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For as long as I can remember, I've heard the question "can you touch your toes?" asked by people trying to ascertain another person's physical fitness. I've grown up thinking that being able to touch your toes was a basic ability that every healthy person should have, and that not being able to do it meant that you were in bad shape.

However, I have actually never been able to touch my toes. If I keep my knees locked and bend over I actually can't get the tips of my fingers much closer than 8 inches to my toes. I've been stretching for over a month now in an attempt to remedy this, but aside from a somewhat unpleasant feeling in my lower back and thighs, my efforts haven't seen much results as of yet. And now I'm starting to ask myself, "why is this even important?".

Is it possible that what I thought was common knowledge and/or common sense is completely wrong? Are there people that just can't touch their toes, period, end of story? In short - is it important that I become flexible enough to touch my toes, and if so, why? If this actually is important to my athletic ability and/or physical health, I'll keep at it. But maybe it isn't?

Edit 2011-05-31:

I really appreciate the answers so far, they have been quite informative. However, I'm having a hard time marking any one of them as the official "accepted" answer, because I don't see a direct, definitive answer among them. Ivo Flipse's comment seems to me to be the most direct answer, but I'd really appreciate if someone could provide an answer (preferably linked to a authoritative source) that specifically mentions:

  1. If the majority of healthy, active people can touch their toes
  2. How to tell if you have the potential to be able to do this.
  3. What sort of activities/situations are helped by having this flexibility, or hindered by not having it? If flexibility prevents injuries, what sort of injuries are likely if one doesn't have this flexibility?

Thanks again for everyone's help. If I don't get a better answer in the next few days, I'll accept YYY's answer.

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I'd say not at all, your body adapts to whatever you do to it. If you don't do anything that requires the flexibility or range of motion, you don't need it. Though some obvious outliers would be excluded from this. –  Ivo Flipse May 24 '11 at 14:56
    
Remember that you can bend different parts of your body as you reach for your toes - hips, lower back, upper back, shoulders. I think hip bends are the healthiest, which requires long hamstrings. So just "can you touch your toes" leaves a lot of questions unanswered. –  Jay Bazuzi Sep 2 '11 at 19:30
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depends on how itchy their toes are, i guess. –  Ryan Miller Oct 7 '11 at 22:45
    
@JoshuaCarmody You might want to specify how far apart your feet are; the further apart, the easier this is. –  Chelonian Oct 18 '11 at 2:35
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Also, I guess less important than being able to SEE your toes. –  Ryan Miller Aug 9 '12 at 17:44

10 Answers 10

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Your flexibility is inversely related to how injury-prone you are. The more flexible you are, the less likely you are to accidentally injure yourself during training. This is true of major injuries, but it is also true of minor injuries that leave you stiff and sore for 3-4 days (when you should be bouncing back after 1 day of rest, ideally).

Flexibility also means that you're less likely to hurt yourself in a fall or other accident as you age. In terms of intensity of workout to health benefit, flexibility training will give you the biggest payout of almost any exercise out there.

All that said, I'm not sure why you're having so much trouble limbering up. My suspicion is that you are not performing the stretches properly, or the stretches you are doing aren't addressing your real issue. A personal trainer would be able to tell you more simply because they can physically look at you and see how your body is working.

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Accepted for now. But if anyone finds this question later and addresses the points in my edit above, I'd still appreciate it! Thanks. –  Joshua Carmody Jun 5 '11 at 22:54
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@JoshuaCarmody - Your wish is our command. :D –  JohnP Aug 9 '12 at 17:34

Body shape has a lot to do with it. I've got really long legs and short arms, so it would take a huge amount of angle for me to be able to touch my toes (which I can't). My 80 year old grandmother always used to be able to (and might still), but her legs are very short compared to her arms... She can do it without stretching anything at all, whereas for me I'm doing huge amount of stretching and not even able to reach! :-)

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Men and women also have different centers of gravity. In females, it is lower which enables them to more easily touch their toes. –  Matt Chan May 27 '11 at 18:09

I have also never been able to touch my toes, not even close, even in military basic training. I found out much later that I have an extra vertebra. It was never an issue of limberness. It wouldn't hurt to ask your doctor why you can't, everything else is pure conjecture.

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This is very interesting to me. Could I get you to go on about how this extra vertebra was discovered, and perhaps other effects you've noticed from having it? –  YYY May 24 '11 at 20:45
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Chiropractor told me. (went because my wife at the time worked for one) The closest I can come to touching the ground is 4-6 inches away. Other than not being able to touch my toes, it hasn't affected me. –  Bill May 24 '11 at 21:34
    
Very interesting indeed. This is something I'm going to have to look into. Thanks a lot for your answer! –  YYY May 24 '11 at 21:40
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Have you since got it confirmed by a non-alternative health practitioner? –  Andrew Grimm May 24 '11 at 22:48
    
Yes, I'd be skeptical until I saw an x-ray confirming the extra vertebrae. –  JohnP Aug 16 '13 at 16:42

The more flexible you are doesnt always mean you are less likely to injure yourself... sometimes being too flexible is a detriment and your strength is lacking. If you are extremely flexible but lack the strength to maintain certain exercises you are equally as prone to injury as someone who is inflexible. The key is determining where your body lacks flexibility and use stretches to help increase that, while at the same time determine where your body is weak and strengthening those muscles. Finding the balance between flexibility and strength is the key.

Being able to touch your toes is one action that is a part of a big picture in your flexibility and addresses specific muscles that are tight which are limiting your range of motion. I would suggest having a trainer assess where you are tight (hamstrings, quads, hips etc.) and use specific stretches to attack those muscles.

