Everyone remembers back in middle school gym class where you always warmed up by reaching down and trying to touch your toes. It was generally thought of as a hamstring stretch. So, if you couldn’t touch your toes you had “tight” hamstrings, RIGHT?! Well, just like everything it’s not that simple. The ability to touch your toes has to do with three main things: hamstring flexibility, back flexibility, and ability to move through your hips(Hinging). Therefore, if you can’t touch your toes and you say your hamstrings are tight you are making an assumption and everyone knows what happens when you Ass-u-me.
So if touching your toes (or trying to) doesn’t just stretch your hamstrings what does it do? The biggest benefit of working on being able to touch your toes is learning to move through your hips. Being able to move through your hips (hinging) is the best way to safely pick things up by firing muscles in the best order to protect the back. In fact, a pre-requisite to deadlifting is being able to touch your toes. Remember all deadlifting is, is picking something up off the ground.
Now that we understand the importance of being able to touch your toes, how do you work on it and try to get better?
Toe Touch w/ Block Squeeze
The first exercise is Toe Touch w/ Block Squeeze. Set up with something between your knees that you can squeeze (Yoga Block, Airex Pad, Small Ball, book ect.). Take a deep breath in and exhale out as you shift your hips back and reach towards your toes. The block between your knees helps activate the muscles on the inside of your legs, which are most efficient muscles to use to to bend and touch your toes.
Toe Touch w/ Elevated Toes
For the next exercise set up the block in the exact same position. Elevate your toes on something (Book, Weights, Beam ect). Take a deep breath in at the top and shift your hips back as you reach down and exhale fully. Once you cannot reach any further slightly bend your knees to touch your toes. Having the toes up on an elevation helps shift your weight towards the back of your feet and helps place your hips back in the best position for max stretch.
Toe Touch w/ Elevated heels
For the final progression of the toe touch exercises you are going to set up now with your heels elevated on something. Again, take a deep breath in shift your hips back reach down for your toes and exhale fully. Once you cannot reach anymore slightly bend your knees to reach down further. Having your heels elevated will force your body to shift your weight back. Why? Because if you don’t you will lose balance and fall forward. Your body wants to avoid falling and danger so it will create a way to protect itself .
Lastly, some final thoughts to think about when doing these stretches. The ability to touch your toes does not only reflect hamstring flexibility. It demonstrates how to safely move through your hips and safely pick things up off the ground. Doing this will potentially limit the risk of injuries to the back and hamstrings. As with any stretch, be sure to speak with your coach/trainer about best practices for yourself.