Welcome! This post is meant to be a guide to help you touch your toes (and beyond) in 30 days or less. If you reach your goals and want more hip flexibility, I have the splits routine as well that are a guide for the splits challenge.
When trying something new, you should always listen to your body. Get in touch with what it is you need, where it is you are tight and work on those challenging areas. People of different flexibility levels will find different stretches that work for them.
Start with the Forward Reach Test to assess your mobility
This is to measure your baseline level of mobility. It’s easy to measure and assesses the general flexibility of your body with the forward reach test. Your range is affected by the combination of the mobility of your nerves, spine, hips and the flexibility of your hamstrings and calves.
- Sit with your feet flexed against a step or small box. Sit up tall and make sure that your knees stay straight. Slowly, tip forward from the hips, reaching the hands as far forward as you can. Breathe in gently, then breathe out and see if you can sink a little deeper into the stretch.
- You only need to spend about 10 seconds to find your true range.
- Measure the distance you are away from the box in centimeters with a ruler.
- If you are able to touch the box (your toes) and go further with your knees straight and the feet flexed at 90 degrees, you could measure how far your hands extend beyond the box.
- TAKE A PHOTO! You would have wished you had a “before” photo to complement your “after” photo!
Do NOT use this seated forward-bend (pike stretch) as your main or only stretch.
It is too easy for you to yank on your lower back if you’re trying to touch your toes. You shouldn’t be directly stretching your lower back for extended periods of time. This is typically reserved for more advanced trainees and for very specific goals. (Not everybody wants to be a contortionist.)
For more info on why you shouldn’t be stretching the lower back or more info on how to RELAX the lower back, refer to the FAQ section.
Why should someone be able to touch their toes with straight legs?
“An inability to cleanly touch the toes could be due to generalized stiffness and most likely also a movement dysfunction. A hip hinge [explained below] ultimately spares the spine and loads the hips so the hips do most of the dynamic work. The spine statically, without movement, transmits the energy to the upper body. The spine can only be stable if the hips are mobile. If the hips are not mobile, the spine cannot be stable.” – Gray Cook
Other reasons to work on flexibility? If your shoulder, wrist, or elbow is injured and you can’t do your normal strength training, it’s very helpful to work on hip flexibility in the meantime while the rest of your body heals.
Learn how to properly hinge at the hips to touch your toes
A lot of people don’t have the proper movement pattern down. I know I didn’t. So here are some videos that will fix that.
- This video provides a GREAT drill that teaches you how to hinge at the hips FIRST before you try to round your back and touch your toes!
- Then, follow this Toe-Touch Progression. It’s a 5 minute corrective sequence that stops your nervous system from putting the brakes on during the toe touch and limiting your range. This could change your toe-touch in a matter of minutes. To see how the same toe-touch progression helps a lay person, watch this. (The props they use may be silly, but whatever works!)
- Get the most out of your Standing Pike: This informational video provides an excellent demonstration of how to maximize the lengthening of your hamstrings PROPERLY before rounding down to touch your toes. It reinforces the importance of hip-hinging and more.
Stretches to do every single day
Stretching your entire body will make a huge difference to your overall mobility. We work on the entire body because all your muscles are connected to each other. For example, if there is tightness in your neck, it will affect the flexibility of your legs and vice versa.
Game Plan: First begin with the auxiliary stretches to target all possible confounding tissues. Then, the main stretches target the hamstrings. And afterwards, if you have the time, there are extra stretches that feel scrumptious as well. In general we move from easy to hard, from surrounding areas to target areas, from small ranges to greater ranges of motion.
Note: You don’t have to do every single stretch in each section! The reason there is so much variety is because some stretches may feel incredibly effective for one person and another may feel nothing from it.
Pick one stretch you find effective from each section. These reduce stiffness in the surrounding areas to facilitate the main stretches.
- Thread the Needle (Pigeon Pose on your back)
- Try to relax in a Deep Squat
- Put your feet as wide as you need to let the heels touch the ground)
- Follow Ido’s Squat Clinic to deepen your squat
- Get a tennis ball or lacrosse ball and roll your sitting bones over it.
