So below is essentially everything that I have to say and think about a simple toe touch test. Feel free to bookmark this page, refer back to it over and over, because it probably won’t be super easy to digest right away. But that’s the point. In any case, let this introduction serve as a TL;DR version, as I made an easy flowchart for you to follow if you don’t feel like reading all of the mechanisms involved with the toe touch.
Touching your toes is an easy assessment used by almost anyone and everyone as a measure of one’s instantaneous “flexibility”. In reality, there are certain patterns that some people may excel in due to the position of the joint(s) that they are testing. With the toe touch, this can be categorized as a flexion based pattern, as it mainly involves flexing at the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine, along with the hips.
When I first began my my foray into the fitness industry, I distinctly recall using this green ol’ box to measure my flexibility. Some may remember this from grade school as a “test” within the President’s Fitness Challenge.
As stated above, the toe touch is one’s ability … to touch your toes. Surprise.
On a serious note, previous thoughts on the toe touch were that it was a measure of one’s hamstring length, and whether or not the standard was met of reaching your toes, you would need to stretch your hamstrings if you couldn’t touch your toes.
Allow me to address this flawed thought process now – it is not solely a measure of one’s hamstring length, and you probably do not need to stretch to achieve “length” in your legs in order to touch your toes.
There are other things at play here – namely, the integrity and stability of the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical junctions.
To play devil’s advocate on the aspect of lumbar flexion, imagine if you can touch your toes, yet you STILL feel tightness in your hamstrings. What exactly are you “stretching” afterwards…?
If you go and stretch your hamstrings in addition to portraying excessive lumbar flexion, is it possible that you may be over-stretching the erectors of the lumbar and thoracic region?
According to Woosley et al (1), there are approximately 56.6° degrees of motion observed at the lumbar spine available in this forward bending, flexion pattern. What happens if both your hamstrings and your erector spinae are overstretched?
All in the name of reducing tension in your hamstrings!
Standards of the Toe Touch
There are varying degrees of standards within the toe touch, depending on which “camp” you find yourself agreeing with most recently.
For our purposes here, I’m going to go with three varying categories of the toe touch along with how to interpret them below.
Did Not Touch
Palms On Floor
[As a disclaimer, with some of you, there may be a radiating sensation, up or down the leg or lumbar region when you go to bend down and touch your toes. If this describes you, I’d highly recommend seeking out a qualified movement specialist as the following info might not be applicable in your case. The reason for this is because there are tons of different reasons you may be feeling sensations, and I’d like to keep pain out of this discourse.]
Mechanisms of Forward Bending Flexion
Well the key here is learning how to interpret what information you have available to yourself. Overall, the toe touch goes over these facets of movement:
- Determines hamstring length (at face value of course!)
- Ability to flex at the lumbar spine
- Ability to flex at the thoracic spine
- Ability to flex at the cervical spine
- Pelvic orientation (anterior pelvic tilt vs posterior pelvic tilt)
- Ability for the femurs to glide posteriorly into the acetabulum during descent of toe touch
- State of Central Nervous System (Sympathetic vs Parasympathetically driven at time of assessment)
Faults Found in the Toe Touch
If you fall into the first category, let’s look at a few things – where exactly do your curves (in the sagittal plane) fall and rise? Essentially, be mindful of these attributes within your toe touch pattern.
Category One: Did Not Touch Toes
Lack of Cervical and Thoracic Flexion
If you can’t flex at your cervical or thoracic region, it might be safe to assume that your breathing patterns aren’t optimized. The reasons for a lack of mobility at the joint level of your cervical and/or thoracic spine might be due to adaptations of some sort, traumatic injury, or something else altogether.
I’d recommend checking in with a physical therapist in order to make sure all the details are in order.
Check out Clinical Athlete to find a well respected physical therapist near you today.
Lack of Lumbar Flexion
Before people jump on the phrase “lumbar flexion”, keep these two points in mind:
- This is unloaded lumbar flexion. No barbells attached to the back.
