There are 2 types of people that can’t touch their toes….. those that are too tight and those that are too weak. Don’t be fooled as both groups of people will present similarly if not identically. Usually as they bend forward, they will declare that their “hamstrings are tight” and many times you’ll hear “I haven’t been able to touch my toes in years”. You see, the brain does not differentiate the feeling of tightness, whether it comes from a shortened muscle that is simply unable to stretch to an appropriate length, or tightness that is a result of increased tone in a muscle that serves to limit the range of motion in someone who has poor spinal stabilization. In both cases, your hamstrings will feel tight, but the intervention could not be more opposite in order to restore your toe touch. There will be more on the importance of the toe touch to come…. think about the deadlift, which many of us refer to as the king of all exercises!
There is a rather simple way to categorize yourself. First off, stand with your feet together. Then, while keeping both legs straight, bend forward and touch your toes. As simple as this sounds, double check that your legs are straight by flexing your quads. Many people “cheat” when doing this test without even realizing it. After establishing a baseline of how far you can reach, check the same thing while sitting on the ground. While seated, bend forward and reach for your toes (while keeping your legs straight of course)
If you still can’t touch your toes, you are in the category of being “too tight” and are in need of further evaluation to figure out why. Any limitation in posterior chain flexibility (think lumbar spine, glutes, hamstrings, or neural tension) can be limiting you…this could be an article in itself.
However, if you are now able to touch your toes, get ready for some magic! As a teaser, I referred to this category as being “too weak,” but please let me explain. A more accurate description of this is that you have a stability and/or motor control driven problem (which is kind of wordy and not nearly as funny). Our nervous system prioritizes stability and as a result does its best to keep us from putting it in dangerous positions. When someone who has poor “core” (another overused word) stability begins to bend forward, their brain may very well send a signal for the hamstrings to “tighten up” to limit the movement.
As you can clearly see, the “too tight” and “too weak” group must be identified correctly and given the appropriate intervention. This very well may be as simple as stretching the hamstrings or as complicated as “core” stabilization drills at various developmental postures to re-educate your body and brain. Although the second group may prove to be more complicated, we get excited about seeing this. We even refer to it as magic because we know there is a good chance this patient will be able to touch their toes before they leave their first visit.
Don’t get caught doing the wrong thing to fix your “tight” hamstrings, come and get assessed by a movement expert.