Do you feel an enormous amount of pull in your hamstrings when you try to touch your toes (even if you can reach them)? If so, you’ve probably spent what feels like years stretching your hamstrings with no to little improvement. What if I told you I could improve your toe touch without stretching your hamstrings. Don’t believe me? Read on to find out how.
Before we fix your toe touch we need to find out if you actually have a limitation in your hamstrings. Perform the following test:
Lie on your back with feet touching, arms by your sides and palms facing up. Keeping both knees completely straight, actively lift one leg at a time as high as you can (again, make sure both knees are straight).
Note: you may need to video yourself performing this test
You should get one of three results:
- You can get to at least 70 degrees no problem. If this is you, then you do not have tight hamstrings. I repeat, you do not have tight hamstrings.
- You can’t get your leg to 70 degrees. Before you start thinking you have tight hamstrings, I want you to grab a friend and have them passively lift your leg as high as it goes while keeping the knee straight. If your friend gets you to 70 degrees or higher than guess what…you do not have tight hamstrings.
- Your friend can’t passively get you to 70 degrees as well. This means you may have tight hamstrings, but you could also have a restriction somewhere else along your posterior chain. The posterior chain consist of the fascial and muscular connections from the bottom of the feet all the way to the back of the skull.
In this blog post I’m going to focus on those who fit into the category of actively or passively getting their limb to at least 70 degrees. Stay tuned for part 2 if you fit into the third category.
So you get your leg to 70 degrees (actively or passively) but you still have a major pull in the hamstrings when you try to touch your toes. This is likely due what we call a motor control issue. The term motor control in it’s most simplest definition refers to how the brain tells our bodies to move. When the input from the brain to the muscles is altered it causes us to move in dysfunctional or compensatory patterns. This is called a motor control deficit. The range of motion is there but the brain senses something is “off” with our stability and thinks that moving into a full toe touch is “dangerous”. It has to stop us from performing this apparently dangerous movement and it does so by using the hamstrings as breaks. It “tightens” the hamstrings to keep us from going any further and thus it feels as though we have tight hamstrings.
In order to fix this issue we don’t need to stretch the hamstrings. Yes, I understand they feel tight, but with our straight leg raise test you have just proved that you have adequate flexibility. We need to correct the stability issue, not continue to stretch and already flexible muscle.
The exercises below will be a good start to correcting any underlying stability issues
Posterior Pelvic tilts: Chronic sitting leads to the hamstrings and abdominals becoming weak while the anterior hip becomes tight. This patterns causes us to stand in what we call an anterior pelvic tilt. The anterior pelvic tilt position creates an arch in the low back with the hip bones tilted forward. When we “tuck the bottom under” our glutes, hamstrings and abdominals are much more engaged and the muscles on the front of the hip are being lengthened. This is called a posterior pelvic tilt, however it is really more of a neural position, as we don’t want to over correct and slouch as you see in the video below. Work on moving only the pelvis between these two positions and get comfortable standing with a neutral pelvic position. Initially may feel awkward but the more you can make this position a habit the better off you’ll be.
Bridges: the bridge is such a simple yet powerful exercise. Here is a video on how to perform the bridge. You should feel your abdominals engaged and feel most of the muscle “burn” in your glutes and hamstrings. Start with 10-15 SLOW reps for 2-3 sets
Hollow holds: The hollow hold reinforces the neutral pelvic position while challenging the abdominals. The video below gives a few options on how to scale the hollow hold exercise. The most important thing to remember is that you should never feel an arch in the low back. Start with 20-30s holds for 3-5 sets
Once you have performed these exercises, re-test your toe touch. You may not be all the way at your toes but you should certainly feel a difference in your hamstrings. Make these exercises part of your daily routine, and I guarantee over time you will feel improvement in your hamstrings.
Leave a comment below and let me know how these exercises worked for you. Read on to part 2 to learn more reasons why you may not be able to touch your toes.
Cook, G., Burton, L., Kiesel, K., Rose, G., Bryant, M.F. (2011) Movement Functional Movement Systems: Screening, Assessment and Corrective Strategies Aptos, California: On Target Publications