- Get a tennis ball or lacrosse ball and roll your foot over it while standing.
Hip Flexors such as Psoas/Quads (imperative if you sit a lot, which you probably do.)
- Deep High Lunge
- The Couch Stretch (this is a monstrous stretch, don’t rush it so you don’t pull anything!)
- Follow Along Video of the Couch Stretch by Antranik/Lachlan (Starts about 2:00 in)
- Single-Legged Downward Dog is a great calf stretch without the need for any equipment
- This is my favorite calf stretch works great if you find a usable tree with 45-60deg bottom angle so you could use the tree to pull you forward.
- Another stretch is to just stand with one foot on the edge of a stair step, with only the ball of your foot touching and letting the heel dropping down. Hold onto something so you dont fall. It’s okay if you can’t make it to 90-seconds the first time, most people can’t, but your goal is 90-seconds each leg at least once.
Again, choose just ONE stretch that works for you and STICK WITH IT. Hold it for 3-4 sets of 30-60seconds (5-10 breaths). Do not stretch in a “circuit-style” where you jump from stretch to stretch without holding it enough. Hold for a solid 30-60secs and use a timer, cause 10-20secs might feel like 60secs when it’s painful but the timer never lies. So basically just make sure you hit the recommended time for the stretch.
- Kit Laughlin’s Unilateral, Bent-Leg Hamstring Stretch
- This is an excellent follow along video
- Same stretch, different video by Kit
- Supine Straight Leg Hamstring Stretch with Strap (use any belt/rope/old tie, etc)
- Standing Crossed Leg Hamstring Stretch
- Downward Dog
- Tip: Remember the hip hinging drill where you stick your butt out? Try to do that: Stick your ass UP in downward dog.
- Down-dog is a very “complete” stretch for your entire back body and legs all at once.
- Wall version: Downward Dog against a wall (great to do when you can’t get your hands on the floor)
- Stride Stance Good Morning
- This is a dynamic exercise. Perform 3-5 sets x 10 reps, with a 15-30sec hold on the FINAL rep.
- Can be done with a broomstick and then eventually a barbell. (For tempo fanatics, 2320 tempo.)
- Advanced: My Standing Splits Hamstring Floss (put your hands as far ahead of you as you need to)
This is optional but highly recommended. Choose whatever feels good or if anything in particular feels tight you want to work on.
- Neck Rolls
- Right hand behind you, tilt neck toward left, switch sides.
- Lower Back Stretch
- Lying Twists (one of the best things to do after sitting all day)
- Standing Forward Bend with Shoulder Rinse (good for opening chest up too)
- Give yourself a face and head self massage
- More ways to open up the shoulders (includes backward hand clasp, reverse prayer, eagle arms)
- Extra Dynamic Flows
Tip: If you work at a desk, get up every half hour and choose one of these stretches. Make a favorite co-worker do it with you too! They’ll thank you. Just don’t get stuck in the seat. And if you are sitting, here’s a video I made on how to sit with a flat back in 5 seconds.
Frequently Asked Questions
I’m a little overwhelmed… what should I DO?
- First, choose one stretch from the Auxiliary section for each body part. Let’s say pigeon pose, couch stretch and one of the calf stretches. Hold each of these for 10 breaths at least.
- Then, choose one stretch from the Main section, let’s say Downward Dog and hold it for 3-4 sets, for 30-60seconds.
- Choose whatever feels good from the Extras section.
- Do this stuff everyday!
Oh and if you have never done the hip-hinging drills and toe-touch progressions, make sure you do those first to get the proper movement pattern down. 🙂
Is there a video I could just follow along and get fairly flexible with?
I made a 35 minute yoga video complete with a warm up and it ends with lots of deep release for your glutes and hamstrings and more. A lot of the auxiliary/main stretches are included in this video but in a yoga-class format.
I’m a little short on time, what should I focus on?
Focus on a main stretch that works on the hamstrings. Do whatever else you have time for after.
