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“Can you touch your toes?”

October 4, 2007 11:10 AM

"How much can you bench" might be the most asked question in today's gym. However, no one asks questions about movement skill. Even fitness evaluations performed by professionals in the field usually focus on numbers in certain tests (body fat and one-mile walk tests). But in the grand scheme of human performance I would rate the ability to move effectively above the bench press.

What we should be asking is: "Can you squat? Can you touch your toes?" etc?

Our quantitative evaluation of performance (bench press, sit-ups etc?) leaves huge gaps in the ability to gauge the qualitative aspects of human performance. How something happens is more important than how much of it happens. It is the hidden compensations that result in micro trauma and eventually injury that we should be trying to catch.

Since the overall concept and application of movement screening and correction is beyond the scope of this article (see and the functional movement screen for complete information) we will focus on evaluating and correcting one of the most basic movements?the toe touch.

Let's get a baseline before we go any further: stand with your feet together (and I mean big toes touching and heels touching) and keeping the knees straight (not hyper-extended or "locked") reach for your toes. (I'll wait while you do it?)

Well?how did you do? (BTW: you can hold a ruler and measure how far you are from your toes.)

If you were short of your toes I would advise you to pay careful attention to the correction laid out below and back off of any deadlifting or KB work until you can touch your toes.

"Why?" you ask.

Because the inability to touch your toes indicates a problem with your hip/abs/low back communication.

If your hamstrings are in the ON position all the time (meaning they don't know when to lengthen) and they don't allow your hips to hinge, you will bend from your back instead. And if your abs do not know when to fire then your low back will contract to stabilize and prevent forward flexion.

Result: you can't touch your toes and effectively use your hips. Note I didn't mention the "length" of your hamstrings?that is because the neurological input or patterning determines your muscle length?but I digress.)

So now that we know your toe touch ability?let's fix it.

You will need a 2x4 or approximately 2" thick object (book etc?) and a ball or rolled up towel to squeeze between the knees. Begin by placing the toes/balls of the feet up on the 2x4 with the feet together. Then bend the knees and place the ball between the knees (you should be able to straighten the knees but not hyper-extend them). While squeezing the ball with the knees you will reach for your toes. If the squeeze of the ball does not get you to your toes you will bend the knees as much as you need to?but only as much as you have to?and touch your toes. As you loosen up try to bend the knees less and less. Perform ten repetitions.

After the ten reps with the toes up, step over the board so that the heels are now elevated and the toes are down. Place the ball between the knees again and repeat the ten reps squeezing the ball and bending the knees?only as much as you have to?and touch the toes all ten reps.

Once you have finished you will re-test your toe touch standing on the level ground without the ball between the knees. You should see a significant improvement in your toe touch. With consistent practice of the above correction you should be able to maintain your toe touch and have better control over you hips and low back.

For a thorough training in many methods similar to those discussed in this article, see Brett Jones's 2-DVD set Corrective Strategies and Movement Screening.

Brett Jones is a Senior Instructor in the Russian Kettlebell Challenge program, a CSCS through the NSCA, and a contributor/presenter for the Functional Movement Screen. You can contact Brett at or his website