I always stretch my hamstrings but I still can’t touch my toes.

One of the basic movements we need to function well is multi-segmental flexion.  This means being able to flex throughout your body easily.  If this motion is poor it affects the way we move throughout our life and can put extra stress on our spine, hips, and legs, possibly leading to back, hip, or knee pain.  The quick check you can do for your self is touching your toes keeping your knees straight.

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When i work with people who can’t do this they frequently say  “I can’t do that very well, I have tight hamstrings” And it is understandable for 2 reasons.  One they frequently feel tightness in the back of their legs when doing this motion, and 2 the hamstrings are one possible reason you can’t touch your toes.  But, if you have been stretching your hamstrings on a regular basis and you still aren’t improving you are either stretching improperly or something else may be limiting your toe touch.

As indicated by its name multi-segmental flexion takes place over multiple parts of our body.  The hamstrings are one part of that.  Other areas that can be implicated to have issues are your hips, your lumbar spine, your neck, and your neuromuscular system.  If any of these areas are affected you can lose your toe touch and you may feel tightness in your hamstrings.

To figure out which area may be restricted takes a thorough evaluation to help identify this.  But you can do a few simple tests on yourself to get some ideas if something else is restricted.

The first test you can try is the long sit toe touch.  Sit down on the floor with your legs extended.  Reach forward and try to touch your toes in this position.              

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This test unloads the weight off of your core and spine.  If you can’t touch your toes in standing but can in long sitting, your hamstrings are not the restriction because they are lengthening fine here.  More likely you have a core stability or motor control issue.  Having this evaluated and starting a core/motor control program will likely improve your toe touch.

Another test you can check is the passive straight leg raise.  Lie on your back with your legs extended.  Keep one leg straight on the floor and have a friend raise your other leg up slowly until you feel tension on the back of your leg.  It is important to not let your pelvis tilt or hips move and keep the down leg straight and flat on the floor.

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A normal result in this test is to have a pain free leg raise to 80 degrees or more as measured at the hip.  If you have this past 80 you have normal hamstring length, even if you think you feel tight.  Many people can go past this, but 80  is enough for normal toe touch movement.  If you don’t have this you may have tight hamstrings.

The last test you can check is your hip mobility.  If you have poor hip mobility it can affect your straight leg raise also and your toe touch.  For this test lie on your back and pull both of your knees up to your chest.

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You should be able to get your thighs flush against your body without hip pain.  If you can do this and have a poor straight leg raise then your hamstrings might be the culprit.  If you can’t get your knees up it means you may have some hip joint restriction.  Having this evaluated and treated may return this and give you your toe touch.

There are other factors which may lead to a poor toe touch.  But if you have been trying to get more flexion through stretching, and not succeeding you may be treating the wrong problem.  These self test are merely a screen to lead you in the right direction.  If any of the movements are painful you should seek professional advice.  If you do have positive tests a physical therapist can help you with the right strategies to improve the problem.

If you have any questions or need any advice drop us a line at here or at ascent-pt.com.

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9 Responses to I always stretch my hamstrings but I still can’t touch my toes.

  1. hanna says:

    I did all of these actions listed above and had the same result I have gotten for years; all of my body parts feel fine , except for my calves. My calves are always tight and feel like they pull when I try to touch my toes (much like most people would describe the way it makes their hamstrings feel) . I have strong hamstrings, good posture , but odd calves ; please help me find a cure for my problem?

    • ascentpt says:

      Hannah-

      These tests are just a few we break down to catch why people are tight that find a number of things but not everything. If you still feel tightness in your calves i would look more deeply at your ankle and calf mobility and your lower body neurodynamics. Can you touch your toes? or does the calf tightness stop you from doing this?

      • hanna says:

        I have never been able to touch my toes . (And I run almost everyday so I doubt it is a fitness problem)

      • ascentpt says:

        then it would take a more detailed evaluation…The post gave a few quick ideas but was not comprehensive…there are a number of reasons you may not have that movement.

  2. hanna says:

    Thank you for trying to help , but ironic as it is , I was able to touch my toes today ! I yesterday O started a new pilates/yoga workout and I think it has stretched my back in a new way

  3. Arun says:

    I have failed in all of the above four tests. How do I go about improving my flexibility so that I can touch my toes.

    • ascentpt says:

      Arun- If you can not do any of the tests, you generally want to correct mobility issues first. The hip flexion is where i would start. You want to be able to flex your hip enough to get your thigh against your body. If this is tight but not painful, stretch each hip to chest 5 to 10 times. Do this 3 or 4 times a day. Once you can get your leg to your body retest the other tests to see if there is change. Again if you get pain get looked at by a movement professional. Many people have multiple areas of movement restriction and core stability issues that may affect their movement that does not include the hamstring being tight. Once you clear the hip see what changes and go from there. Hope that helps.

  4. Arun says:

    Thanks a lot for your tips!….I will try them and let you know how I am doing. Let me also add that I am 67 years old.

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