Toe Touching / Flopping Over

Toe-touching, "flopping over", flat backs, sitting stretches, ploughs - everyone does them so what is the problem?

Thereís two parts to the answer. First, you risk slow insidious permanent damage and second these exercises have limited benefit.

Toe touching / flopping over

Take toe-touching. As an exercise to stretch the hamstrings it simply does not work. What you feel is the muscle working not stretching. Muscles simply do not stretch while working. Thatís just how muscles are. Itís a basic reflex.

Many people use "flopping over" (that is the same position as a toe touch but more relaxed) as a way of "stretching out the back". But in this position the posterior spinal muscles are actually contracted (which you can feel by placing your hands either side of the spine).

This same position is sometimes done sitting. Even worse with the arms reaching out. This increases the effective strain on the back due to lever effects.

The plough

Flat backs and the plough are interesting ones. These are standard for a given population. I can hear people saying that their yoga teacher does the plough and s/heís fine. Yes, but if s/heís still teaching after x years then s/he probably learnt to do it correctly and has the right physical configuration to be able to do it safely. If s/he had problems s/he would have dropped out years ago. The problem is in a belly dance class you get a wide range of people. Most of whom cannot cope safely.

Well, what are the problems?

Disc strain

Many exercises designed to make the spine "supple" cause disc strain Ė and often donít actually improve the flexibility of the back as it will tend to preferentially bend in the same place every time.

bending discs

The discs between your vertebrae work best when the spine is vertically aligned. If the load is uneven the disc can bulge. The amount of force on the disc depends how far you are off center and the length of the weight. Toe touching uses the length of your torso as a lever. A flat back with an extended arm also adds the weight of the arm multiplied by the length of the arm.

If your muscles are in tip top condition then the back muscles can hold the disc in place. But people who slump about Ė or who are suffering the effects of aging and gravity -Ėare not likely to be able to do so for long.

Itís bending over when fatigued that things really go wrong. Over time this abuse of the disc can lead to degeneration and drying, cracking of the annulus, and leaking of fluid from the nucleus. You need your disc to function well. Donít age it any faster than you need to by abusing it.

Ligament Damage

Ligaments are not strong enough to resist extreme forward bending. Ligaments donít stretch they tear. This will probably not hurt at the time. When they heal they will be longer (Hey, now I can put my palms flat on the floor and bend my elbows!) and they will be weaker leading to further tearing.

On a young fit body the existing muscle will hold everything in place. If you have an injury which leads to pain and muscle atrophy or as you age and lose muscle tone, then there may be too much movement in the vertebrae. Then you get pain. And then it is too late. (With hard work and bio-feedback you can retrain the muscles but you have to keep doing it)

In extreme cases it can lead to swelling which impinges on the nerves (sciatica) or even herniated disc.

Safe Practice

Avoid toe-touching, "flopping over", flat backs, sitting stretches, ploughs, etc whenever possible.

Give your back a rest by keeping your pelvis in neutral whenever possible (not just in dance class).

Limbering that affects spinal curvature should be done without load on the discs.

Stretching of hamstrings should be done with the knees bent and the load off the legs.
Here are some safe stretches

Build muscle strength and control of posture muscles both abdominal and in the back.


Calais-Germain, B. & Lamotte , A (1993), Anatomy of Movement - Exercises, Seattle, WA: Eastland Press
Michael Dalgleish, workshops and consultations, 1997-2003
Seiger et al (1998) Fitness and wellness strategies, 2nd edition, Boston, Mass. : WCB/McGraw-Hill
St George, F. (1989) The Muscle Fitness Book Brookvale, NSW: Simon Schuster
St George, F. (1994) The Stretching Handbook Brookvale, NSW: Simon Schuster
Stark, SD (1999) The Stark Reality of Stretching, 4th edition, Richmond, BC: The Stark Reality Corp

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