There are always going to be some things in sports and fitness that always seem to hang around.
Just when I think I am clear from certain topics someone has to come around and ask why we don’t so situps or will creatine make me the hulk?
One that seems to be popping around again lately is the ability to touch your toes. I have gotten a couple questions and have also seen some stuff on social media- you know, the ultimate Exercise Science textbook.
My only guess to the origin of the toe touch conundrum must go back to gym class. I think I remember a standardized test where you had to touch or toes to pass. Why this was so important is beyond me.
Now, gym teachers and sport coaches make the blind recommendation that everyone should be able to touch their toes. They need to stretch their hamstrings if they cannot touch their toes. Problem solved right?
Well I have seen many an athlete tirelessly stretch their lower body at the end of the workout and the toe touch never gets better. I do not really care about the ability to perform the toe touch because there are too many variables at play when someone cannot. I also do not think it provides good information about performance or injury risk.
Why can’t someone touch their toes?
The people that are blindly regarding the toe touch as important have no clue why someone lacks the ability.
Things that can affect the toe touch are lumbopelvic alignment, hamstring length, injury, limb length, and protective tension.
Most of the time it is an alignment issue. When the low back is extended, the pelvis tilts forward, and it puts the hamstrings under stretch. If that hamstrings are under tension at rest, they are not going to have a good ability to stretch further. Get the spine and pelvis back to neutral and it may clear up the movement.
The hamstrings are a muscle group that provides support for the hip and knee. But they need help. Ideally, the glutes will work with the hamstrings to provide the support for the lower limbs. Most people do not have adequate glute strength. This means that it all falls on the hamstrings and low back to support he hip.
When the hamstrings and spinal erectors are always turned on to create the necessary tension, stretching them is not going to be effective. A muscle shortens when it contracts. When we stretch it it should be relaxed to lengthen. If you try to lengthen a muscle that is always shortening then nothing is going to happen.
Training for glute and core strength will take the pressure off of the hamstrings and low back. This in turn will take the tension out of the muscles and allow them to relax and move into stretch more effectively.
Also, the toe touch test can be manipulated. Using biofeedback, you can improve your toe touch. See the video below.
A Better Measure for Athetes
For anyone that plays sport or lifts weights, the hip hinge is a much better tool to see how someone moves. The hip hinge occurs during most strength movements, jumping, getting out of a start, slowing down, and changing direction.
An athlete that cannot touch their toes but can effectively hinge their hips, most likely has the capacity to perform the movements they need to complete.
When athletes try to lift weights or change direction and it looks more like a toe touch than a hip hinge then we have a problem. It is dangerous in the weight room and ineffective on the turf.
Good deceleration mechanics are needed to come to a stop and change direction. The athlete should be able to keep their chest up, sink their hips back, and bend the knees to stay in a good position. This will make for better quickness. If the athlete is too tall through the low body and just bends over at the back then they are going to be slow.
The above picture is a dowel hip hinge. Ability to perform that movement will allow athletes to train better and safer. Once they have the hip hinge mastered they can get stronger through the pattern with deadlifts, RDL’s and squats.
Do not worry about the toe touch unless you are with someone who can assess and correct the test. If someone tells you that you must be able to touch your toes and their only solution is to stretch, run! There are too many factors that contribute to why someone cannot touch their toes. There are also not enough performance benefits for someone who can versus someone who can master the hip hinge.