Does your back bother you after a plane trip? Learn an insider tip from a physical therapist. Teresa Maldonado Marchok PT and certified Pilates instructor uses an inflatable miniball on every flight she takes. It’s small enough to fold into a ziplock bag and keep in your purse. Once at your destination, you’ll have an exercise prop with you for core work and more. This tip is also a spine saver to use in a chair or in your car!

Stuart McGill, a professor at the University of Waterloo, has influenced my approach as a physical therapist and the exercises that I give to my Pilates clients to best address their needs.
It seems like the word “core” is ubiquitous, tossed around like grass seed. Who hasn’t heard the admonition that you need a strong core!  There’s certainly an endless array of exercises out there that target the core, some causing more harm than good. In my last blog post, “Ditch the Crunch”, we examined the negative effects of sit-ups and crunches and explored an interesting alternative.
Today we’ll examine a great starting point for improving core stability. In light of scientific evidence, the safest approach to improving your core and enhancing spine stability is through exercise that emphasizes endurance over strength.
The following exercises known as the McGill Big 3, emphasize neutral spine posture with abdominal co-contraction and core bracing to create stiffness and promote endurance. Think of it as creating your own internal corset of support. These 3 research-based exercises are an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to approach their core work with safety and proven efficacy.  If you are de-conditioned, experience back pain or just want to avoid back pain, these exercises are for you!  Watch the video at the bottom of this post to see the exercises in action.
The Stuart McGill Big 3 exercises are:
  • Curl Up

  • Side Bridge

  • Bird Dog
I would insert that the side bridge demonstrated in the video below can be difficult if your shoulder girdle isn’t strong and stable. If that’s the case, just de-weight your hips slightly if able, and over time with repetition, you’ll get stronger and will be able to lift your hips higher off the ground.
You’ll see me in the video below cueing to hold the position for 6-8 seconds. This timing targets endurance. Typically endurance is built first with repeated sets of relatively short holds-no longer than 7-8 sec’s. This is based on recent evidence indicating rapid loss of available oxygen in torso muscles contracting at these levels. Short relaxation of the muscles requires oxygen. The endurance goals are achieved by building up reps rather than increasing the time/duration of each hold. (McGill et al., 2000)
Important note: you should not experience pain with any of the above exercises. Watch for spine deviation or loss of neutral. Maintain excellent technique.
In a future blog, I’ll address the spine, hip and leg stretches that best accompany these core stabilization exercises.
McGill, S.M. 2007,  Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation, 2nd edition 12: 213-235
McGill, S.M. et al (2000), Lumbar erector spine oxygenation during prolonged contractions: Implications for prolonged work. Ergonomics, 43: 486-493
McGill, S.M. (2006) Ultimate back fitness and performance,  Backfitpro Inc. (

Get rid of flabby upper arms with this fresh twist on a biceps exercise that also includes core strengthening, balance and a stretch for the pecs and the front of the shoulders!


Just because you see people doing crunches and sit-ups at the gym doesn’t make it good for you or right to do.  Why not?

The research has been and continues to be clear.  Repetitive rounding of the spine, particularly in an action like a sit-up or crunch, creates disc pressure and strain to the spine.  This can, with time and repetition, create disc herniations and debilitating injury.

Pete McCall, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise, told the Wall St Journal that sit-ups are “an antiquity of exercise best left in the dustbin of fitness history”.     As of 2015, The US army put 10,000 soldiers through a pilot of a revamped physical fitness test that excludes sit-ups.  And one study found that 56 percent of all soldiers’ injuries related to the old fitness test was because of sit-ups.  

Someone whose research I follow and whose opinion I value highly is Stuart McGill, a professor who’s been studying the biomechanics of the spine for more than 3 decades at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Using both spine specimens and real people, he’s conducted studies to understand the effects of repetitive motions like flexion (rounding of the spine) seen in sit-ups and crunches.

What he’s found is that crunches and traditional sit-ups place 3,300 newtons (the equivalent of 340 kg or 749 lbs!) of compressive force on the spine when bent in flexion. These forces can squeeze a bent disc’s nucleus to the point that it bulges – pressing on nerves and causing back pain, and potentially leading to a herniated disc. According to McGill, There are only so many bends in your spine until the discs eventually herniate.”  Check out this enlightening interview with McGill, The man who wants to kill crunches.

