We are all unique, but there are some fundamental movements that all humans should be able to do. And although some people have better genetics that lead to better abilities in certain areas, nonetheless we are all starting from a similar place. For instance, we weren't born with tight hamstrings.
Modern Living & Tight Hamstrings
Unfortunately, because of modern ways of living and modern technology, we lose our ability to do certain things. The classic example is squatting. Watch a child squat compared to an adult: toddlers just sit their butts to the floor, hang out for a while, and play with their favorite toy. Then you see the adult struggle to get to the floor, even for a second to pick up the things their child left behind.
Many will say it is just a part of aging—that kids are supposed to be able to do that, and fully developed adults have lost the ability. It is easy to blame many of our issues on age, but is this really the cause? In some Asian countries, you see adults and even the elderly sit in a full squat position with no problem. For many people, it is a resting posture.
Movement Patterns Stored In the Brain
We all have certain patterns downloaded in our brain. Movements like squatting, lunging, and lifting are ingrained in our system from when we first learned how to move. The good news is these patterns are still there. You didn’t lose them. Instead you simply forgot how to do these things. When you stop doing something, you just forget how to do it. But it is just like riding a bike, as they say. If you do the right prep work, you will soon find these movements again. And surprisingly you might see them come back as quickly as riding a bike would.
One pattern that we can often see this happen with is the toe touch. You should be able to touch your toes. If you are not sure, go try it. Stand with your feet together and your legs straight, and try to touch your toes. How’d it go? If you are like many clients I work with, you might have struggled with this. But depending on how far away you are, we might be able to get you there by the end of this article.
When you can’t touch your toes, the first assumption is that you have tight hamstrings. This may be true, but we are not relying on only one muscle to complete this movement. And even if your hamstring is “tight,” the real question is, why is it tight in the first place?
If you are not using your core to properly stabilize your pelvis, your tight hamstrings are probably making up for it. With the deep core stabilizers inactive, the hamstrings will remain tight. So stretching your hamstrings may be a temporary fix, but any flexibility you gain won’t last, and you may be putting your hips and lower back at risk if you do not address the underlying issue.
Each semester in my exercise physiology class, we start with a demonstration to show that the body works more as a system than as individual muscles. I ask two students who cannot touch their toes to come to the front of the class. With one, we spend a few minutes stretching the hamstring. With the other, we work on the movement pattern.
After just a couple of minutes, we retest. To everyone’s amazement, the student who stretched will see little to no gain while the one who worked on the pattern can now easily touch. It’s pretty cool stuff; it makes me look like a magician and gets me instant respect from my class.
Why You Should Be Able to Touch Your Toes
You may be dying to know how you can do this on your own, but I will keep you waiting just a bit longer. First, we need to understand why it is important to touch your toes in the first place. There are a few reasons to have this essential skill, but here’s the main reason: you will have to lift something every day. Some of these objects are heavy and some are light, but either way you are hip hinging and lifting something. We all need to do this, and we will do it over and over again. Whenever we repeatedly do a movement, it puts strain on the body. If we are not moving properly, the joints will start to suffer and break down.
You have probably heard of someone who threw their back out picking up something as light as a pencil. How can that be if we lift heavier things all the time? It is typically because that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They did the movement poorly for so long that they finally got hurt, and it happened to be when they picked up something light. Or sometimes when we pick up light things, we get lazy and just move in a way we probably shouldn’t.
A person who can touch their toes is more likely to be able to get into a good posture for picking things up. The person who cannot touch their toes has less to work with and will not be able to correct their positioning. The ability to touch our toes gives us the wiggle room we need to perform this movement. Now, I’m not saying that if you can touch your toes you will never hurt yourself picking something up, but it is a good ability to have.
In particular, being able to touch your toes is a requirement you should set for yourself before you deadlift. Deadlifting is a very common lower body exercise and for good reason, but if you cannot touch your toes and yet you continue to deadlift, especially with heavy weights, you are just one slight movement away from serious injury. As part of your warm-up, see if you can touch your toes. If you can, then lift away. If you cannot, then perform the drills we are about to go over. If you can after the drills, then you are cleared for lifting. If you still cannot, you should continue to work at the toe touch and stop deadlifting from the floor. If you choose to keep the deadlift in your program, you should perform it from a lifted position to reduce the required range of motion.
7 Steps to Dealing With Tight Hamstrings
So let’s get you touching your toes. There will be a video with this article to help demonstrate this drill. As stated earlier, we need to retrain the pattern. We are going to help the core stabilize better, teach you to shift your hips backward, and then perform the pattern.
This is the toe touch progression created by Gray Cook, and it is an incredibly valuable tool. For this drill you will need a lift of about two inches, such as a wood board or thick textbook, and a pad or rolled-up towel.
- Place the balls of your feet on the lift with your feet together.
- Place the rolled-up towel or pad between your legs.
- Take a deep breath in as you reach up into the sky as if you are trying to touch the ceiling.
- As you exhale, reach down to touch your toes, keeping your legs straight.
- When you feel some resistance in your hamstrings, squeeze the pad between your legs hard and squeeze your abs as if you are doing a sit-up.
- If you cannot reach your toes, bend your knees only as much as you need to so you can touch.
- Inhale and return to the start position.
Repeat this pattern six to eight times. With each repetition, you will probably get closer and closer to your toes.
Once you finish this, spin around and complete the same drill, but now with your heels raised. You are now taller, so you will find it much more difficult to reach your toes. Complete six to eight reps here as well.
Now retest. Can you touch your toes? Do I look like a magician? It is really cool to see how well this works. I love people’s reaction when they tell me they have never been able to touch their toes. If you now can touch your toes, you can proceed with exercises like the deadlift. If you cannot, then I recommend that you keep working on this until you can, or that you reduce the range of motion of your deadlift for now.
The big question you probably have now is, will this last? It depends on what you are doing the rest of the day. If you go and sit down for the next eight hours, you are probably going to lose some of this. If you stay active, you can probably keep it. This is, however, something you will want to work on until you can just wake up in the morning and touch your toes. Keep practicing, and you will see that you will have an easier and easier time getting down there. Now that you have rediscovered your lost toe touch, you have a cool trick to show your friends at parties.