So you can’t touch your toes, and from part 1 you’ve learned that you can’t passively or actively get your leg to 70 degrees while lying on your back. This means you may have tight hamstrings but you may also have mobility limitations elsewhere in your posterior chain. The posterior chain is all of the fascial and muscular connections from the bottom of your big toe, up to the base of skull. This means there are other structures that could be limiting your toe touch. While the best way to figure out your specific limitation is to see a physical therapist, I will give you a few corrective exercises to get you started. I suggest trying each of the exercises below and see which one improves your toe touch the most to figure out where to spend most of your time.
First area: the Feet and Calf muscles
Take a lacrosse ball, roll it on the bottom of one foot for 60 seconds, then switch and roll the opposite foot for 60 seconds. Now try to touch your toes. Did your toe touch improve? If so this may be an area of attention for you. By relaxing the tissues in the bottom of your foot we dampen the signal from the brain to the muscles saying “be really tight”, which allows us to go deeper into the toe touch. If you keep your feet in shoes all day or wear narrow shoes (i.e high heels or flats) chances are you need to spend some time working on the bottom of your feet in order to improve your toe touch.
For the calves, I like to prescribe eccentric exercises. If you’ve ever had Achilles tendon issues, you have probably done these. While they are awesome for tendinitis, they are just as awesome for improving calf flexibility. I like the eccentric exercises because we are lengthening the muscles while actively using it. This teaches our brain how to actually move through a particular range of motion.
To perform this exercise, stand on the edge of a step or box, go up on both toes as high as you can, then shift your weight to one leg. Lower down as SLOW as you can until your heel drops below the step. Place your opposite foot back on the step and start the movement again. Start with 1-2 sets of 10 reps each leg.
Second Area: The spine
Many people have mobility limitations in their thoracic and lumbar spines that can inhibit them from touching their toes. While it doesn’t seem like this should matter, our brain senses that our spine and torso aren’t moving as they should and again uses the hamstrings as “break” to avoid a potentially dangerous movement. Most people have limitations in extension in their thoracic spine and flexion in their lumbar spine. Below are two of my favorite exercises to work on this
The first exercise is thoracic spine extension on a foam roller. Place the roller at the level of your shoulder blades and rest your head in your hands. Extend your upper body backwards over the roller, while keeping your low back still. If you feel your low back arching you can cross one leg over the other. Perform 10 reps and then move the roller up or down slightly and perform another 10 reps
The second exercise is the Cat-Cow. This exercise is fantastic because we are taking the spine through a full range of motion. When doing the “cat” part of the exercise (rounding the spine), try to really focus on pulling the belly button toward the spine and tucking the pelvis under to get movement through the low back. Start with 10-15 reps
Third Area: The hamstrings
The hamstrings are still a possible area of limitation in the toe touch but I do not want you to statically stretch your hamstrings. I repeat. Do not stretch your hamstrings. You’ve probably already been doing this anyway and have had no luck improving your flexibility. I’m going to have you use another eccentric exercise, the Romanian Deadlift (RDL). When performing a RDL it is important that you keep your pelvis in a neutral position. We want to “tuck it under” and keep it there throughout the movement. You should really feel your abs working more than anything when doing this without weight. This should NOT feel like a low back exercise.
Important points of performance for the RDL
- Keep the pelvis neutral
- Shift your weight toward your heels and let the shoulders come forward
- Keep a soft bend in the knees the whole time
So now you have some new tricks to improve your toe touch without ANY hamstring stretching. If you give any of these a try and improve your toe touch let us know in the comments! Remember, you are not going to have dramatic gains after one session, or two or three. To significantly improve your toe touch it will take time and effort but you should notice small improvements along the way and gradually lose the feeling of “tightness” in your hamstrings.