Why You Can't Touch Your Toes

Credit: Eugenio Marongiu / Getty Images

You say you've never been able to touch your toes, that it's just the way you're built. But your inflexibility is not something you can blame on nature. You can't touch your toes because of the way you have been using your body — and it's something you can fix.

In this toe touching quest, hamstrings are only one of the culprits, but there are some key accomplices including your hip flexors, your mid- and lower back, and even your lats, that need to get in line.

In a perfect forward fold, your upper body should bend toward your legs like closing a flip phone (remember those?). Both the upper and lower body remains straight, and the hinge comes from your hips. Your back and lat muscles affect your ability to successfully bend and need to be working optimally.

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Because we are sitting far more than we are supposed to sit, our hip flexors get used to being shortened. The hip flexors attach to the mid- and lower back, the SI joint, and the hip joints. Because of this, when they are chronically shortened, they are pulling you out of optimal position in your pelvis and back, tipping your pelvis forward. This means you can't move the way you are meant to move.  When I watch people try to get that extra inch or two, all of the motion comes from the upper and mid back rather than the hips. 

Imagine that your hamstrings are rubber bands. They should lengthen and return to the original size. But if you are constantly pulling the rubber band to its limits (as is what happens to your hamstrings when the pelvis and lower back are pulled forward), the rubber band will start to rip and fray. This is what you feel when you stretch and stretch — it feels like things are ripping and burning, which is basically the case. The soft tissue is ripping because your fascia and muscles are being pulled even further into end range.  

Those tight hip flexors will also shut down your abdominals and glutes, which you need to help bend you forward lower yourself when touching your toes. With those muscles shut down, the hamstring has to work extra hard to not only move your body against gravity but also fight the restrictions of the hip flexors.

So now what? We are going to teach you how to open up your hip flexors, create better mobility in your SI, and create strength and balance in your inner thighs and abs. I have seen these exercises work quickly in my clinic. You will need to do these a couple of times a week to create the openness in your body and redirect the motion so that you can at last triumph in the toe touch.  

Here's what you need to do to fix it:

Hip Flexor Release
For this release, use two lacrosse balls taped together.

  • Lay on your stomach and place the double lacrosse ball just below your hip bone.
  • Lean a tolerable amount of weight onto the lacrosse balls.
  • Bend the knee on the side of the release back to a 90 degree angle.
  • Swing your leg side to side in a tolerable range of motion.Repeat this in 30 second to two minutes intervals.

Vastus Lateralis Release

  • Lay on the side you wish to release.
  • Place the foam roller under your bottom leg halfway between your hip and knee.
  • Slide your leg up and down along the foam roller, moving it from the top of the knee to the base of the hip.
  • Try to work over the more tender areas as you can tolerate.
  • Repeat in 30 second intervals for two minutes.
  • To focus on a specific area of the IT band, locate the most tender area with the foam roller and stop. Bend your knee at a 90 degree angle, and then straighten. Repeat motion of bending and straightening knee for 10-15 seconds. You may repeat this with other areas along thevastus lateralis.


SI Mobilization with Foam Roller

  • Lay on one end of foam roller so thatthe tip of foam roller is flush againstsacrum.
  • Raise both legs up keeping knees straight, make sure the sacrum is flush against the foam roller throughout the activity. Repeat.
  • Arms may be at the side in order tokeep balance on the foam roller

Ilium Posterior Rotation Mobilizations

  • Lie on your side on a table or the floor with your knees and hips bent comfortably.
  • With your free hand, locate the bony prominence and apply constant pressure down and away from you.
  • While maintaining the pressure, flew your hip toward your head and extend it back to your feet.
  • Repeat 10-20times. Then switch sides.

Inner Thigh Squats

  • Place feet shoulder width apart with your toes pointed out at a 45-degree angle.
  • Weight should be placed through your heels.As you begin to squat, bring your hips back like you are sitting in a chair that is too far behind you.
  • While squatting, try to move your knees out. Go as low as you can, then push back up through your heels, repeat.
  • Repeat exercise with weight through the balls of your feet.

Transverse Abdominus Activation

  • Lie on your stomach with your elbow parallel below your shoulder.
  • Engage your abdominals and lift your hipsto enter a plank position.
  • Tuck your pelvis under and hollow your belly slightly.
  • Squeeze your shoulders down and back, tuck your chin, and squeeze your glutes. Ideally, you will have a straight line from the back of your head to your sacrum.
  • Now focus on the action of blowing out candles or saying "SHHHHHH". You should feel your deepest abdominals engage.