That damn sit and reach. It's the lingering memory from my Presidential Fitness test. Zero pullups and "running" a 13 minute mile? All but forgotten. But sitting on the ground, having my legs held down by classmates, and being told to "reach?" I felt like I was failing my country because I resembled the Tin Man.
In a sharp contrast to those elementary school days, I've hacked my way to now touch my toes on command. But rather than blindly touting "Make America Flexible Again!" we need to look at why someone can or can't touch their toes. After all, just stretching our hamstrings does nothing but make our pelvis more unstable. It also fails to teach the mechanism behind why we can or can't touch our toes - our brain.
Don't just take my word for it, I'm about education!
Why is a toe touch so important? Because it reveals a ton of information about how someone's body and brain work. For example:
-Do they shift their weight backwards on the way down? Or is all the weight on their toes? If it's the latter, their calves are now acting as their hamstrings. (*My inner nerd likes to dub this pattern "inferior hamstring migration." Yup, it doesn't take much.)
-Are they hyperextending their knees to gain range of motion in their toe touch? Hyperextension means someone is sacrificing their joint integrity to gain range of motion. It's not a good long-term strategy and it's a common way to for people to cheat.
-Are they hinging at their hips or is all the movement coming from their lumbar spine?
All of these questions give the right context before seeing how far someone can reach down. For example, if someone can't touch their toes and they do very little of the above? It's a pretty easy fix. But if someone can palm the floor but they A) hyperextend, B) don't shift their weight, and C) don't hip hinge? I get real worried, real quickly.
Luckily, there's a great patterning exercise we can use regardless if someone is a Tin Man or a wet noodle. I call it the "Toe Elevated Toe Touch with Block." I know, brilliant!
To explain everything that's going on, I'm first trying to get a full, long exhale and all the air out of my torso. Doing so turns on my obliques - pulling my pelvis upward - and giving my hamstrings more length without doing any actual stretching. The wedge under my toes is also making me shift my weight backwards, correcting the pattern by default.
I'm also trying to squeeze the block between my knees, turning on my adductors and getting my pelvic floor to ascend. The two give my brain the stability it needs to feel safe going down to my toes. You can even see the difference between the first and second attempt!
The best part? I can give this same exercise to people that can palm the floor, and it'll actually decrease their flexibility for the same exact reasons. If that sounds counterintuitive, it's because it is, and it took a lot of advanced biomechanics to figure that out!
Of course, this may not completely fix the underlying problem and some people will be a tougher nut to crack than others. But it's only when we begin to teach the brain that we'll see any lasting changes. Give it a shot and let me know what you think!