One winter day I was working with a client in her mid-50’s, who we’ll call Abby.
She told me, “I can’t remember the last time I touched my toes”.
Sure enough she bent over and was roughly 12 inches away from her toes.
I told her, “No guarantees but 20 minutes from now we might have you touching your toes again.” And 20 minutes later, she was shocked because she was finally able to touch her toes – with ease. It’s a situation I’ve seen too many times to count.
It’s not magic. It’s not a trick. It’s not because I’m so great. It’s because the body is so great, the problem is most people have limited strategies for trying to restore their flexibility and mobility.
So why is it that some people are like Gumby and can touch their toes (or even palm the ground) effortlessly while others can hardly budge? Let’s explore three reasons starting with the one that most people tend to blame.
How to Touch Your Toes (3 Reasons that Can Stop You):
1. Tight Hamstrings
Next time someone tries to touch their toes, ask them: “Where do you feel the stretch?”
In most cases, they’ll point to muscles on the back of their legs (called the hamstrings). When you bend over, that's one muscle group that you stretch - along with the calves, glutes and lower back (known as the posterior chain). And there's some research that shows stretching the hamstrings can improve your toe touch.
In 2012 the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation published a study looking at the impact of a stretching program on hamstring flexibility. 58 women in a fruit and vegetable company were assigned to either a control group or hamstring stretching group.
The hamstring stretching group did the following three exercises (20 seconds each), three times per week:
After 12 weeks, the subjects that did the stretching program significantly improved their toe touch and even improved the posture of their upper back!
Another 2014 study published in the Indian Journal of Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy found that stretching the hamstrings (for 30 seconds per day, 4 days per week) increased hamstring flexibility and knee range of motion by 10.25%.
Other studies show a similar finding: that your toe touch can be improved by stretching your hamstrings.
But here's something to consider.
When you look at the stretches used in these studies...
Could it be that these stretches are stretching more than just the hamstrings?
In fact, there’s some evidence that we actually might be stretching…
2. The Superficial Back Line
Most people have heard of plantar fasciitis: an inflammation of the thick connective tissue (called fascia) on the bottom of the foot.
However, most people have not heard of the superficial back line.
According to Thomas Myers, one of the leading experts on the fascial system, the superficial back line is a band of fascia/ connective tissue that runs from the plantar fascia (bottom of the foot) up the calves… the hamstrings… the lower back… travels up the neck and connects on the scalp of your head. That means restrictions in the plantar fascia can actually limit your hamstring (and posterior chain) flexibility!
But don’t just take my word for it.
Here’s an experiment from Thomas Myers in his book Anatomy Trains:
Note: Avoid this if you have scoliosis or pain with touching your toes.
Check your toe touch (and notice how the backside of your body feels)
Grab a tennis or golf ball and slowly roll the entire arch of only one foot for 2 minutes.
Recheck your toe touch.
Notice the difference? How did it feel the second time? In most cases, one hand will drop closer to the ground than the other.
[Okay… take a moment to roll the other foot to make them symmetrical]
“Work in one area, as in this move for the plantar fascia, can affect motion and length anywhere and everywhere along the [Superficial back] line” – Thomas Myers
If you got closer to touching your toes, you’ve just demonstrated how the fascial system can hinder your flexibility.
From a traditional kinesiology standpoint this does not make sense because the arch of the foot should not affect your ability to touch your toes. But when you look at the fascial system and how it runs throughout the body, it starts to make sense.
As amazing as this is, it’s the third reason in my experience that’s the most common one preventing people from touching their toes.
3. Lack of Stability
A 2018 study published in Human Movement Science decided to take a different approach to improving the toe touch. In this study, researchers asked:
Couldbalance affect someone's ability to touch their toes?
Subjects were divided into two groups: a control group (that did a normal toe touch) and a stabilized group (that used a device to help prevent forward motion). Immediately after the stabilized group used the device, they performed a normal toe touch.
The stabilized group improved their toe touch by 73%!
Why did increased stability improve flexibility?
I want to point out something:
The device did not give them extra flexibility; it simply taught their body how stabilize more effectively. This is important because some experts believe the reason most people cannot touch their toes is not because of inflexible hamstrings but because of contracted hamstrings. When the hamstrings are contracted, they are unable to relax, which doesn’t allow them to stretch. So why are they contracted?
World-renowned physical therapist Gray Cook says it best:
“Much of the posterior chain tension people feel if they can’t touch their toes is literally putting on the brakes. This is due to a number of reasons. The rhythm of the lumbar spine and pelvis could be out of sync… they may not feel comfortable with the posterior weight shift required as the hips go back and the trunk comes forward. They may not be comfortable bending the lumbar spine along with the hips in a rhythmical fashion.”
That’s why in many cases, if someone learns to relax their hamstrings (and posterior chain) they’ll improve their toe touch within minutes. In some cases they’ll touch their toes even if they haven’t in decades.
This brings up an important point.
Back in 2012, a gym member was struggling to improve their shoulder mobility (reaching their hands behind their back). She had done yoga for years and told me that she had been trying that stretch for years and just couldn’t improve it. Whenever I hear something like this, I know the reason this person hasn’t improved is not because of lack of effort. Not because of lack of persistence.
But lack of strategies.
They’ve been trying the same strategy over… and over again which hasn’t been producing a result.
It’s the same thing with the toe touch.
If you’ve struggled to touch your toes, change your strategy. If you find that one particular stretch is not helping… then move onto something else… if that doesn’t work move onto something else. The source of the problem can be way beyond the body part affected.
For more fitness and exercise tips, I highly recommend checking out a free issue of my Mind-Body Breakthroughs Newsletter - where each month I share the latest workout tips, delicious (and healthy) recipes and motivation to power you through your fitness goals