maximus MVC – it turns out that we both won. His outperformed mine for the upper glutes, but mine outperformed his for the mid glutes).
  • Barbell glute bridge with ascending loads
  • Barbell hip thrust with ascending loads
  • Single leg hip thrust with just bodyweight
  • Romanian deadlifts vs. American deadlifts with identical loads (interested to look at muscle activation on these along with lumbopelvic mechanics)
  • Sumo stance Pallof press (interested to see the compressive loading in these and see if it outperforms that of the deadlift)
  • Bottom squat isohold (I’ve found some interesting data on this for the glutes which might warrant future research)
  • Glute max EMG during different isometric positions (interested in seeing the effect of mechanical advantages on neural drive)
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Here Stu’s students Ed Cambridge and Ben Lee prepare me for the testing. I felt like I was an Indy Car at a pit-stop – Ed and Ben worked at light speeds to shave and gel my skin and tape electrodes and sensors on various anatomical landmarks. And don’t look at my belly, I’m workin’ on it! I  had just eaten a ginormous meal so lay off me!

Some of you may recall THIS post I made a while back regarding the optimal band placement during lateral walking exercises for gluteal muscle activation. As it turns out, the head researcher was Ed Cambridge, the same guy who helped out during the lab testing. What a small world! Much thanks goes out to Kinesiology students Ed Cambridge and Benjamin Lee for spending all day assisting with this project. These guys were incredible helpers and it is apparent that Stu knows how to pick ’em!

When do We Get the Results?

Most “civilians” have no clue about the work that goes into analyzing this type of data. It takes a few months of processing, analyzing, and compiling the data in order to get it ready for presentation.

What’s nice is that Stu’s lab allows for a tremendous amount of potential information, including:

  • Gluteal, thigh, and core muscle EMG activation
  • Lumopelvic-hip complex (LPHC) motion
  • Spinal (compressive and shear) loading
  • Spinal, pelvic, and hip extension torques
  • Various “curves” that can be graphed according to motion, for example:
    • Gluteus maximus EMG-hip angle curve
    • Compressive and shear loading-hip angle curves
    • Hip extension torque-hip angle curve

Again, please be patient. As soon as the data is ready, I will share it with you. Please expect a few months. If per chance we can get the data published in a journal as a case study or technical note, you’ll have to wait until it’s published ahead of print, which would be a long ways away, probably 9 months to a year. Such is research! But this is a long-shot and we might not go down this path. There will undoubtedly be some excellent and meaningful findings, some that will warrant a thorough investigation, so it’s great that Stu and I now have established a formal relationship and can potentially do more together over time.

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From left to right: Bret Contreras, Ben Lee, Stu McGill, and Ed Cambridge

42 Comments

  • Hey Bret
    McGill and his lab sound awesome. For me, his work changed the game, and brought a whole new level of research and evidence to the back pain field and has probably made the fields of physiotherapy and strength coaching raise their game and professionalism. I use the principles and methods outlined by McGill in his books, DVDs and papers on a daily basis. For me the influence is on a level with Mel Siff.

    I would be interested in Stu’s thoughts on 1)breathing with athletes& for back pain – what he does, his thoughts on the DNS methods 2) The power of the case study 3) neuromatrix & movement solutions 4)attentional focus 5) Moustache growing tips!
    Cheers

  • Alexander Cortes says:

    INTERVIEW PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Daveb says:

    How dare you tease with those discussion topics, please make an interview happen! Many thanks Brett!

  • alex bell-moratto says:

    an interview would be great! I would love to hear his take on the stuff you talked about with Jason Silvernail about biomechanics and pain science.

  • I’m old enough to actually have followed Stu’s work for those three decades. My motivation was especially powerful in the early years, when I suffered from debilitating low back pain (L4/L5 herniation, don’tcha know.) Applying what I could learn from him–at a distance, and largely pre-internet, at least for me–got me healthy again. That education was central to my subsequent S&C and endurance coaching career, too!

    And I was later able to assess his enthusiasm and personal graciousness at various presentations he’s given that I was lucky to attend.

    He’s simply The Man.

    • Bret says:

      Awesome Mark! Thank you for chiming in, I appreciate the anecdote. He’s the man indeed.

