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The McGill Crunch: Activate Your Core While Saving Your Back!

try the mcgill crunch


The McGill Crunch is a great variation to your traditional abdominal crunches if you have preexisting back pain or want to prevent it. This effective core sculpting exercise is named after Stuart McGill, a leading spine biomechanics expert (more on him later). 

The awesome part about this crunch is that it essentially minimizes the risk of injury while helping you to achieve those rock-hard abs you’ve always wanted. 

Are you ready to try this exercise, and transform your routine while saving your back? Keep reading! 

How To Do the McGill Crunch

  1. Start by lying on your back with one leg extended straight, the opposite knee bent with your foot flat on the floor.
  2. Place your hands, palms down, under the natural arch of your lower back for curvature support.
  3. Keep your head and neck in a neutral position to avoid unnecessary strain.
  4. Slowly lift your head, shoulders, and upper back off the ground just a few inches - focus on engaging your core muscles and hold your position at the top for a few seconds.
  5. Lower yourself back to the starting position in a slow, controlled motion.
  6. Switch sides after your desired number of reps. 

Check out this short clip demonstrating how to do it: 


  • Focus on controlled movements
  • Engage your core!
  • Avoid straining your neck and spine
  • Start with a few repetitions and gradually increase as tolerated

  • Muscles Activated During the McGill Crunch

    The McGill Crunch primarily engages your core muscles, targeting the rectus abdominis.


    Your rectus abdominis flexes the spine, and the obliques, aiding in torso rotation and stability. Your transverse abdominis (deeper core muscles) are also activated - which is great because these muscles provide support and stability to the spine and pelvis. Finally, some hip flexor strength is involved in doing these exercises. 

    muscles worked when doing the mcgill crunch


    Why would you want a strong core?

    A little bit of core exercises never hurt anyone, and knowing how to do them correctly is only a piece of the puzzle. But why is having a strong core so important?

    Some great reasons to have core strength include:

    • Stability 
    • Balance
    • Injury prevention
    • Athletic performance
    • Posture and spine health

    As most of society may gravitate towards a sedentary or indoor lifestyle, we are at risk for less strength and flexibility as time goes on. The importance of a strong core cannot be overlooked as this study in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology noted, core strength and functional movement enhancement programs are crucial to injury prevention. 

    Just sitting for long periods (got an office job?) or habitually moving in awkward ways can hinder your posture and set you on a path for back pain. But don’t let this stop you from moving forward with your fitness goals! 

    McGill Crunch Benefits

    McGill crunches are a part of the McGill Big 3 - which include:

    1. Curl-up (crunch)
    2. Side bridge
    3. Birddogs

    These stabilization exercises were explored in a study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. These exercises were compared to conventional exercises based on their effects on non-specific low back pain.

    The study discusses how individuals with non-specific low back pain who used McGill’s stabilization exercises experienced an improvement in:

    • Pain
    • Functional disability
    • Active back range of motion [1] 

    With low back pain being extremely common, using certain exercises such as these can help save your back in the long run. It is reported that about 84% of people will experience back pain in their lifetime with 90% of this group experiencing it without certain pathology. [1]  

    With easy modifications such as those noted in the McGill Big 3, you can solidify your fitness regimen in (hopefully) years to come without subjecting yourself to unnecessary back strain. 

    Who is McGill Behind the McGill Crunch?

    Dr. Stuart McGill is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada. He is recognized as a leading expert in spine function and injury prevention.

    He has dedicated years to exploring topics such as:

    • Spine mechanics
    • Lower back pain
    • Rehab techniques

    McGill has written several books such as Gift of Injury and Back Mechanic. 

    McGill Crunch FAQ

    What is a McGill crunch?

    The McGill crunch is a core exercise named after Dr. Stuart McGill. This modified version of the traditional crunch is designed to reduce spinal stress while working your core muscles. The benefits are increasing core stability and strength while reducing the risk of back injury.

    What are the McGill Big 3 exercises?

    As stated in the above section the McGill Big 3 Exercises are:

    1. Curl-up
    2. Side bridge
    3. Birddogs

    These stabilization exercises can provide improvements in chronic non-specific low back pain, functional disability, and active back range of motion more than the known typical physiotherapy exercises. [1] 

    Should I Do McGill Big 3 every day?

    As with most exercises, (and is even recommended by Dr. McGill himself) these exercises be done three times a week. Frequency, however, is entirely up to you and also depends on your intensity and repetitions. Another source states that once or twice a day is doable and can also help build spine strength. 

    As with most fitness routines, listen to your body and don’t overdo it!

    What are the benefits of the McGill curl up?

    Some of the benefits of the McGill curl up (or crunch) are the following:

    • Core strength and stability
    • Reduced spinal stress (minimizing strain on the spine compared to other crunch variations)
    • Improved posture (core muscles are involved in maintaining proper posture)
    • Injury prevention 
    • Functional strength (benefits may be noticed in activities of daily living or sports that require core movements and stability) 

    McGill Crunch: Conclusion

    The McGill Crunch is a great fitness innovation to the standard crunch - especially for individuals looking to approach core strengthening techniques with injury prevention in mind. Its emphasis on spinal health, coupled with targeted engagement of core muscles, makes it a standout exercise. 

    In my own experience, I have been unable to do the traditional crunch without eventual neck strain, so this type of modification may benefit me as well. Why compromise spinal injury for the sake of washboard abs? With this type of crunch in your fitness routine, this will no longer be a concern! 

    Hopefully, this page has provided some insight into the McGill Crunch so that you can commit to continuing your fitness journey while exercising smartly! 

    Now that you've read about the McGill Crunch, check out our page on the Cross Leg Reverse Crunch and Why is it Important to Ease Into An Exercise Program.


    [1] Ghorbanpour, A., Azghani, M., Taghipour, M., Salahzadeh, Z., Ghaderi, F., Oskouei, A. Effects of McGill stabilization exercises and conventional physiotherapy on pain, functional disability and active back range of motion in patients with chronic non-specific low back pain. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 2018. 


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