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February 08, 2022 11 min read

Flexibility is the achievable range of unrestricted motion in your joints. And your flexibility depends on factors ranging from your age, lifestyle, muscle length, connective tissue tension, and even gender. While flexibility comes naturally to some people, many others achieve struggle with something as simple as touching their toes.

The standing and sitting toe touch are basic elementary school PE class tests of flexibility.

It is the barest minimum that measures the flexibility of your posterior. So why are you finding it difficult to touch your toes if it is so simple, and how do you redeem yourself? Below, we have provided you with reasons for this phenomenon and tips to help get you along.

Young couple in sporty outfit doing some stretching outdoors before jogging together

The Mechanics

It might seem unfair that the standing toe touch comes easily to many while you cannot reach far enough. To make matters worse, straining too far seems to wake a mildly throbbing pain that fires through your legs and back. No matter how hard you seem to try, folding your body seems impossible.

The toe touch is an essential measure of flexibility in your hips and leg muscles.

To make things worse, the touches are not only a measure of how limber you can be but can also be a measure of the state of your overall health. While your inability to touch your toes remains an outspoken cry about the lack of flexibility of your muscles, several factors contribute to this. So why can’t you touch your toes? Your inability to touch your toes can be a worrisome tell-tale sign of several factors. Some of these physical and physiological factors can be:

1. Sedentary Lifestyles

Globally,  about 31% of people older than 15 engage in a sedentary lifestyle. This sedentary lifestyle is characterized by a lack of sufficient daily activities considered healthy for the human body. The lack of participation in physical activities is influenced by factors that could be emotional, environmental or even lack of facilities.The average American adult spends their waking moments sitting at a desk or reclining on a couch to settle with a favorite movie.

Sitting for too long without performing  mobility exercises is damaging to the body. Because you spend more time sitting than you do moving around and are involved in activities designed to stretch the muscles, your hip flexors and back muscles are shortened and tightened. This severely limits your range of motion, restricting the distance you can fold your body forward. This is synonymous with your hips putting the brakes on themselves to reduce the risks of further damage to your body.

2. Age

As you age your body loses flexibility. This is a result of your muscles losing elasticity. There is a loss of water in the tissues and the onset of stiffening in your joints. There is a decreased amount of lubricating fluid that helps with the smooth gliding on the bone over bone in your joints. Your ligaments grow shorter, and your cartilage begins to thin. All these are normal during old age and influence many activities, including your ability to fold over and touch your toes.

3. Gender

Women are anatomically more flexible than their male counterparts. This is due to their choice of lifestyle and physiological makeup. The body of the average woman produces hormones -typically the estrogen hormone- that help them to maintain limber and lean muscles. A man’s body often has ten times the average woman’s testosterone level, leading to the production of shorter, tighter, and bulkier muscles.

The tighter your muscles, the more difficult it is to stretch.

Women are also more inclined to favor activities designed to increase the range of motion in muscles like Pilates and Yoga. Men, on the other hand, often opt for activities designed to help them get bulkier muscles. This difference in taste goes a long way in determining how pliable the body is.

What Your Muscles Say

Contrary to popular opinion, your ability to bend over while standing or sitting to touch not only rests in your hip flexor muscles. You see, your body recruits all of the muscles in your entire posterior chain to help you fold over comfortably in your normal range of motion. 

All these muscles are connected from the top of your neck to the soles of your feet, and a problem in one results in a general contribution to your inability to bend forward. This is why touching your toes is a sign of mobility in your spine, lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and ankles.

Bending forward to touch your toes flexes your spine.

Connected to the spine are muscles known as the spinal muscles or extensors, also called the erector spinae and multifidus. These muscles can perform basic functional movements that include bending forward. Theses muscles are connected to the hip muscles, which work in conjunction with the gluteal muscles, and then the hamstrings.

Bending forward to touch your toes activates the hip flexors.

The hip flexors are located between the mid and lower back, and help keep the spine and pelvic area in the optimal position. A strong and healthy hip flexor will can both lift the legs and bend over fully with little or no discomfort in the hips and back. A weak and stiff hip flexor, on the other hand, results in decreased mobility and flexibility.

Stretching forward also activates your glutes.

The gluteus maximus, the most substantial glute muscle, extends to accommodate the angle of hip flexion that you need. Coupled with the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and piriformis muscles, the gluteus maximus adducts your body, allowing it to flex forward and back.

Your hamstrings not only need to be flexible, but also strong.

The hamstrings are a group of three muscles that run across the back of the thigh and attach from the hip to below the knee. Think of the hamstrings as a bunch of elastic rubber bands. In their resting form, when you are erect, they are relaxed. While you are sitting, they get shortened and tightened. When you lean forward to touch your toes, they get stretched to their limit.

