I’m 30, I’m fit but one of the apparently most essential exercises eludes me. Here’s why this one simple stretch benefits your health, and why sometimes, flexing is more important than fast and furious workouts
I like to think I’m pretty sporty. I did a 10K in very good time once, you’ll find me at the barre a few times a week and I take the high resistance option in spinning without being bullied first. I’m a long way off a six pack, but I’ve built at least one decent ab that I’m proud of. It's when it comes to the cool down that I lose my cool. As it turns out, I am TENSE. One exercise that I particularly struggle with is the toe touch. While my class buddies of varying fitness levels extend easily floorwards, my hands just hang awkwardly around knee level until it’s all over. I may have smashed my treadmill sprint that day, but all of the cardio chutzpah dissolves when the flex and stretch part comes along, and a past PT has been genuinely baffled by my wood-like limbs.
The thing is, I know that I’m not a totally inflexible weirdo- a survey of 2005 UK adults by women’s sportswear brand Sweaty Betty in 2016 revealed that 38 per cent of us can’t touch our toes. As a fitness goal, it hardly carries the kudos or gravitas of running a marathon or achieving a weightlifting PB , and it’s nowhere near as sexy as sailing a tour de France style cycling challenge, but the toe touch is deemed a key indicator of mobility and flexibility by the NHS, and Virgin Active states that most of us ought to be able to “touch the toes comfortably with straight legs.” The comfort, straight legs and touching toes parts of that sentence are all seemingly beyond me, but why, when some of my class colleagues are getting their palms on the floor in front of them with apparent ease and painlessness? Is there a legitimate prospect of me morphing in Mr Stretch anytime soon? Let’s start with biology…
Not born bendy
If, like me, your legs are proportionally longer than your torso, or you have shorter arms in relation to rest of your body (I also have one leg that’s longer than the other so let’s add that into the mix), chances are you’ll find it technically harder to touch your toes. Short fingers? They could be against you too. I’m not joking. It could be that no amount of Cirque de Soleil style stretching exercises will have you seizing your big toe, but a good number of us will be able to get there with determination, consistency and the right moves, with the benefits serving us long into old age, when the glories of completing a tenth Tough Mudder are long forgotten and we’d actually quite like to avoid putting in the Stannah Stairlift for as long as possible, thanks very much. As above, there’s no medal for a toe touch, so…
Because it’ll make you a better human across the board, even if your anatomy is against you. Here are a few perks of working on your flexibility in a floorwards direction.
It’ll improve your other gym work
Reaching for your toes can improve hamstring and back strength, helping to create long, lean muscles that power moves such as deadlifts and squats in particular. You should also see an improvement in fluidity and range of motion during running and other forms of exercise too, helping you to move faster and with more power and control. To add to the stretch’s strong suit, toe touches boost balance and coordination, making those side planks and single-leg weighted moves a whole lot smoother. Basically, keeping up the toe touch attempts helps to prevent muscles from contracting and becoming short and tight between sessions, which has the additional advantage of keeping you in the game for longer…
It lowers your risk of injury
According to expert trainers at Barrecore , regular toe reaches make your muscles more elastic, so you’re less likely to succumb to strains and tears, both in daily life and during workouts. Stretching out your lower back and hamstrings via toe touches also helps to boost circulation, meaning that post-exercise repair is speedier and more efficient, and the more blood and oxygen you get to your joints, the better for long term mobility and well as short term gains (and preventing falls). It follows that the fewer injuries you experience, the fitter you’ll be, as you won’t have your fitness schedule rudely interrupted by a calf twinge or similar.
It’s good for your heart
A study published in the journal Heart and Circulatory Physiology linked an ability to touch your toes from seated with improved flexibility in the arteries, meaning that your heart can pump blood around the body more easily. The study involved 526 healthy participants between the ages of 20 and 83, measuring sit-and-reach extensions and concluding that inflexibility in terms of toe reach corresponded to inflexible arties in the adults over the age of 40. Stiff arteries heighten your risk of cardiac problems, heart attacks and strokes, however, the muscle tissue vs. arterial tissue flexibility link was only identified in middle aged and older adults, and the authors noted that some degree of arterial stiffening is to be expected as we age. Further investigation is required to determine whether regular stretching has the potential to make arteries more resilient, but given the many benefits of getting bendy, building yourself up to a toe touch looks like a positive move for your ticker.
It helps to prevent hunching
Executed correctly (with a straight back, never a bent one), a toe reach will help you to strengthen back and shoulder muscles and to a degree undo a day that’s been spent scrunched over a keyboard. The more regularly you practice the move, the further you’ll get (literally) and the better your posture will be, both now and into old age. We’re not saying you need to be entering retirement as a yogi, but given today’s sedentary lifestyles and the fact that so many of us conduct our social lives cowed over a tiny screen, giving ourselves an ironing out in a downwards direction can aid in retraining our muscles to become longer and stronger upwards to. Practice your toe touches while the kettle boils, particularly if you’re having a bad day in the office...