  1. The majority of strong healthy people dont stretch enough
  2. Everyone has the potential to touch their toes, you have to actively work on stetching and strengtheing the specific mucles to allow them to do it.
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Here is another 'strange' person for you. I have been slender all of my life and I still am. However, I have never really been able to touch my toes, and one gym teacher in middle school gave me an "F" in gym one semester because I couldn't - even after lots of stretching exercises, the best I could do was BARELY touch the floor with my middle fingers. However, I do think this is sometimes hereditary; my parents both lived to be up in their 90's, but different body builds. My dad never could touch his toes and he was in basketball in his high school years. My mother was much more limber, and even in her early 90's could easily do it, and could always put the complete palms of her hands on the floor! She could never understand why we couldn't, and we could never understand how she could. So don't worry about if you can't; it has nothing to do with health or longevity.

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I can touch my toes. I can put the palm of my hands on the floor even with my knees straight if I want to. I guess it's simply how you're built, because I haven't stretched in months and I can do it. I have long legs, but I s'pose my arms must be long too haha! You also have to give me the fact that I'm young- around 16- and female. Women are often more flexible than men. I do not believe that your flexibility will effect you that much in life. It may help loosen up your muscles and stop them from being damaged while exercising. I'm actually not very "fit" at all, if you're talking weight. I'm 5'7" and weigh around 180 pounds (see, not in shape) But my heart rate is pretty good- around 65-70 bpm, and I'm very strong/ flexible. I just got lucky I guess! That is, minus my chubbiness ;) People who have long arms and short legs are often more flexible. Usually most fit people can touch their toes, but that's because they practice it. You're probably built differently. I wouldn't worry.

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There are actually quite a few studies that address this question. If you search on google scholar for musculoskeletal fitness and health, you'll find a lot of good reading.

In a summation of them, there are basically three components to musculoskeletal fitness, which are strength (ability to perform work), endurance (how long you can do said work) and flexibility, which has two components. Dynamic flexibility is resistance to motion, and static flexibility is resistance to movement around a joint.

Where this impacts your health is that if you have limited flexibility, it can impact your daily life (Such as being able to reach the top shelf of a cupboard, the top shelf at a supermarket, things like that), and reduce your mobility to the point where you have trouble standing, walking and other motile activities.

These impacts can either be caused by age related degeneration, disease processes or chronic/acute injury. Regular exercise and to some extent a good stretching program (Such as dynamic before and static after exercise) can alleviate these, and help promote better movement as you age.

The sit and reach test is good because it hits several major muscle groups as well as some skeletal limitations, so it's a basic "all around" kind of stretch test.

And, what many don't realize is that while touching your toes is considered good, there may be other considerations such as body morphology (Long legs, short arms, or both) that preclude you touching your toes. In those cases, what should be monitored is the consistency. If you can only get to within 6" of your toes, and then 5 years from now you can only get within 9" of your toes, you are losing mobility and need to figure out why.

So, it's not so much a predictor of disease or injury, but it is a diagnostic that can be tracked and used as a baseline for future measurements.

If you don't need to touch your toes, or if you do not participate in a sport where it is required, then there is no real reason to work on it unless it limits you in some fashion.

Some of the things that flexibility can help prevent are injuries at the extreme edges of your range of motion. For example, if you play first base, and need to stretch out for a catch, then your dynamic flexibility needs to be good enough to allow that. Otherwise you will either miss the catch, or potentially injure yourself on the stretch.

My n=1 is that being flexible (other than needing it for martial arts) has saved me injuries when stepping on rocks and rolling ankles running, coming unclipped and stretching in a bike crash, things like this where that extra range of motion prevented muscle tears.

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Old but interesting question, so I thought I might add some points.

To avoid the arms to legs length ratio, I guess it is more important to focus on how close our upper body is to our thighs while bending. Can we fold totally or is the angle between the two more than 45 degrees? Can we lay the upper body flat on the thighs or do we actually make an arc to reach the toes? Myself I have rather short legs and it takes me only a small bend to touch my toes. My goal, however, is to lay my chest flat on my thighs.

Years ago my kung fu teacher taught me that flexibility is somewhat connected with breathing. While you bend over and think that you reached your limit, breathe deeply and once you exhale, try to bend a few centimeters further. For me it always worked and during my kung fu years my flexibility was excellent.

Recently I started experimenting with yoga, and here there is also a clear emphasis on breathing. As I synchronize my movements with breathing, even tricky positions become much easier to do.

Both kung fu and yoga practitioners strive to reach the balance between the strength and flexibility. So I would say that if one cannot touch their toes, it is a sign that there is some disharmony in the physical fitness. Either too much strength or too little of both, strength and flexibility. Another thing is that yoga is a holistic system and the lack of flexibility can translate to some emotional/energy blocks, but of course this makes sense only if one is interested in the spiritual side of yoga...

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An interesting question! Generally to be flexible one has to start from childhood/teenage years. That is when muscles/joints are in early development stage and can stretch to establish a flexible body (think Gymnasts). However, this does not mean that any adult cannot improve his flexibility by doing stretching exercises/yoga.

Flexibility is not the only indicator of fitness. However, it is one of the essential criteria. One can be fir without being flexible, but should always do efforts to attain a flexible body.Flexible body is like a shock absorber when we workout. It enables us to go beyond our limits..

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"Being able to touch your toes" in my opinion is a weak measure for flexibility. A better measure for hamstring & hip flexibility is this: sit comfortably on the floor with the legs straight and try to lift one of your legs straight, and see if you can touch your forehead to your shin effortlessly (or if not, how close you can lift without much effort). This way you can see how much your body wants to go by itself (without your hands and/or gravity helping). Also, if you are inflexible and focus too much on trying to "touch your toes", you'll have a greater chance of injury (in the lower back or in the hamstring, or both).

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protected by Sancho Aug 9 '12 at 16:55

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