    • Alfons says:

      Same for me. Not only was I able to resolve my own back pain (which NONE of the specialists I went to see could) but it totally changed the way I work with clients. I had people stand in my door, sweating from pain and on high doses of painkillers, with history of years of strong pain, having had dozens of PT sessions with no results, surgery, spine fusions and what not, and I was the one who could make them feel comfortable again, and give them knowledge of how to get their lives back. All thanks to Stuart McGill and the Internet. And all in all less than $100 spent on books. That’s beyond incredible.

  • Joe Miller says:

    Yes, an interview would be really cool.

    I’m always amazed at how many folks are out there who have herniated a disc and have managed to recover and get back into training.

  • Janet says:

    Would love to hear more about any and all of these topics. I’m a fan of Dr. McGill’s work.

  • shimin says:

    yes, interview please, ask him about different ab exercises, weight lifting belts, core training,….

    and some personal questions like his favourite books or articles,… would be great.

    Thanks in advance

  • Michael says:

    Brett C are you currently bulking? haha nice work mate good to see the lengths you go too to perfect your research on glutes love it!

    • Bret says:

      I’m not bulking haha! I had a couple drinks the night before and then had a huge breakfast so I was around 7 lbs heavier than normal and swollen. I retain water when I fly long distances too. When I returned from the trip I was 227 but now am back down to 220. Strange! Thanks for the encouraging words.

  • Tim says:

    That DL shot Bret- Beast!

    Waterloo…one would never expect the little CDN city it is the intellectual capital of everything ever (or something like that)

  • John says:

    Overcomplication at its purest.

  • Etienne says:

    I would love to see an interview with Stu!
    Also, what were the findings concerning EMG data of RDL vs. American deadlift…etc

    Thanks again Bret! Great article as always!

  • Jon says:

    An interview would be awesome! Thanks for the inside scoop of McGill and his lab.

  • Will Arias says:

    Bret,
    I got already under my belt “ultimate Back and fitness and performance” and also his master piece, “Low bad disorders”, plus his DVD’s as well. Yes, I’m a declared and unapologetic McGill’s “reader”… I was going to say “fan” instead of “reader” but you might think i’m crazy-obsesive like that Robert De Niro’s character in “The FAN”. And describing myself as a “groupie” might make me sound like Kate Hudson in “Almost Famous” , which probably wouldn’t sit all that well with my wife.
    Anyway, you can imagine how much i envy the opportunity you well earned to share a full day in the Waterloo’s HQ… Uff, awesome. By the way, if thats ok with you, i would like to recommend to other bookworms out there, three awesome related readings: “Rehabilitation of the Spine” by Craig Liebenson; “Movement System Impairment Syndromes of the Extremities, Cervical and Thoracic Spines” by Shirley Sahrmann; and, “Spinal Control: The Rehabilitation of Back Pain: State of the art and science” by Paul Hodges and Jacek Cholewicki (one of the most clever McGill’s student, by the way).
    I believe, the guy will be touring Australia in 2015! So Enough time to prepare a ton of questions, ha ha
    Anyway, as i mentioned, you well deserved that priceless experience, Bret.
    Good on you, Mister.

  • Grant says:

    Awesome Bret!
    If there was only one or two resources you could recommend for best understanding and making use of Stu’s contribution to field what would it be? Preferably one designed for application not just theory.
    All those topics you listed look fascinating. Can’t wait to read about it.

  • I will say that I’m VERY disappointed only because I was expecting a huge knowledge bomb. Looks like I’ll have to wait. The only thing potentially better than Stu’s work(papers, books, dvd’s) is seeing him live. He’s flat out awesome both in his knowledge and in his ability to present. Lets face it, he’s a “lab geek” (and I say that in a complementary way) but his presentation was very engaging. He wasn’t a scientist lecturing. He cranked it for 90+ minutes and I wanted hours more. As you talked about how great of a person that he is, it makes sense now after seeing him present. Most people have passion or they wouldn’t be considered to present on a topic in public. He just had a genuine quality that made you like him for more than just the bad ass stache. With the amount of elite athletes that he’s worked it, anything that he has to say would be beneficial. Only a few people in the world have had the opportunity to work with the “freaks” that he’s worked with in a lab.

