Can’t Touch Your Toes? Here’s How to Fix It.

boy touching toes in gym

Do you ever get a bit concerned because you can’t touch your toes? Or maaaaybe you can get those fingers to the ground, but not without aches, pains, and a few four-letter words?

Pain, discomfort, and poor range of motion in the lower back, hamstrings, and calves can seriously limit your progress in the gym. But more importantly, it can make everyday tasks outside the gym more difficult.

In this post, I’ll briefly talk about a couple of reasons you can’t touch your toes and share a couple of steps you can take to help you get more bendy.

Can You Touch Your Toes?

Before we get to some possible strategies for improving your mobility, I want to be sure we are on the same page about what it means to touch your toes.

So I’d like you to stop what you’re doing and stand up with your feet directly under your hips. And from there, I’d like for you to bend forward and see if you can touch your toes. But there are a couple of caveats.

First, you need to bend forward without cocking one hip to the side (we are not looking for a Legally Blonde-style bend and snap, here). And second, your legs should remain straight.

Here’s an example of how to do it from one of my mentors in the Active Life Immersion program.

Can you touch the ground? Awesome–but it’s possible that you could still do a bit better!

When you bend forward and touch the ground, the only stretch you should feel should be a light stretch in your hamstrings (those are the big guys in the back of your leg).

If you feel any stretching or pulling in your lower back or calves–or if your fingers don’t reach the ground–then you have a limited range of motion.

Why You Should Care About Touching Your Toes?

So, you can’t quite touch your toes, but you feel like a million bucks. What’s the big deal, right?

Here’s the problem: Movement limitations increase your odds of injury and discomfort, even if you aren’t having any pain right now.

Let’s look at how this might shake out in the gym.

Say you can’t touch your toes, and your hamstrings feel tight when you bend forward. This situation can leave you vulnerable to rounding of the lower back in the bottom off a deadlift (and possibly a clean or a snatch) because your hamstrings are pulling your pelvis into an anterior tilt.

And this, my friend, increases the odds you’ll tweak your back.

Not a meathead? I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re still not in the clear.

Do you ever pick up your dog, a piece of furniture, or anything heavy off the ground? If so, having movement limitations in your lower back, hamstrings, or calves can leave you flat on your back.

What to Do if You Can’t Touch Your Toes

Now that you’ve learned why being able to bend over without pain is important, let’s talk about what to do if you can’t touch your toes without discomfort.

Step one, if you are experiencing pain or discomfort, is to schedule an appointment with a physician, physical therapist, or chiropractor. There are several possible causes for any movement limitation, and bending forward is no exception. A credentialed professional can get a better sense of what’s going on in your body and give you an individualized plan for relieving pain and improving your range of motion.

It can be tempting for CrossFitters with tight hamstrings or lower back pain to modify their workouts in order to avoid pain or injury. Examples of this include:

  • hang power cleans or snatches when workouts call for them to come from the ground
  • sumo deadlifts in place of conventional deadlifts
  • using blocks to get the barbell higher off the ground for deadlifts, cleans, and snatches.

Might these modifications be safer for you if you can’t touch your toes? Sure. But wouldn’t it be amazing if you got to a place where you didn’t have to modify? So you could lift a barbell (or a couch, or a dog) without fear of throwing out your back?

With a little bit of work, and barring any major anatomical concerns, you could probably get there!

How to Get Lower, Easier

Ready to work on your range of motion? Here are a few of my favorite exercises I learned in my Active Life Immersion course. But first, a couple of disclaimers:

  1. I’m not a physical therapist, a doctor, or a chiro. Those credentialed professionals are going to be your best source of info, especially if you experience frequent pain or discomfort or are prone to injury.
  2. Never attempt these exercises if you are having pain (not tightness–pain) and reduced range of motion. If this describes you, I’d recommend resting until you call one of the aforementioned health professionals. Similarly, you shouldn’t attempt to DIY it with home exercises if you have a known medical issue in your spine, hips, or pelvis.
  3. Don’t force it. If a specific movement makes your discomfort worse, then stop doing it. You can always ask your trainer or coach to check your form, recommend an alternative, or refer you to–you guessed it–a PT, chiro, or doc.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about those exercises. I’d suggest taking a video of yourself touching your toes before you start working on your range of motion. You can comment in the video on any pain or discomfort you’re feeling.

Keep it in a safe place–you’ll need it later.

Once you have your video, pick 1-2 of these exercises and do them 2-3 times per week.

If you feel pain or stretching in your lower back, my favorites are cat-camel and quadruped rock backs. Try 3 sets of 10 at least 2-3 times per week for one or both of these movements. Consistency is key!

Some of my go-to exercises for those who feel pain or stretching in the calf are sciatic nerve flossing and RDLs with a pause. Same rep scheme as above–3 sets of 10 at least 2-3 times per week. No need to go heavy on those RDLs! Take your time and move with good form.

After you’ve been working on the exercises consistently for 3-4 weeks, retest your toe touch. If you can do it with less pain or discomfort and can get lower, you’re making some progress!

Still Can’t Touch Your Toes?

If you’ve tried these exercises and still can’t touch your toes, or if you need a little help getting started, or if you have other movement limitations that concern you…we can help!

Our 15-minute movement screen can help us to identify any movement limitations that might be holding you back in the gym (or in life).

Email [email protected] to grab your spot!

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