- Lumbar flexion AWAY from lumbar extension (towards neutrality) is different then pushing the end range of motion for lumbar flexion.
If you’re stuck into lumbar extension, you can be stuck for a few reasons (trauma, behavior, daily activities like standing all day, etc).
However, when you’re in lumbar extension, you may not be utilizing your obliques to the best of their ability.
Ideally, you’ll need better and more efficient control of the internal and external obliques, as they provide the action of posterior tilting the pelvis, which will hopefully provide enough of the “action” of lumbar flexion.
Functional and Neurological Muscle Quality
From a systemic, functional, and neurological point of view, there are multiple factors to keep in mind.
Janda noted that the tonic system muscles are prone to tightness or shortness, and the phasic system muscles are prone to weakness or inhibition. (2)
Gray Cook discusses how the idea is to not increase hamstring length within the toe touch pattern, but to simply allow the brain to return to a normal flexion based pattern. In other words, he doesn’t stretch you to restore your toe touch – there is a neural, or brain-related, pattern that needs to be restored through specific exercises.
If you’re going to add the length, you better know where to add the strength (stability). ~Gray Cook
One thing to keep in mind, is that whenever you stretch a muscle, you are driving an inhibition signal to the motor units, which relaxes your muscle group further.
If all you do is inhibit your hamstrings, and then you decide to stretch FURTHER, then what is it that you’re really stretching? Also, where is the stability coming from whenever you deadlift?
“But I’m always feeling tight in my hamstrings!”
Well there is more than one reason for feeling “tight” – it could relate to two or three things:
Lack of Tissue Length
This is often due to chronic shortness brought about by frequent activity, or repetitive motion (so the body adapts).
If, according to the Joint by Joint Approach, a joint above or below the tight sensation is felt, then it can be assumed that there is a neural protection in place to prevent the joint from moving excessively. For example, if your hamstrings feel tight, but your lower back is moving excessively for whatever reason (lack of anterior core strength, excessive mobility about the lumbar spine), then it is a safe assumption that the hamstrings are on “protect” mode. If your hamstrings were to be mobile in this situation, you might lose that extra stability gained from this protective tension!
While this can be clumped under the neural protection category, the idea is that there are indications of trigger points that can be in place to also hold you in place. According to DeLany and Chaitow, these trigger points can provide a sense of stability for the body to adhere to, so it might not make the most sense to go smashing these trigger points and releasing everything all willy nilly.
Sympathetic vs Parasympathetic Neural Drive
This is an all encompassing reason, but at the same time it is possibly one of the bigger drivers for “tight hamstrings”.
This is a concept that I have borrowed with much success from the folks at the Postural Restoration Institute – that is, the idea that the autonomic nervous system can present various postures based on varying compensation strategies. The biomechanical reasoning that can be used is if the nervous system is highly sympathetic, the body will reflect this within varying compensatory strategies – often by tipping forward the pelvis, along with “living” in a state of inhalation reflected within the chest cavity and ribs.
So if the body is compensating in such a manner, on a neuromuscular level these hamstrings can be tight for these reasons:
- Your hamstrings (semimembranosus and -tendinosus, along with biceps femoris) attach to the ischial tuberosity, which control the head of your femur.
- Your femur sits within a singular hemi-pelvis.
- If your femur is sitting within the acetabulum in a compensatory position (anterior pelvic tilt), this will cause your external rotators and hip extensors (hamstrings) to stabilize your femurs, for fear of anteriorly gliding forward.
- If the external rotators are turned on, the internal rotators are inhibited, by cause of agonist and antagonistic properties.
This pattern causes the abdominal muscles to be weak – specifically the internal obliques, and transverse abdominis. If this is the case as well, it can be assumed that there will be an excessive rib flare, which feeds this pattern forward, resulting in the chest to look constantly “puffed out”, or in many cases, the ribs will present in a constant state of inhalation.