It’s a stress melter
Touching your toes and easing your shoulders away from your head (think downward dog) helps to physically knead away stress, as Sweaty Betty ambassador and yoga instructor Charlie Morgan explains:
“If you're tense in your body, then you are likely to also be stressed in your mind. For example, people who are very stressed out more often than not have very tight shoulders as they tend to screw them up around their ears. Our physical bodies are reflections of our mental state. It's important to stay flexible in your body in order to stay open and flexible in your mind.”
Sounds spiritual, but if you’ve ever caught your reflection while having a freak-out, you’ll probably be familiar with the high shoulder hunch. Releasing our back via a toe touch can help to us to physically eliminate tension, and very often the mind follows. It’s tricky one on a packed tube or in the boardroom, granted, but if you can find a quiet window for some toe reaching, preferably with no audience, bend away the day.
It can ease back pain
Toe touches help to make your back more flexible and loosen up stiff hips, both of which reduce the likelihood of lower back pain especially. Prioritise stretching towards your toes if you spend most of your day in a chair, but take it easy if you already have back pain. You should feel a gentle pull down your hamstrings and your back should be flat not curved or arched when you bend down. If you feel a sharp or sudden pain, stop right there- you could wind up doing more damage. It can take weeks and sometimes months (sob: sometimes never) for your fingers to reach the floor, and regular stretching, rather than the occasional gung-ho session, is what makes the difference. Which brings us to...
Why timing is everything
Attempting to go in cold could ironically result in injury: you’ll get better results and greater elasticity gains if you stretch muscles while they’re warm, ideally after a workout or after your vinyasas have gotten going in your yoga class. At Barrecore, classes incorporate a midpoint stretch “to relieve fatigued muscles, avoid strain on the joints and improve flexibility, which is best done when muscles are warm and at maximum resting length”. If you do prefer to stretch pre-workout or on waking, make sure to warm-up a little first- think a gentle jog on the spot or brisk walk to get your circulation flowing. Just don’t bounce when you’re doing your stretches themselves- a gentle lengthening should help you to achieve toe to ground contact- bouncing while in this static stretch could also put you at risk of injury.
How to stretch
Onto the nitty gritty. If you’re struggling to stretch towards your toes, Charlie advises practising a simple downhill move, holding the stretch for at least 30 seconds for maximum bendy benefit (slow and steady wins the stretching race- also let’s not get competitive up in here):
“Work on your hamstrings with forward folds. Make sure you always stretch upwards and lengthen through the spine before folding forwards. Never push yourself too far. If your hamstrings are super tight, make sure no one ever physically pushes you beyond your limit to prevent injury.”
Do this at least daily and should notice that your hands and feet become more closely acquainted as the weeks go by, depending on your starting level of flexibility. You might even reach full palm-to-floor contact, but don’t push it. You can also start from a sitting stretch, bending forward from the hip and keeping your back straight as your reach your fingertips towards your knows. You might only reach your calves at first, but practice makes pliability...
87 per cent of those that regularly practiced yoga could touch their toes
Simple heel lifts to lengthen hamstrings and cat/cow yoga stretches to ease out the lower back can also aid your mission to touch the mat, or for an entire stretching sequence, bookmark a flexi yoga session. Yoga instructor Suzi Baker explains which class to mark on the timetable:
“If you’re looking to increase your flexibility and strength but also want to feel like you’ve had a challenging workout, Vinyasa could be the style for you. It’s one of the most popular styles of yoga practiced in the west- it’s quite energetic and incorporates traditional Hatha asanas but joins them together in a flowing series to generate heat and connect with the breath (*never hold your breath while stretching FYI- your muscles need all the oxygen they can get). It’s very adaptable depending on your level and can be practiced in a heated room to increase the internal temperature, help increase muscle flexibility and release toxins.”
If you need yet another motivation to get your yoga flow on, Sweaty Betty’s survey found that yoga was the best method for improving flexibility over time- survey data found that 87 per cent of those that regularly practiced yoga could touch their toes, versus 43 per cent of non-exercisers. Running wasn't far off, with 85 per cent of runners able to touch their toes, and 80 per cent of dancers could touch the floor with ease too.
If you can’t get on board with the ohmm, more and more gyms and fitness studios are incorporating stretch and flexibility sessions into their training programmes.
Frame’s Bend it Like Barbie class has ‘touching your toes’ as a main aim, with a focus on making hip flexors, hamstrings, shoulders and spine more supple (even building up to splits in time if you keep at it), while Barrecore holds Stretch classes at its locations nationwide to aid fascial release, elongate muscles and increase flexibility. It’s framed as recovery, but if you attain hand to foot contact, that’s a PB in our book (mine anyway). Finally, if you’re a Londoner, Core Collective ’s famously fierce fitness class schedule is balanced out by a new 55 minute Stretch class, combining active and static stretches and lower and upper body mobility work to up your acrobatic potential. We can’t promise zero pain, but the team assures us that it’s more of a relaxing ‘release’ than a bending bootcamp. Whether you choose an instructor led or DIY toe touching strategy, I’m right there with you. To infinity and beyond. Or at the very least my ankles.