Your ability to touch your toes or bend forward comfortably is essential to life. You must do this motion, whether making your bed, unloading the dishwasher, performing a loaded deadlift, or placing your golf ball on a tee. This seemingly simple movement is quite complex.
The complexity of this functional task often causes our bodies to figure out different ways to get the job done. Although this adaptation is beneficial, our body can suffer the consequences, especially in our lower back.
In this blog post, I will share what your body needs to touch your toes or deadlift without lower back pain. I will break down the bending forward motion into parts, informing you of the optimal movement patterns to achieve this action. I will give you basic exercises to help you bend forward easier. Let’s start with what your body needs to bend forward to avoid lower back pain.
Posterior Chain Mobility
The back side of your body needs adequate length and control to bend forward. Specifically, your hamstrings and glutes need flexibility as they get stretched and proper control to prevent you from falling forward onto your face.
During this forward motion, your pelvis must be able to roll or flex forward as you hinge at your hips. Your pelvis will have difficulty doing this if your glutes and hamstrings are tight or hold extra tension. This tightness will cause you to compensate and flex more from your lower back. This strain on your lower back is especially evident when you perform repetitive forward folds or bending while holding a heavy load.
It is common to assume your hamstring stiffness is due to muscular tightness. However, the “tightness” you feel can be nervous system tension from a lack of motor control. Here is a simple test you can do to determine if your hamstrings are actually tight.
SLR to Assess Hamstring Tightness
If you discover tight hamstrings or glutes, here are some excellent exercises to improve your flexibility.
Isolated Hamstring Stretch
Suppose your hamstrings are “normal” length yet still feel tight when you bend forward. This likely indicates a lack of glute and core control, which we will discuss in the last section (Lumbopelvic control).
A lack of glute length or excess tension can also limit your ability to bend forward. This glute stiffness often stems from too much or too little hip movement or a lack of core control. Hip internal rotation is commonly limited when bending forward. Try this quick test to assess your hip hip internal rotation.
Seated hip IR test
If you lack hip internal rotation, it may be because your hip external rotators are tight. Perform this stretch as a warm-up before your next workout or daily to help you bend forward easier.
Glute Stretch: Pigeon with rocking
If your hips move well, your glute stiffness may be reflexive tension to protect you because of a lack of glute or core control. We will discuss this further in the last section (Lumbopelvic control).
Anterior Chain Mobility
The anterior chain refers to the muscles along the front of your body, specifically your hip flexors and quadriceps. If either of these muscles is tight or holds excess tension, it alters how your pelvis moves. Your pelvis will be pulled into an anterior tilt, hindering your lower spine's flexibility.
Your spine should naturally flex to a neutral posture when bending forward. Our lower back extensor muscles are often tight when our anterior chain is tight. Our anterior core becomes less effective, causing potential back pain.
Use this test to determine if your anterior chain is tight:
Hip Flexor & Quadriceps Tightness: Thomas Test
Try this exercise to release and stretch your hip flexor and quadriceps muscles:
½ kneel hip flexor and quad stretch
Last but not least is your ability to control your lumbar spine and pelvis. Once you ensure adequate mobility in both your anterior and posterior chains, you must work on controlling your lumbar and pelvic muscles or, more simply, your “core.” Sometimes this is a matter of building strength; other times, it is just practicing a movement you are not used to.
Working on your core can get complicated, and it is common for people to advance their core exercises too quickly. Start with these basics to bend forward and avoid back pain when working on your core.
Pelvic Rocks - Hookly and Cat/Cow
SL Lower with Upper Body Resistance
Touching your toes and deadlifting are simple yet complex movements many of us do several times throughout the week. Performing this movement incorrectly or with compensation can lead to back pain. Taking the time to assess the health of your musculoskeletal system, in other words, how flexible and how much control you have, matters. This is especially important if you touch your toes or participate in lifting activities often.
At Juniper Physical Therapy & Fitness, we are certified in a functional movement system that can accurately assess your musculoskeletal health and movement patterns. This well-researched system provides a score and a report of your current movement status. We then use that information to prescribe corrective exercises that improve your movement. Having this information can genuinely save your body from future injury. It can keep you moving well and feeling good, enabling you to do all the things you love.
Curious about what your musculoskeletal health looks like? If you are local to the Manitowoc, WI area, click HERE to schedule your "Injury Risk and Movement Evaluation" or free "Phone consult for therapy" today. We will gladly get you started or describe it further and answer all your questions.