Category Two: Touch Toes
This is an ideal scenario, and depending on if you feel tightness anywhere in particular, that could just be residual stiffness from lifting, sitting, or just generally doing a bit too much or a bit too little.
In all actuality, a little warming up and some dynamic movements will get you back on the ball towards moving well.
Category Three: Palms on the Floor
Now you have gone and did it – you’ve gone past your natural limits! There is no turning back now. Hypermobility may be acquired or congenital, and this is one of the tests seen with hypermobile folk.
Depending on whether you present in extension or not when you go to touch your toes, there may be ligamentous instabilities, or anterior hip instabilities that were once there and now not present. Somewhere down the line, you need to recreate this stability, but in the form of muscular stability.
To restore these patterns, we can begin with a basic 90-90 Hip Lift and 90-90 Hip Lift with Internal Rotation.
Reason being? There is a quality not talked about enough, but it is beginning to gain traction in the fitness and S&C community called “neutrality”. Essentially, this begins to explain what it means to have a joint within the centered position of a socket. If you are stretching due to tightness, you could be tight due to your lack of neutrality. So, get neutral first, then stretch if you are missing length or want to gain sarcomere length due to a shortness.
…And with that transgression under our belts, it should start to make sense as to why you feel tight in your hamstrings when you go to reach your toes.
Long story short, here is a flow chart that I created dissecting the basic results seen with a toe touch, and how to start on an action plan towards improving your toe touch.
Reaching Your Toes Without Stretching Your Hamstrings
“How is this possible?” you may ask.
Whenever you flex at the hip, your body does a few things :
- The femur glides posteriorly into your acetabulum, allowing your femur to flex, ideally up to 90° of hip flexion.
- If you’re centrated, the movement should simply rotate.
- However, if you are not within a neutral state of mind, you’re going to have to do some work.
If you cannot achieve this level of hip flexion, it can be assumed that you are in excessive hip extension, so you will need to restore these levels of hip flexion. If your femurs can’t glide posteriorly (because of excessive hip extension), perhaps some posterior hip capsule mobilizations will help facilitate that process.
Accompanying the movement patterns of hip flexion involve hip internal rotation (not the same thing as genu valgum, or knees caving in). So with this in mind, you need to understand that sometimes hip internal rotation is necessary in order to move into a better hip flexion pattern.
It is a secondary reason, but yes, in order to improve your toe touch pattern, it helps to reduce tightness in your posterior hip capsule, improve hip internal rotation, which will help facilitate the appropriate muscles attaching to the femurs to act as hip flexors as you reach down to touch your toes.
After this, you have your whole other half of your body that often goes unaccounted for when you reach for your toes. In all honesty, it is surprising that your upper body isn’t blamed for not being able to touch your toes – the length of your arm reach is likewise just as important as the integrity of your hip musculature.
“What happens if you can’t reach with your arms?”
Well, perhaps you are not fully exhaling within your capability.
“How do my arms and my reach matter? My hamstrings are the issue.”
Again, I’m glad you asked.
I’ll give you this anecdotal example for you to try:
1. Puff out your chest, and have an excessive rib flare.
2. Go feet together, and bend down to touch your toes, with your ribs still flaring out.
3. Did you touch your toes?
Most likely not.
If one large area (such as the thoracic junction) is excessively extended forward, you will be unable to improve your toe touch reach.
[Check this out in order to fully appreciate how to troubleshoot your breathing patterns.]
Is This The End?
Touching your toes is a multi-faceted movement pattern that has many items that can go very right – or very wrong. If you have any issues with troubleshooting this on your own, I fully recommend seeing a movement minded professional, or at the very least a medical professional who can help refer you out.
On the other hand, if you saw improvements immediately, I’d love to hear about your success. Just drop me an e-mail, or comment on the accompanying social media posts!
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Keep it funky.References 1 – Sahrmann’s Movement Impairment Syndromes 2 – Janda Philosophy – The Janda Approach