Why do people still do them?
Because that’s what they were taught in school, on their teams, in boot camps etc.  Until everyone is up to date and on the same page with current science and research, people will continue down the same path of “no pain no gain” that they’re familiar with.  Your core — which includes your rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, transverse abdominis, pelvic floor, etc. — is designed to help your body stabilize and brace against twisting and bending (not generate it). 

Sit-ups and crunches eliminate the bracing and can put your body into unhealthy positions like pulling your neck forward, rounding your shoulders and flexing the spine which can result in back pain.

So what specifically can we do to target our core and keep us safe? (videos below)  Don’t worry I’ve got your back!    These three exercises will target your core and keep you safe! 

  • BoneSmart Pilates Chest Lift
  • Bird Dog
  • Planks

1)  The BoneSmart Pilates Chest Lift

Performed with an inflatable mini ball behind the upper back, this exercise gives you the sensation of doing a crunch without the negative effects. Instead of taking your body from a flat, supine position, to a flexed rounded position, you begin in spine extension (slight back bending draped back over the ball, hands interlaced behind your head).

      • exhale as you begin with a chin nod to align your head and rise
      • lift your upper body, from your core, rising up only to a neutral straight diagonal spine position. Inhale here maintaining a still pelvis
      • on an exhale slowly drape back to the starting position

Doing it this way eliminates the flexion/compression component of your spine while maintaining the strengthening component.  View “Chest Lift” in action below!


2)   Bird Dog, the familiar exercise done on hands and knees, strengthens the core and muscles in the back of the spine by extending your arm and opposite leg parallel to the floor and holding it still for 10 sec or more. You get strong by bracing your core, breathing and isolating movement to occur only at the hip and shoulder, not in the spine. That combination of stabilization with isolation is the secret to the power of this exercise. Watch Bird Dog below!

3) Planks in various positions are perfect for strengthening and bracing your core. In my DVD’s I take you from standing planks in the Counter series to the more challenging straight arm, forearm and side plank series.  My BoneSmart Pilates Youtube channel has a Plank Challenge Playlist that offers you a variety of planks of varying difficulty to target all your key core muscles and get you strong while keeping you safe.

For 5 years now, I’ve been teaching active agers with a slant toward “neutral spine” training and avoiding flexion of the spine, particularly for those with back issues or bone density compromise like osteopenia and osteoporosis.  In 2013, the BoneSmart Pilates® DVD series was conceived. I began with Exercise to Prevent or Reverse Osteoporosis which targeted those with osteoporosis and avoided all flexion. 

Soon after, I realized that other active agers, not just those with increased bone loss, would benefit from this approach. The Aging Strong Series followed that first DVD and addresses a broader spectrum of the active aging population that also benefits from smart core training while focusing on additional areas important to aging. In all my DVD’s, we work on creating strength, flexibility and balance while honoring the integrity of our spine and discs.  There are no sit-ups, crunches or flexion (rounding of the spine) in any of my BoneSmart Pilates® DVD’s.  

To conclude, you don’t need to do crunches or sit-ups to get a strong core.  The science speaks for itself.   Ditch the Crunch”!

Teresa Maldonado Marchok, physical therapist and certified Pilates instructor, shares BoneSmart Pilates® Healthy Supported Sitting Tips when you want to sit at the back of a chair.

Get rid of flabby upper arms with this toning exercise that also includes core work!  In addition to building strength to get your carry-on luggage in the overhead compartment of a plane, it also comes in handy if you should trip and fall. You’ll build the strength to catch yourself and decelerate your fall, preventing bruising or broken bones.

Follow along with my video below.


I began taking a group “Aging Strong Pilates” class with Teresa in Mountain View after I had healed enough from my second fall and concussion in 10 months! I’m 59 and knew I needed help with balance and core strength.  

It was so much fun and Teresa is so awesome at helping each person with adjustments for whatever their needs are. She is kind and funny and never judgmental!

I added private sessions with her because she makes me feel safe and positive. Working one to one is awesome! Her humor is great and the workout is amazing!  We are finding trouble spots and working on them with laughter and joy!  I feel my core strength returning and general body awareness, balance and posture becoming a natural part of my being. I love my classes and the joy of working with Teresa.