Being able to touch your toes is something of a "basic right" when it comes to movement competency. As a toddler you have no problem just doing it. No one had to teach you, you never had to warm up or stretch before you did it, it just happened. So, why is it that so many adults have such a hard time doing it now?
Well, conventional wisdom would tell you that you can't touch your toes because your hamstrings are tight, and if you continue to stretch them eventually you will be able to.
But, how many of us out there have stretched our hamstrings until we are blue in the face only to give up because we never made any progress?
I'll be honest with you, the answer is a very very large majority of people.
The truth is there are many different factors that will influence someones flexibility. The environment that they are in, the stress they are under, the amount of time they focus on movement, are just a few things to consider.
For the purposes of this blog I'm going to focus on the mechanical or physical factors that can limit or influence your ability to touch your toes and how/why that can contribute to your back pain.
There are 3 major things that need to happen in order for someone to be able to bend over and tickle their piggies.
First, they need to be able to shift their hips behind their feet. When you are standing upright your center of gravity is pretty much where you belly button is. Your base of support is how wide your feet are. Obviously a wider base of support makes for more balance (think about how wide the bottom of a boom crane is). In order to stay upright your center of mass needs to stay within your base of support.
The difficult thing is as we move through space, so does our center of mass, and we need to do a pretty serious juggling act in order to keep our center of mass over our base of support. So, if you cannot shift your hips behind your feet when you bend over your center of mass will not stay inside of your base of support. If your center of mass goes outside of your base of support you fall over. Game Over.
Now, your body is not going to allow you to fall so it puts some protective mechanisms into place. This brings us to our second thing that is needed.
You do need adequate hamstring flexibility, but this probably isn't what you are picturing. If you cannot shift your hips backwards when you bend over your nervous system will create stiffness (or tightness) through your hamstrings. This is a protective mechanism that is most easily referred to as protective tone. This is not a length issue. This is your brain telling your hamstrings that if they loosen up the entire body will fall over. The solution to this problem here is not to keep stretching your hamstrings. In fact, that might make the problem even worse.
The third thing that is needed is the ability to round out the spine. Touching your toes is considered a "global flexion" movement. Meaning that all of the joints in the body need to flex in some capacity in order for you to achieve that position. If the spine cannot round out (especially the pesky lower back) then you are going to have a really tough time shifting your hips back, keeping your center of mass over your base of support, and having adequate length or tone through your hamstrings. So all of this to say there is a cascade effect that needs to be carefully looked at before deciding what the best strategy is to solve the problem. I am sure this is something that you go through with any problem you are facing at work or in life, so why should anything change when it comes to your health and mobility.
At this point you might be wondering "What does this have to do with my back pain? I haven't been able to touch my toes is 15 years.".
Well, that is a big part of the problem.
Your lower back is one of the hardest, most motivated parts of your body. It is right in the middle and it is determined to hold you together. Literally. As your body looses the ability to control certain movements, or get into certain positions your lower back straps up its boots, tightens its belt and doubles down. It works even harder to keep your body safe and moving forward.
Much like you when you are over worked and doing more than you are supposed to, your lower back can start to get pretty pissed off if this goes on for too long or it is pushed too hard. When your back gets pissed off it'll let you know. That's that pain, or that ache, or that spasm that you wrote off as sleeping wrong, or a normal part of aging.
The bad news is it is there, but the good news is there really is a lot that you can do about it. You just have to start at the beginning and be a sniper with your treatment.