Why Can’t I Touch My Toes?

The ability to touch your toes when bending forward from a standing position with straight knees is one way we measure flexibility. This is because there are many daily activities that require flexible muscles on the back of your body. A few everyday examples include picking things up off of the ground, taking your shoes on and off, loading or unloading the washing machine, and much more.

Also, if you don’t have adequate flexibility in the structures that allow you to forward bend with ease, you are at risk for developing lower back pain, and possibly pain in your neck and upper back, hips, knees or lower legs. Because of the importance of flexibility for function and pain prevention, the toe touch flexibility screen is a useful tool. It can direct you or your physical therapist to the specific muscle groups that need to be addressed.

Try the toe touch flexibility test

Okay, now it’s your turn to try. Remember the sit-and-reach test back in school? This test is very similar except this time you are standing. Go ahead and stand up, forward bend and try to touch your toes without bending your knees. If you can do this without pain or problems, congratulations! You probably don’t need to keep reading unless, like us, you geek out on body stuff.

If you didn’t pass the toe touch flexibility test, please read on and begin to incorporate the tips we teach you here. And even more importantly, if you experienced any sort of pain with this test . . .

STOP: Pain with bending forward

Any pain, deep ache, numbness or tingling anywhere in your back, neck, one or both of your buttocks, or in one or both of your legs is a red flag. Do not spend time in this position, or attempt to gain flexibility without consulting with a physical therapist first.

Does everyone need to be able to touch their toes?

Yes and no, if you have very short arms and long legs, touching your toes while bending forward with straight knees might seem like an impossible feat. Yet, with some targeted stretches and soft tissue work, even body-geometry challenged people can get closer to touching their toes.

Additionally, there are certain hip joint disorders or precautions that might make it unrealistic to touch your toes. Consult with your doctor or physical therapist if you have a hip joint disorder, or suspect that you may have one. If you are recovering from hip surgery, please get clearance from your medical team if you want to touch your toes.

Luckily though, for the vast majority of people, the reason you can’t touch your toes comes down to inflexibility of the hamstrings, hips, back muscles, and calves. Additionally, the connective tissue on the back of the body from the top of the head down to the bottoms of the feet (also known as the posterior fascia) can be tight.

Let’s break down some things you can do to make changes in these muscle groups.

Stretching and Soft tissue work

The name of the game when trying to increase flexibility is to focus on stretching and soft tissue work to the areas that are tight. When trying to increase the length of a muscle with stretching, you need to hold the stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds, and longer is even better.

Foam roll your hamstrings and calves.

Soft tissue work can help both the fascia and the muscles get more blood flow and soften adhesions that are keeping things hitched up. This can be done with a foam roller, massage balls, your hands, or by a massage therapist or physical therapist who practices manual therapy.

Hamstring tightness

hamstring tightness limits the ability to touch your toes
Hamstring muscles

The number one culprit when you can’t touch your toes is tight hamstrings. There are three muscles that make up the hamstring muscle group. When they’re tight, they don’t allow your hips to fold into a forward bend, and they limit the knees from fully straightening in this position.

Hamstring and calf stretch

Using a strap on the foot can stretch the calf at the same time as the hamstring.

Standing hamstring stretch

Prop your foot up on something and with a straight back, hinge forward at your hips to stretch the hamstrings.

Hip restrictions

Gluteal muscles

Sometimes the hips don’t roll back into the sockets very easily or the muscles in your buttocks are tight. There are stretches you can do if your limitation feels like it’s coming from the hips.

Single knee to chest stretch

Hug one knee into the chest to feel a stretch in your glute.

Piriformis stretch

Cross your ankle over the opposite thigh, if you need more stretch pull the legs in toward your chest.

Calf tightness

Calf muscles

If you can forward fold without too much trouble but you can’t keep your knees straight, your calves are too tight. This is because the main calf muscle, the gastrocnemius muscle, originates above the knee joint. So if this muscle group is shortened, it pulls your knee into a bent position.

Standing calf stretch

Move one foot behind you, keep the heel down and knee straight, then transfer your weight forward to stretch the calf.

Lower back tightness

Latissimus dorsi muscle and lumbo-sacral fascia (with several layers of back muscles underneath)

If the main stretch you feel when trying to touch your toes is in the lower back (without pain), then it’s time to focus on stretching your lower back.

Happy baby

Lay on your back and grab your feet.

Double knee to chest

Hug both knees deeply into your chest to stretch the back.

Childs pose

With knees wide, bend forward with arms stretched in front of you.

Combination stretches

There are some stretches that can target all of the muscles and the posterior fascia at once. These stretches are best done after you’ve addressed any specifically tight muscle groups listed above.

Forward fold

Keep knees straight and reach forward as far as you can. Use a strap if you can’t get very far.

Downward dog

Try to keep the spine straight even if the knees need to bend a little bit.

We hope that after practicing all of these stretches, you will be well on your way to full flexibility!

You are the age of your spine. You are as flexible as your spine. That transfers to other areas of your life.

~ Diane Lane

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