It’s something we’ve talked about since we were kids in gym class: “can you touch your toes?” We even had the “sit-and-reach” test in the Presidential Fitness Test (remember that!?).
Is there a point to it though? Why does “touching your toes” actually matter?
Well, to start, developing proper flexibility and mobility is crucial when it comes to strength training – not being able to touch your toes can reveal a plethora of muscle imbalances that leads to poor form (and potential injury) when performing major movements such as squats, deadlifts, olympic lifts, and more.
But we’re not just talking about injury – better flexibility and range of motion boosts our strength gains (and vice versa!).
As this study shows, “short-term strength training increases flexibility and strength in sedentary adult women… strength and flexibility can be prescribed together to get optimal improvements in flexibility.”
And according to Dr. Alexander Rosado, DPT, not being able to touch your toes could be a major indicator of an issue or future issue (ranging from plantar fasciitis to lower back pain).
It’s tough to get strong as hell if you injure yourself, and what’s the point of a lot of strength if you can barely move your body to take advantage of it?
If you are unable to touch your toes, it’s most likely because of one of these five major reasons:
1) Shortened/tight posterior chain muscles. Although most people think not being able to touch our toes just means your hamstring muscles are inflexible, in reality our whole system (including the lower back) can play a huge role as well! As Mark Rippetoe explains in this video about the Romanian deadlift, what you may think is a lower back issue is also a hamstring issue (and vice versa). You see, the posterior chain is an interconnected series of muscles that includes our back muscles, erector spinae (muscles along our spine), lower back muscles, butts, and hamstrings. Weak mobility points in one place in the system can become debilitating (and often easy to spot) when we do compound movements like the deadlift.
If you’re somebody who sits at a desk all day and struggles to touch your toes, you probably aren’t strengthening or lengthening these muscles because the chair is doing all of the work for you.
2) You have relatively long legs compared to your torso and arms. People with long legs and short torsos will have a greater challenge than people who have short legs and long torsos and arms. But fear not, you too can level up and get those toes touched.
3) You have too much body fat. If you are overweight and happen to have a big stomach, it can certainly make touching one’s toes more challenging. Because you already know that diet is 90% of the battle when it comes to weight loss, focus on nutrition to begin losing weight. This may be a factor in making it easier to touch your toes.
4) You’re not warmed up yet. If you JUST woke up or spent all day in a car, you’re familiar with the rigidity that makes you feel like a steel girder. Your muscles act like rubber bands; the more they are used, the more they are warmed-up, and the further they can stretch. This is why we encourage people to go through a mobility warm-up before exercise!
Let’s put a plan in place to finally touch our toes!
Test your flexibility
Before we can implement a strategy to develop more flexibility that allows you to touch your toes, we need to know your starting point.
As Peter Drucker said, “That which gets measured gets managed.” Or in this case, that which gets measured gets more flexible!
The following comes from our free 5-Day Flexibility Series, which you can sign up for today!
TOE TOUCH TEST (click on image to watch video demonstration)
Stand straight with your legs about hip width apart.You want your legs to be straight, but don’t aggressively lock out your knees either (this feels like a “microbend” to a lot of people).
Begin by bending and leaning forward towards the ground with your quads (front of your legs).
Let your body rest naturally, as if you were a ragdoll. Keeping your hands relatively close together, straighten your fingers and begin to stretch down slowly to the ground.
Do this 2-3 times to get warmed up. Try to keep your legs straight by flexing or activating your quads; keep your legs straight, without your knees nearly locked.
Other than the microbend, don’t bend your knees to help you get closer to the ground! I’m watching you. If you’re videotaping yourself on these to track your progress, note that depending on your body (and your hamstrings) your legs may not look 100% straight.
When you are ready, reach towards the ground and hold it for a few seconds. Measure the distance in one of the following ways:
- If you aren’t touching the ground, have a friend measure the distance from your tip of your fingers to the ground. If you don’t have a friend with you, place your hands on your legs and note where the tips of your fingers end up.
