How to Touch Your Toes: Become Bendy Like Gumby!

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

Stretching

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)

Toe Touch

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

GUMBY

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.

FLEXIBILITY PRACTICE!

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.

toe touching stretch

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”:

table_top_cat_camel_3_big

table_top_cat_camel_2_big

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.

star stretch

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:

Moon the Sky

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

yoga-interest

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!

-Steve

###

Photo credit: the adventures of Gumby and R2D2, Storm troopers and Gumby

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  • John

    Thanks. My lower back needed the stretch

  • Jeremy Boyum

    This is awesome!! I’ve already signed up for the flexibility challenge. Bring it on!

  • Tyler Hillan

    Great article Steve! One thing I wanted your opinion on: During my summer classes this year I had an athletic trainer as my professor who disagreed with stretching to slightly past discomfort. He compared it to strength training in that you need to stress the system in order for it to adapt, so you need to really work on it. In the case of flexibility, he believes that you should stretch to some discomfort (without injuring yourself of course) for a good amount of time in order to achieve good results. Of course, he does stretch athletes, and he is there to help them, so it is a little safer than trying that tactic by yourself. Just an opinion to throw your way, thought you would be interested!

  • http://erectordesk.com Erector Desk

    Awesome, I’m excited about the challenge… touching my toes and flexibility in general has come easy to me except I’m embarrassingly lacking in groin and inner-thigh flexibility. Doing the splits has been a cool fitness goal and I can make several inches of progress over a few weeks but then I’ll hit a plateau. Do you think I need different stretches or should I just stretch more / more often?

  • Ben

    I started doing something like this a few weeks ago. At work, every time I come back to my desk, before i sit down I stretch to touch my toes. It works! I have progressed from mid-shin to the ground now. Next I want to get my knuckles to the ground, then my face to my knees.

  • dzeldaz

    So, if I’m almost 60, can easily plant the palms of my hands on the floor and can still put both legs behind my neck at the same time, am I doing okay. The latter kind of freaks people out.

    I love Nerd Fitness and learn so much.

  • WEFA

    Wow! I surprised myself, in that from the beginning I could touch the tips of my toes. I remember never being able to as a child in gym so this was cool! I did all the exercises and tried test again and I have the first part of my digits on the floor! I am going to sticky note this by my alarm for in the morning, because I definitely think these exercises would be great every day. I took a video of first test, and it says I have already signed up for nf yoga. Is there a separate thing coming with documents mentioned?

  • Hannah

    When are we supposed to get emails for the flexibility challenge? Signed up but nothing yet…

  • Rob Horton

    I’m all in! Challenge accepted!

  • http://www.coryroush.com/ Cory Roush

    I’m trying out the challenge, and I already finished this first set of exercises! This seems like as good a place as any to ask something slightly related to flexibility… for most of my life, my knees crack and pop when I drop to a squatting position… almost every time, though, not just on occasion. It’s a very audible, obvious sound but it’s not painful, and I’ve always been slightly self-conscious about it. For instance, I’m hesitant to do any kind of yoga or stretches around other people because I don’t want to keep annoying everyone with my creaky old legs.

    It’s something I should probably have brought up to a doctor in the past, but as I said, there’s never been any lasting pain associated with it. I was just wondering if this was normal and I hadn’t noticed it with other people, or if I should be aware of it when stretching or exercising.

  • dzeldaz

    My knees do the same. I’ve never had a doctor worried about it. I’m extremely flexible and get many pops and cracks every time I move. I’ve learned to live with it. (My hip is really loud.) ***Definitely bring it up to a doctor as everyone is different.***

  • Rob Horton

    Could not touch my toes. Was about 2″ shy of the groud. Did the routing above and tried again. OMG I touched my toes! Holy freaking crud!

  • Jennifer Rowe

    The ability to touch my toes has always been something I was very proud of; even though I wasn’t the best at sports I could win at that one small task that several of my sportier classmates were baffled about! I fall into the long torso short legs category XD so.. I suppose my sucess is mord to do with chance than ability?

    A trick for getting deeper into the stretch is to relax and as you hang forward the simple act of exhaling will allow you to sink another inch if you’re having trouble.

  • Tony Langdon

    Great article. It’s easy to overlook flexibility, and many do, but it is something I’ve included in my workouts. Flexibility was rather ingrained for me, as I used to do gymnastics in my teens. Although I haven’t done gymnastics for 25 years, I have managed to recover much of the flexibility I had lost in recent years.

    I can still touch my toes, actually at least put my fingers flat on the floor, not too far off getting the palms there as well.

  • http://busyboldblessed.blogspot.com/ Amber @ Busy, Bold, Blessed

    I’m super flexible in my hamstrings, but my quads and hips are very tight… which I believe is one of the reasons I’m dealing with a lot of back pain lately.

    Btw… I think it should be “cow” instead of “camel.”
    http://www.yogajournal.com/pose/cow-pose/
    http://www.yogajournal.com/pose/camel-pose/

  • breezy2u

    I’m confused. When I click on the link for the 5 day challenge, it takes me back to this page. No worksheet… no directions other then what is online. Any help?

  • http://johnfawkes.com John Fawkes

    I’ve never been very flexible, and just got less flexible as a result of a bulk I just finished. I have a hamstring injury right now, but I’ll try this as best I can for the next month.

  • staciardison

    The link is here: https://www.nerdfitness.com/yoga-info/

    You have to sign up for the list on that page, and then you get the instructions via email 🙂

  • staciardison

    The link is here: https://www.nerdfitness.com/yoga-info/

    You have to sign up for the list on that page, and then you get the instructions via email 🙂

  • subho sarkar

    http://blog.granitefitness.com.au/ is a very good website for health and fitness. many people recommended me this website. Many people got benifit from this website.

  • breezy2u

    I did sign up. I’ve been signed up since last week.

  • http://www.dumbbelldaddies.com/about Joe @Dumbbelldaddies

    Great read. Been going to the ‘traditional gym” for years. It’s amazing I never gave flexibility and mobility any thought in the past. Just recently started CrossFit and I realized how bad my form was and how much I need to work on my flexibility and mobility. Cheers

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  • Tobi

    Thanks for this article, I’m working on my back flexibility for quite a while. You gave me some helpful hints! Greetings from Germany

  • http://www.musclesandstuff.com Muscles and Stuff

    I definitely have to work on my flexibility way more than I already do.

    I’ve been getting strength gains in every compound lift but I know for a fact that if i start more doing more flexibility exercises my strength will go thru the ROOF

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  • John Fawkes

    Update- made some flexibility gains, but it’s slow going. Clearly working though.

  • http://mytrainingcentre.co.uk/ Mark

    Excellent article, going to use this to start stretching.

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  • Peyton McCord

    I love this! Flexibility is important, especially in fitness. Great post!

  • Bryan Sclar

    Thanks for this! My 10 year old son can barely reach past his knees. I’m going to be working with him on these exercises.

  • Dark Penguin

    I’ve started doing the stretches as you instruct, and I believe I’m seeing some slight progress. However, after last night’s workout which included the stretches, I noticed an ache at the back of my left leg, right behind the knee. Because of the location I’m pretty sure it’s just tendon and not “meat muscle”.

    Is this just the normal damage-and-repair process? Do tendons undergo damage and repair the same way muscles do?

  • Yosan

    I have long legs, and sit in front of my desk quite often, not athletic, not fat, touching toes while my feet are straight is just a myth for me😂😂

  • Joseph Valenzuela

    No toes and I can,t walk now tell me how do i work out