I spent my Friday in the Rosemont softball dome with 20 other movement nerds taking a class called Flexible Steel. The concept behind the curriculum is that some people are very flexible and can tie themselves into knots, but are not strong -- there are also people who can lift enormous weight, but can't bend over to tie their shoes. The best combination is someone who is strong, but also mobile enough to do their daily tasks or sport plus an extra 10-15% of wiggle room.
At the beginning of the class we took some baseline pictures of how flexible we were in certain positions so we could re-assess later to monitor progress. (I'm seriously thinking about adding this more to the exam process at my practice to help you guys see progress. Wouldn't that be cool! Anyway, I digress...) Here's my before shot trying to touch my toes. Full disclosure, I was warmed up after working out, running and doing deadlifts already on Friday morning -- so I felt my toe touch looked pretty good.
We then went through a series of mobility routines starting at our feet and working their way up the kinetic chain to our calves, hips and then core. After each drill, we re-assessed our toe touch. I was pretty disappointed at first because I didn't notice any change with the foot or calf exercises. Then I got to the FMS toe touch progression and things started to change. This drill involves putting something small in between your knees to squeeze (hard!). Then you bend over to touch your toes in two positions -- first with your toes propped up on a 2x4 and heels on the ground, then with your heels propped up on the 2x4 and your toes on the ground. This is what my toe touch looked like after this drill.
As you can see in the picture, after 3 minutes of work, I gained a couple of inches in my toe touch! Now I bet you are starting to wonder how this progression works, right? First, the reason the toe and calf mobility drills didn't increase my toe touch was because I was already very flexible there. I really didn't need any more motion in those areas -- which means I shouldn't waste my time in that department right now. Second, the reason the FMS Toe Touch Progression is much more powerful that just trying to stretch your hamstrings or hang in a forward bend is that it works strategically with how your body is designed to bend forward.
As you squeeze the ball/shoe/block between your knees during the drill, it activates your abdominals/pelvic floor/core muscles. The action of these muscles is to stabilze your spine. Many times our hamstrings work as a secondary stabilizer of the spine. So if the core isn't "turned on," they tighten up to protect us -- which limits their ability to stretch -- making it hard to touch our toes.
When you put your toes up on a 2x4, it forces you to rock your pelvis back into a proper hip hinge, which makes it easier to bend forward. Even the most flexible people can't touch their toes if you line them up with their back to a wall and have them bend forward. You need some posterior shift of your center of gravity to bend forward.
Then when you put your heels on the 2x4, you are forced to push a little further into the toe touch, further recruiting your abdominals to flex you down. Making it feel "easy" to touch your toes when your feet are on level ground.
All of these little steps add up to a big difference in how I'm able to do something simple like touch my toes -- which is important since I have had disc hernations in my low back and have to bend over frequently to pick up kids toys, pick weeds or adjust patients. The more wiggle room I have with bending, the safer my spine is from injury!
I don't want all of you to start doing the FMS Toe Touch Progression, just because it worked for me. Each person has a different trouble spot, situation and health history. The magic happens when we can find out where your movement problem is and we can strategically work through the most effective way to help increase your capacity for mobility. I'm exicited to start testing some of the new drills I learned at Flexible Steel you all and help you move better and feel great!