- If you can touch the ground, you’ll want to flatten your hands as much as possible, and record the distance from the top of your head to the ground. As you can stretch further, the top of your head will actually get closer and closer to the ground.
- If this seems easy, try hugging your calves and pulling your head in towards your body.
Record your measurement in a document or on a piece of paper (if you’re part of the flexibility challenge, we have a document you can print out), and/or save the photo/video to show how far down you are reaching.
Improve Your flexibility
There are two key factors that will determine whether or not you are successful in gaining the ability to touch your toes as you practice over the next few weeks:
- Actively stretching your muscles JUST past the point of comfort. Like strength training by adding 1 rep or a few pounds to an exercise, we want to stretch just beyond the point where we stretched last time so our muscles have to elongate.
- Consistent practice and effort! You can’t improve your flexibility by stretching for 5 minutes once a month. You’d be better off stretching for 30 seconds spread out 10 times throughout the month.
That’s right. Studies confirmed that actively focusing on touching your toes for 30 seconds, 3 times per week was enough to lengthen hamstring muscles in 4 weeks. Here’s another study that shows 30 seconds of effort results in a more flexible frame!
I‘m sure there’s an inappropriate joke to be made here about 30 seconds of effort, but I’m better than that (I think).
In less time than it takes to update your Facebook status, you could be touching your toes and make Gumby proud. And I know you have time.
All I’m asking for is 2 minutes. 2 minutes! You can even spread these movements out throughout your day – I like to do them after I work out. After a long day at a desk, after driving, or upon waking up are all good times to work on flexibility!
Through each of the movements below, make sure you are breathing slowly and steadily.
TIME FOR THE MOVEMENTS BELOW:
- Standing toe touch stretch – 30 seconds
- Cat/Camel – 30 seconds (switch positions every 5 seconds)
- Star stretch – 30 seconds (as many slow reps as you can)
- Moon the sky – 30 seconds (as many slow reps as you can)
1) Standing toe touch stretch: Flex/activate the front of your legs, keep them straight, and bend over at the waist juuuust past the point of discomfort; hold that position for 30 seconds. Repeat this process every other day and hold it for 30 seconds.
2) We can loosen up a tight lower back by doing 30 seconds of moving back and forth every few seconds by doing a “cat” and then a “camel”:
3) You can also do what we call a star stretch to help stretch those legs out! Stand with your legs spread wide, and arms extended (hence the term Star!), and then reach down with one hand to your opposite leg; hold for five seconds, back to start, and repeat with the other leg.
4) Here’s another favorite movement of mine that helps improve my flexibility and mobility: the “Moon the Sky” stretch! This is a great stretch to mix into your pre-workout warmup to get your legs, butt, and back prepared for work:
- Squat down and put your hands under your feet
- Slowly move your butt up with your hands remaining under your feet.
- Raise your butt and try to straighten your legs
- Go a TEENY bit higher each time until you can fully straighten your legs!
Here’s what I mean:
Test your toe-touching abilities before and after doing the 2-minutes of exercise above, and I bet you’ll notice a difference right away – just wait to see what you can accomplish in a few weeks!
The cool thing about flexibility is that any combination of the stretches above will help you improve your flexibility as long as you consistently work on it a tiny bit every day.
I do mobility work when I wake up, after I work out, throughout my day (when working at my desk), and at the end of my day for a minute or two before bed. All added up, it’s less than 5 minutes of time, but its enough to show me some results!
Join the Flexibility Challenge
Today kicks off a free 5-Day Flexibility Challenge for those who sign up for the Yoga List! It includes a downloadable worksheet for you to track your measurements, video demonstrations of each movement, and instructions on how to work on your flexibility.
You can sign up for the Flexibility challenge, and next Tuesday, August 18th, we’re launching our first new product in almost two freaking years: Nerd Fitness Yoga!
In our quest to build a leveled up body, strength + flexibility = the ability to do and try anything without our bodies holding us back.
Take the Flexibility Challenge, and take a step towards Gumby-Status!
Can you touch your toes? Can you commit to 30 seconds every other day for the next few weeks? I know you can. You know you can. Let’s get it done!