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How to do a seated toe touch to stretch the hamstrings and calves

Does touching your toes seem like an impossible feat? Here’s how to improve your flexibility and get there.
The seated toe touch stretches the hamstrings and calves and can even help reduce back pain.
The seated toe touch stretches the hamstrings and calves and can even help reduce back pain.TODAY Illustration / Stephanie Mansour

Touching your toes may seem like a simple task. But actually doing it can feel like an impossible feat.

Because my clients often see seated toe touches incorporated into warmup and cool down routines, a lot of them become frustrated when they aren’t able to reach their toes. However, it’s completely normal for it to take time and effort to be able to perform a full toe touch.

Being able to reach your toes requires flexibility in the hamstrings, calves and even the back — and to reach this level of flexibility, you need to incorporate stretching into your routine on a daily basis.

And just because you can’t reach your toes doesn’t mean that the stretch isn’t working! It actually does more good to stop where you’re comfortable — whether that’s your shins, knees or thighs — then to force yourself past your flexibility level.

What are the health benefits of a seated toe touch?

The seated toe touch works on stretching the hamstrings as well as the calves and can even help reduce back pain or injury. Stretching before and after a workout is essential, and the seated toe touch is a great way to target the backside of the body.

For those with a sedentary lifestyle (which, let's be honest, is most of us!), a lack of flexibility in the lower body is common. So if you spend a lot of time sitting, it’s worthwhile to take time each day to work on your flexibility.

The common mistakes people make when performing the seated toe touch

Most people don't think of stretches as an exercise they need to work on like say a plank or a squat. It’s common for people to rush through stretching to get to their workout or move on afterwards. But the seated toe touch will only improve your flexibility if you give it the time it requires.

I also find that a lot of my clients are unsure of where to bend when performing the seated toe touch. Many people simply reach their arms out toward their toes without properly bending at the hips. This makes the move much more difficult than it has to be. To fix these common mistakes:

  • Treat this stretch as a time for relaxation rather than a warmup for the main event. Count to 15 slowly, making sure you really feel the stretch.
  • Make sure you bend at the hips and think about reaching your chest toward your legs, which will help you keep your back flat.
  • If you find yourself simply reaching for your toes without bending your hips, reset and start over.
  • Keep your shoulders relaxed and pulled down away from your ears.

How to do a modified seated toe touch

If you’re not able to touch your toes from a seated position, take the time to get there gradually. I recommend trying the seated toe touch consistently and tracking your progress. If you’re only able to make it to the knee or mid-shin area on day one, try stretching every day and noting the small increments you are able to reach further each time.

If you’re looking for a different variation of the toe touch, try bending one leg so that the bottom of your foot is resting on the inner thigh of your opposite leg. Instead of touching both toes at the same time, you’ll be isolating each leg.

How to perform a seated toe touch correctly

Ready to go for the full stretch? Here's how to ease your way into it:

  1. Sit on the ground with your back straight and your legs straight out in front of you, flexing your feet.
  2. Raise your arms above your head, inhaling as you do so.
  3. Exhale as you bend at the hips and reach your arms out toward your toes. Remember to think about pulling your chest toward your shins.
  4. Stretch as far as you can. If you can’t reach your toes, that’s okay! Hold the stretch with your arms out as far as you’re able to reach them. Relax your chin toward your chest and pull your shoulders away from your ears.
  5. Hold for at least 15 seconds. Breath steadily and feel the stretch in your calves and hamstrings.

4 exercises that will help you with the seated forward bend

Improved flexibility takes consistent practice. Adding these moves to your stretching routine will help you gain the flexibility needed to correctly perform the seated toe touch.

Seated straddle

The seated straddle will work on hamstring flexibility, preparing you for the toe touch. Sit on the floor and straighten your legs in front of you on a diagonal, creating a “V” shape. As you take a deep breath, fold your body forward, keeping a flat back, until you feel a stretch in the back of the legs. Flex your feet, and rest your hands on the ground. Keep your chest reaching toward the ground and refrain from rounding your back.

Standing toe touch

This move is similar to the seated toe touch, except you’ll be standing, which will allow you to use gravity to get deeper into the stretch. Stand with your feet hips-width apart. Bend at the waist, letting your head drop toward the floor and allowing your arms and hands to dangle in front of you. Reach toward your toes as far as you can and hold this position for 30 seconds.

Star stretch

Stand with your legs wider than shoulder-width (as if in the middle of a jumping jack). Stretch your arms out at your sides so that they are parallel to the floor. Twist your body and bend at the hips, reaching your right hand toward your left foot and your left hand to the sky. Return your torso upright, and then twist the opposite direction, reaching your left hand toward your right foot and your right hand to the sky. Repeat 10 times on each side.

Kneeling stretch

Kneel on the ground with your knees under your hips and your calves resting on the floor behind you. Keeping your back straight, bring one of your legs forward, straightening it in front of you. Flex your foot and stretch your hands toward your foot. Switch legs, holding each position for 30 seconds.