Stretching forward not only activates your hamstrings but other leg muscles like the gastrocnemius and soleus of the calves.

It also engages the adductor magnus and gracilis of the thigh muscles. Essentially stretching to touch your toes requires a system of muscles to work together, and each muscle should be in optimal health.

Why Can’t You Touch Your Toes?

There are several reasons why you can’t touch your toes, but each reason boils down to the state of your body. All these reasons are linked to the flexibility of your muscles and the mobility in your joints.

  • Previous injuries: One reason you might find it difficult to touch your toes is previous injuries to your hips, legs, or lower back. These injuries might cause your joints to grow stiff and shorten your leg muscles. This severely reduces your range of motion and tampers your mobility.
  • Long legs or short arms: You need to look around to note that we are blessed with diverse heights, weights, and body sizes. Several people are anatomically designed to touch their toes thanks to their equally sized limbs. People with shorter arms or longer legs would find it more challenging to reach their toes easily (visualize T-Rex trying to do the standing toe reach). Unfortunately, there is no escaping your anatomically appropriated limb length, and so, you would require other means of reaching your toes. 
  • Reduced hip mobility: The hip is considered to have reduced mobility when it reduces in the  values of the normal range of motion. The hip helps you to hinge forward far enough to touch your toes without straining your hamstrings, calves, and back muscles too far. 
  • Tight Hamstrings: your hamstrings are primarily involved in your ability to lean forward to touch your toes. Connected to a group of fascia and other muscles, a problem with the hamstring results in a shortcoming of these other muscles. Your inability to lean forward might stem from a tightening or shortness of your hamstrings. This might be as a result of prolonged sitting or wearing of heels. This severely shortens your hamstrings, compacting your muscles and reducing your mobility. Tight hamstrings attempt to compensate for the decrease in mobility by stretching the lower back muscles and lumbar extensions. This leads to more stress on the back and the beginning of back pain.
  • Tight lumbar extensors: Your lumbar extensors are directly attached to your spine to help with bending, standing, and lifting objects. A decline in the strength of your lumbar extensions, a slack, or a shortening of these muscles reduces your lumbar spine flexion. This can result from sport-related injuries, bad posture, a sedentary lifestyle that involves more sitting than movement, tightness in the hams, shrinkage in the spinal disks, tight hips, and tight glutes.
  • Inadequate muscle recovery: Sleep is as vital as exercise is when it comes to proper muscle function.

Is Touching Your Toes That Important?

Flexibility is great for the body. It ensures blood flow in your system and improves muscle elasticity, reducing the risks of injuries. Improving flexibility helps to reduce the stress on the spine, alleviating lower back pain and improving posture and mobility.

Ultimately, flexibility improves the overall quality of life.

With flexibility, you can cope with the changes in your ligaments, tendons, connective tissue, and muscles as you age. Muscle and joint pain is usually a result of fascia and muscle structure changes that lead to a shortening of your range of motion. With your hips and hamstrings being one of the significant points of stress and strain, the toe touch helps to reduce the risks of hip and leg strains or pain.

How To Touch Your Toes

If you're not currently flexible, getting to the point of comfortably bending over to touch your toes may involve a series of stretches and exercises and might take weeks or months to achieve, depending on the state of your body.

But there's great news!

Just like with lifting weights, your body adapts quickly as long as you're consistent. During your quest, you might feel some discomfort. This is simply your body attempting to expand beyond its comfort zone. Discomfort is good, pain is bad. So take it slow and listen to your body and you'll be comfortably touching your toes before you know it!

Here are a few exercises and stretches that can help you get closer to touching your toes:

1. The Cat/Cow Stretch

The Cat/Cow pose is a popular choice for back pain. A common pose in many yoga classes, it helps to stretch and flex the spine and the surrounding lumbar extensions. This would help relax overly tight back muscles and increase the range of motion. The flexing of your spine in this pose also helps to improve circulation in your spinal discs while simultaneously relieving the pressure on your site and lower back muscles. Overall, the Cat/Cow pose helps eliminate the adverse effects of a sedentary lifestyle on your back and promotes a healthy spine. This is an excellent bet for increasing your range of motion to touch your toes.

To do the Cat/Cow stretch:

  • Get on your hands and knees on an exercise mat.
  • Align your hands so that your wrists are stacked right underneath your shoulders.
  • Spread your hands wide and keep your index finger facing forward. (Your index finger and thumb should look like an 'L' on your left hand when you look down and a backwards 'L' on your right hand)
  • Your hips should be stacked over your knees.
  • Keep your back flat and your spine neutral.
  • Keep your gaze downward
  • Pull your belly button in to activate your abdominal muscles.
  • Take a deep breath in and arch your back, pressing into the floor with your hands. (Your back will look like a cat that is arching its back)
  • As you exhale, curl your tailbone upward gently, and using your back muscles to pull your shoulder blades together, creating a depression in your back, and look towards the ceiling so that your gaze turns upward without straining your neck. (Your back will curve downward and look like a 'U', just like a cows back)
  • Hold this position for 5 seconds and repeat thsi flow for 10-20 breaths.

