How I insulted Stuart McGill and learned what a herniated disk feels like

Don't insult this man. Just don't.

Just don’t.

I was at the Perform Better Summit in Long Beach this past weekend, and I had the pleasure of sitting in on a lecture and a hands-on demonstration by the legendary back/spine/hip/everything expert, Dr. Stuart McGill.

If you haven’t heard of Stuart McGill, it’s because you (1) don’t read stuff about functional training and/or spinal health (2) have managed never to notice that his name is footnoted everywhere when people write about or talk about spines or (3) are usually too preoccupied re-watching old seasons of Game of Thrones to waste precious brain space on this incredibly smart man and are just waiting for someone else to do it for you. I will now do it for you and will explain how I  managed to insult him.

During his lecture and hands-on demonstration, he hit on a lot of points that I think people need to hear more of. I don’t have a ton of time today, so I’ll just hit on some key stuff.

First of all, there’s a bit of information about sit ups that you need to know. They’re rough on your back whether you do them with straight legs or bent legs; they cause a compressive load on your spine that exceeds the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s established maximum guidelines for compressive force on the spine. They won’t make your spine disintegrate right away, but each rep is potentially another step toward hurting yourself. It may not happen during the sit ups, but the weakness you introduce into the spine during sit ups may cause an injury during another exercise that requires spinal stability. Good alternatives? Check out this video.

Second, training your “core” is not enough to avoid problems with your back. Even if you are following an exercise program that minimizes strain to your back and you allow enough recovery time between workouts, there’s another bigger problem that you need to address — HOW YOU MOVE. If you use your body inefficiently, in ways that strain your spine, you “deserve” your back pain. McGill mentioned a number of activities that people do that he says shows that they “deserve” their pain. Easy example: dropping your head, tucking your butt, and free falling into chairs rather than stabilizing your spine and controlling your descent into a chair. You either earn your pain or you earn your freedom from it.

I’m running out of time now, so let me also explain how I managed to insult Stuart McGill.

At the end of his hands on demonstration session, he offered to do assessments on people with any kind of lingering pain issues. Normally, he schedules his initial assessments to be THREE HOURS (you read that right) so he can be extremely thorough, go through a number of provocative tests (the kind of provocative meaning reproducing pain and not the kind meaning sexy) to troubleshoot things and get a corrective program started.

I managed to tweak my back a few weeks ago deadlifting and still had a lingering sensation of tightness in my left butt, so I figured I’d hop up and see what he found. Of course, I wasn’t the only one with this idea; there was a crowd of only ten people waiting around, asking him questions, and wanting assessments. I waited patiently and listened to him hold forth on how he got into the research he’s now the king of and watched him do a few assessments.

Now, it was lunch time, and I was hungry. Really. When I get hungry, I get cranky and I am not pleasant to be around. I either pass out or I start eating kittens. I know this. People in general know this. I didn’t want to pass out and had no kittens around, so I started munching on a protein bar while I waited. As I was munching, an opportunity arose for me to jump in for an assessment, and jump I did!

As I munched on my protein bar, I tried to give him the short version of what I was feeling, noticing, etc. He listened to my quick story then said, “Now lie down on the floor, and put your food away.”

Knowing it would be ridiculous for me to be eating while undergoing a physical assessment, I joked and said, “Aw, I can’t eat while doing this?” as I put my protein bar off to the side.

To which the God of Spines said, “No. When I’m assessing you, I am giving you 100% of my attention, so I want 100% of your attention.” Oops. Joke. Did. Not. Land. I definitely came across as an ungrateful prick. In hindsight, I now also see how just eating while talking to him was a bit rude as well…but I was hungry, damn it! My judgment was clouded!


Thanks for making me look like a prick, protein bars.

Thanks for making me look like a prick, guys.

Despite being a little miffed, Dr. McGill kept on with his assessment and within about two minutes narrowed down my butt tightness to a disc herniation in my lumbars, which makes perfect sense based on how the tightness started (deadlifting without exacting attention to form). His assessment skills were, unsurprisingly, awesome.

I don’t think I’ve ever written or spoken these words before, but “it was an honor to have this man assess my hip and back.”

So that’s how I disrespected one of the heaviest hitters in the spine world. Learn from my mistake.

I’ll be writing more about things I learned/liked/loved at the Perform Better Summit 2013 when I get a chance. It was definitely a worthwhile experience, and I strongly, strongly recommend that other coaches, trainers, and bodyworkers get out to one if possible. The information you get there will help you and your clients. Just bring a plastic bag and some napkins for when your mind gets blown.



About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.

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