  • Matt says:

    Hey Bret. I’m jealous. Did he let you touch his mustache?

    Anyways, I’m having difficulty finding what I am talking about since T-Nation changed its search feature, but you recently did an article advocating t-spine extension exercises. In it, I believe you talked about a review article you and Brad Schoenfield did about the potential for injury regarding training the spine in such a manner (I believe it reviews some of McGill’s stuff in it).

    What was his opinion on your position/article? Did you talk about this?

  • Eric says:

    Another vote for an interview. I’ve heard several interviews with Dr. McGill, and I never tire of hearing his combination of knowledge, passion, wit and brilliant story telling. Given your love and interest in so many common areas, a conversation between the two of you would provide us all a wealth of information. Thanks!

  • Tom says:

    Hi Bret

    As an ART/Chiro I have used McGill’s work for 17 years. I have recently added G. Cook’s SFMA work. Cook’s roll tests before planking and motor control assessments / exercises are indispensable. I still use McGill with disc cases, but I feel Cook’s tests/solutions more specific/relevant in non disc cases. There is a lot of crossover but I feel I was missing a lot of motor control issues, pre SFMA. I’d love to hear Stu’s thoughts.

    Plus, did you discuss “to crunch or not to crunch”?

  • Hey Bret, Thanks for sharing your experience with the “Einstein” of biomechanics!
    I hope you realize (and I know you do) just how fortunate you are to have been offered that experience. Over time you would probably discover that Stu is probably gifted with a brilliant mind regardless of the topic. The man is rare indeed in the vast and enormous amount of data he stores in his brain. BTW, don’t cut yourself short Bret, you too have a brilliant mind! You are the Stu of Gluteal Biomechanics! Take care my friend and I’ll be talking with you soon!

  • Elliot says:

    The question is how could you not do an interview? It was a few years ago but in http://bretcontreras.com/industry-rant-back-extensions-reverse-hypers/ you bring up some skepticism regarding McGill’s methods/models and the whole limited number of flexion/extension cycles. It would be great to hear an intelligent discussion of these things between you two.

  • Rebecca Cooper says:

    Yes please get an interview with Dr Stu!

  • Daniel Iaciofanp says:

    Bret, an interview with Stu would be brilliant. I had the pleasure of seeing him present a few years ago and he’s a great presenter aswell as being knowledgeable.

  • Arlene says:

    Hi Bret,

    What a fantastic experience this must have been. How wonderful it would be to see you interview Dr. McGill.

    With everything you discussed with Dr. McGill – could you share some thoughts with us.

    Inquiring minds want to know.

    Thanks.

    Arlene 🙂

  • Ben says:

    In regards to the bottom squat iso-holds: my coach once had us partner up for sets of kettlebell swings, and while the one partner was swinging, the other was holding the bottom position of a squat. Nothing has ever torched my glutes quite like a few rounds of that.

  • Adriana says:

    Hi Bret,

    I stumbled across your website not so long ago, and my first impression was that you are for the glutes what prof McGill is for the spine. I am a registered massage therapist who two years ago was lucky enough to attend one of Prof. McGill’s seminars in Toronto, and I cannot emphasize how amazing that seminar was. Anyway, just wanted to tell that I don’t find anything out of the ordinary that you two meet, to the opposite: I kind of expected you to quote him at one point, as your passion for what you two do is so obvious. Thank you for sharing the knowledge and for the time you put into it.

  • Patrick O'Flaherty says:

    Bret,

    When doing the McGill Crunch, why is it necessary to have one leg bent and the other straight?

    Thank you!

  • Sherry says:

    Stu gave a 2 day seminar in Barcelona, Spain. I learned a lot and I am applying this to heal my own L4/L5 lower back issue.

  • Joe DeLeo says:

    Hi Bret,

    Great article. Was this study published in the NSCA?

    Also, I’d like to chat with you about the EMG studies you did with glute activation. I am interested in conducting my own research to see if the Concept 2 Rowing machine causes the same muscle activation that happens on the water in a rowing shell.

    Thanks!
    Joe

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