    2. Kneeling Hamstring Stretch

      The kneeling hamstring stretch is great for stretching out your hamstring muscles. This reduces the effect of fascia and lengthens the shortened muscles of the legs. This increase in length is a great way to increase your chances of touching your hamstrings.

      To do the kneeling hamstring stretch:

      • Start with your left knee. Kneel on your left knee, keeping your knee aligned under your hip.
      • Extend your right leg straight in front of you
      • Keep your spine straight
      • Fold forward at your hip, bringing your head towards your right foot. 
      • If this is too difficult, walk your upper body with your hands until folded forward. Remember to keep your spine erect.
      • Fold your torso towards your right thigh. You should feel a nice stretch in the back of your thighs.
      • Hold this position for 5 seconds and return to the starting position.
      • Complete as many repetitions as you can.
      • Alternate on your left leg.

      Pay attention to your hamstrings. If you begin to feel a sharp pain, angle your leading leg to accommodate your pain. If the pressure in your thigh and on your back gets unbearable, abort the stretch.

        3. High Plank


          The high plank improves core strength and strengthens the network of muscles that span across your shoulders and back. This helps to improve body coordination, stability, and mobility. The high plank also strengthens the glutes, stretches the hip flexors, and pulls the hamstring, which is essential in helping you fold over to touch your toes. The high plank makes your muscles pliable, increasing your flexibility as you get better.

          To do the high plank:

          • Get on your hands and knees.
          • Kick your legs out behind you until you are supported on your palms and toes.
          • Stack your wrists underneath your shoulders.
          • Keep your legs hip-width apart.
          • Keep your neck neutral and back flat. Your body should be one straight line from your head to your toes.
          • Engage your core, box your hips, and keep your gaze on the floor.
          • Hold this position for about 10 seconds.
          • Rest and repeat.

          The high plank is scalable, meaning you can work your way up from 10 seconds while measuring your progress with the addition of 5 seconds.

            4. Figure 4 Stretch


              The figure 4 stretch targets the muscles of your glutes, thighs, and hip flexors. It specifically activates the gluteus medius, the most important yet bypassed glute muscle.

              To do this stretch:

              • Lay on your back.
              • Keep your arms by your side, knees at a 45-degree angle, and your feet flat on the floor.
              • Lift your right leg and place your right ankle below your left knee, so your legs form a number 4 figure.
              • Lift your left foot until your left shin is parallel with the floor.
              • Point the toes on your left foot.
              • Lace your fingers behind your left leg and pull them towards your body.
              • Hold this position for 5-10 seconds.
              • Return your legs and arms to the starting position.
              • Repeat on your right leg. That is one rep.
              • Complete as many reps as you can in a set of 3.

              The figure 4 stretch is equally scalable, as you can increase the seconds you hold the stretch for. To increase the intensity of this stretch, point your left foot downwards.

                5. Lunge With Spinal Twist


                  The lunge with a twist is perfect for stretching out stiff back and hamstring muscles.

                  1. Stand erect with your feet together.
                  2. Take a big step forward using your right foot.
                  3. Bend your right knee and drop into a lunge, mimicking a walking lunge stance.
                  4. Keep your chest forward, back neutral, and left leg straight behind you. You should feel a stretch in your thighs and calves.
                  5. Place your right hand on the floor.
                  6. Immediately twist your torso to the left and stretch your left hand to the ceiling until you form a T shape. 
                  7. Hold this position for 15 seconds.
                  8. Repeat on your left foot. That is one repetition.

                  There are a lot of stretches that help to loosen up your posterior muscles. Other than the need to touch your toes, stretching regularly is a great way to keep your body in check. It promotes flexibility, agility, and mobility needed to maneuver through functional activities.

                  Your nutrition is also essential to your muscles. Most important is protein, a macronutrient necessary for building and repairing muscles and connective tissues. Protein is vital for flexibility as it increases the collagen content in the muscles.

                  Leaning Forward

                  Touching your toes has numerous benefits on your back, hams, and calves. Not only do you get better at sports performance and functional activities, but you also do so with a lower risk of muscle injuries. However, this does not come with just a day or two of stretches.

                  Your muscles are like rubber. The movement you leave them stretched for too long, they return to their stiff state. To stretch to touch your toes, you need to engage in a comprehensive stretching routine frequently. The more you practice, the faster you can handle your toes.

                  Don't know where to start? Check out these  stretches to release tight hip flexors.