How long has it been since you’ve reached down and touched your toes, with relative ease? Your ability to achieve this movement is usually an assessment associated with hamstring flexibility, however this simple pattern is actually a lot more complex than we think. A successful toe touch is a smooth multi-segmental flexion pattern which demonstrates a person’s ability to touch their toes without bending at the knees, effortless movement through the hips and spine and comfortable soft tissue elongation, without the presence of pain.
In many of the Mobility, Stability & Flexibility classes that Absolute Balance facilitates at our Forrest Centre corporate facility, members are frequently observed straining to get their fingertips past their knees, shins or ankles. This inability may be indicative of a range of limiting factors and in order to understand the underlying issue in these classes, we always aim to investigate to confirm the root cause of the problem.
An Issue of Mobility or Stability?
Whenever a movement dysfunction is present, we must first address the body as a whole, rather than isolate the problem at its primary location. The body works together, with its primary objective to produce movement, regardless of quality. A concept that was first described by American physical therapist Gray Cook called regional dependence, observed that a significant relationship exists between mobile and stable joint segments throughout the body (from the feet all the way up to the cervical spine). Any dysfunctions in these joints may result in compensatory strategies to achieve the desired movement in neighbouring segments.
Regional dependence: The joint-by-joint approach is a method of categorising how each joint should ideally function within our body.
A prime example of regional dependence may be a client’s inability to touch their toes, where the issue may actually stem from dysfunctions in the client’s lumbar, thoracic, and cervical spine or incorrect coordination of the trunk, hips and spine when initiating the movement.
For many people, the limiting factor in reaching their toes is tightness in their hamstrings. This muscle group may be stiff for a reason and maybe acting as a crutch to increase stability around an adjacent joint in order to protect it. This may be due to a number of reasons such as the incorrect sequencing of the lumbar spine and pelvis, issues with posterior weight shift required as the hips go back and the trunk comes forward or a lack of comfortable bending in the lumbar spine. Restoring length to these maladapted and compensatory muscle groups, along with mobility to the relevant joints using a combination of myofascial release (foam rolling), banded joint mobilisations and stretching will cause direct changes in tissue length, therefore improving the toe touch (if mobility is lacking). Additionally, if there is a decreased ability to activate the core during this movement, stabilisation exercises such as single-leg lowering will assist in activating and subsequently reinforce the correct motor control patterning, resulting in decreased hamstring activation during the pattern.
Overall, there may be various causes of restrictions during the toe touch and it is common for compensatory patterns to occur in order for the body to perform the movement. However, once achieved performing a toe touch translates positively across the movement continuum, which ranges from being able to perform basic activities of daily living with ease (reaching down to pick objects from the ground comfortably) to demonstrating competency in technically complex movements requiring an adequate amount of stability and motor control in the hips and spine (such as the deadlift).
If you’d like to improve any of your movement patterns such as your toe touch, come and visit us, we can help identify any restrictions behind your movement. You’ll be surprised how much closer you can get to your toes within one of our 45-minute sessions and be well on your way to moving and feeling better. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
B.Sc. Exercise Science & Rehabilitation
Accredited Exercise Physiologist
Cook, G. (2003). Athletic Body in Balance. Human Kinetics.
Cook, G., Burton, L., Hoogenboom, B. J., & Voight, M. (2014). Functional movement screening: the use of fundamental movements as an assessment of function-part 1. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 9(3), 396-409.