Breaking Down the Toe Touch Progression
“My hamstrings are sooo tight. I’ll never be able to touch my toes.”
“I haven’t been able to touch my toes in years. I have bad hips.”
As health and fitness professionals, we hear these comments all the time. Our athletes and clients haven’t touched their toes in years and immediately assume it’s due to poor tissue quality or muscle length.
It’s a classic example of focusing on parts instead of patterns, hardware instead of software.
The reason many people can’t touch their toes has nothing to do with the flexibility of their hamstring and everything to do with the sequence of their movement toward the ground. Sound like a simple fix? It really is.
Often times when lecturing for FMS or on the Perform Better circuit, Gray and Lee will bring someone on stage who can’t touch their toes and teach them to do so in a matter of minutes (check out the video above at the 58:38 mark to see Gray do this at the end of his talk at Google). We call this the Toe Touch Progression.
There is no stretching or soft tissue mobilization involved. The goal is to demonstrate how movement can change much quicker than we think.
Here's how the Toe Touch Progression works:
- Stand on a board so toes are up and heels are down. One of the most common reasons you or your client can’t touch their toes is an insufficient posterior weight shift. If you’re unable to shift your weight backward as the upper body half of your body leans down and forward, your hamstrings will contract to prevent you from losing balance and falling forward. In this case, the hamstrings are merely acting as parking brakes to stop you from hurting yourself. Standing on the board so your heels are down and toes are up forces you into a posterior weight shift. We become less dependent on our legs to hold us up and more dependent on our core and weight shift to keep us balanced.
- Squeeze a towel or foam roller between your knees. Keep your feet together, but move your knees apart. Place a roller or towel between your knees. You'll have to bend your knees slightly. Reach for the ground as far as you can. At first sign of tension, squeeze the towel/roller as hard as you can with your knees. This activates your core because anything that makes your adductors fire make your abs fire. When we fire the adductors and abs, we get reciprocal inhibition of extensors of the hip and extensors of the back. When they relax, you'll stop fighting the movement. Squeezing the knees basically overrides your protective mechanism.
- Bend your knees so that you touch the floor each time. Break the pattern.
- Breathe on the way down. As Gray Cook says, "Breathing should not be disconnected from movement. Breathe first, then let the movement unfold."
- Stand on the board so that the toes are down and heels are up. Repeat above.
In the video above, Gray began the intervention at 1:01:00. His volunteers were touching their toes less than three minutes later. How were we able to correct this so quickly? Because we attacked a software problem, not a hardware problem.
If all you're thinking of is anatomy when you encounter dysfunction, there's a good chance you're overlooking the root cause.
We can see issues with toe touch patterns in many populations, from sedentary people to extremely active athletes. It indicates that they are more dependent on their legs for stabilization than their core. We don’t want that.
When you take away stiffness, you have an oportunty to inject a new pattern. Stiffness is like training wheels.
When you break through a pattern you have a small window of opportunity. Take advantage of it. If we reinsert that deadlifting pattern on a clean toe touch you’ll quickly realize you don’t need to do that toe touch progression as much. The need will diminish because now you’re causing a reset.
We don’t want people doing corrective strategies for a long period of time. The minute we breakthrough, we try to upload new information that requires technique, mobility, stability, dynamic stabilization, appropriate breathing, etc.
The toe touch progression works because it challenge a pattern. Both sedentary people and highly trained athletes often use their global muscles or prime movers as stabilizers. Local muscles/stabilizers aren’t doing their job. When the stabilizers aren't working appropriately, we try to use our lats, gluts and hamstrings to hold us up. It’s not about stretching or strengthening, it’s about changing the pattern.