How often do I need to stretch?
Stretching daily is nice. However, with that said, you don’t need to stretch vigorously each time. In fact, it is recommended that you stretch with maximum intensity only 1-2x a week and adjust the intensity on the other days. The body needs to heal and adapt to the demands you are placing on it, especially when it comes to connective tissues (tendons and ligaments). Consistency is key, however, so don’t just hold a stretch for 5-10 seconds and think that’s enough. Choose exercises that challenge you, be patient and don’t forget to breeeaaaathe.
How long to stay in a static stretch?
Sets of 30-60seconds are needed for it to be effective. If you do a stretch for 3-5 sets of 30-60seconds, you’ve pretty much hit the neurological limits for the day! What works for me is to stay in a stretch for 10 breaths. This ensures that I am not holding my breath and I am in it for a long enough time.
How could I program this in with my workout?
When you are done working out, you are quite warm/hot, so it’s nice to stretch immediately after working out. It saves time, it’s efficient and it’s safer that way cause you don’t have to worry about warming up.
What about soft-tissue work?
I’m a huge fan of self massage by the use of foam rollers and lacrosse balls. Do them before stretching if you have them. I use them daily. It’s like giving yourself a deep-tissue massage for free. (FWIW, my favorite foam roller is this one. I talk more about mobility tools in this post.)
Why can’t I just do the standing or seated forward fold (pike stretch) as my main stretch?
- Those are stretches that often stretch the lower back too much for a beginner.
- Also, there is usually no reason to try to make your lumbar spine (lower back) hyper-mobile. It’s almost a universal rule in movement to keep your lumbar spine and abs braced but have your hips and upper body be mobile.
- Many people who think they have a tight lower back actually have tight hips along with tight hamstrings and hip flexors/quads which all connect to the hips. (Surprise!)
- Many people who think they have a weak lower back often just have extremely weak abs. (Learn the hollow hold.)
- Increasing your lumbar mobility isn’t usually functional. When you’re doing things like weighted-barbell squats for example, YOU DON’T WANT YOUR SPINE TO MOVE! (With unloaded movements, such as pistol squats, it’s okay if your back bends, it’s supposed to.)
But I feel like my lower back is tight, how do I relax it if I shouldn’t directly stretch it?
1. Learn to chill in “child’s pose.” It’s a restorative forward bend. Breathe in it for a few minutes. It’s a relaxing and safe way to round your back and alleviate pressure because you’re not directly stretching/tugging/yanking your lower back.
2. Below is an animation I made of the Cat/Cow, an extremely therapeutic spinal mobilization that most yoga classes start with. I do it at the start of every morning. It allows me to stretch my lower back and upper back very gently.
3. I also like plow pose. You probably did this as a kid but remember, your weight should not be on your NECK, it should be all on your shoulders. Put a blanket underneath your shoulders to let your head drop down and your neck won’t get crunched.
4. And last but not least, you could safely increase the mobility of your back with jefferson curls.
What happens when you are able to touch your toes?
Confetti doesn’t fall from the sky, unfortunately, but it might in your head!
For 10+ years I wanted to touch my toes but never stretched enough to actually make it happen. I started doing yoga and when it finally happened, I realized that nothing was really that different. What will undoubtedly happen is that you will be happy that you could do it, and you may do a happy dance, but then you will probably set a new goal, such as putting the palms flat on the floor in front of you.. or decide you want to go for the front splits.
That’s usually how it goes, in the sense that human nature always wants more. (In the words of Bob Marley: “Now you get, what you want, now do you want more? You think it’s the end, but it’s just the beginning.”)
But anyway, the point is to just be content with where you are at now and enjoy the journey because there is no “end” to all this self-improvement. Enjoy the feeling of the stretches. Enjoy the reconnection and awareness to the depth of your breath. (Go ahead, take a deep breath right now while you’re at it.)
What is stretching, really?
I end with this, the one and only Kit Laughlin trying his best to explain the point of stretching.
This post was last updated on December 13, 2015.