Why we stretch the toes

by | Aug 20, 2023 | General Stretching

At StretchFit, we stretch the feet! Generally clients are surprised by this quite legitimate practice, often commenting that “they’ve never done this before!” I must admit that in my younger days, I didn’t either.

Of course, as we age, for better or for worse, we become more closely acquainted with our bodies. It’s the old “squeaky hinge gets the oil” story.When you’re young, your feet tend not to squeak. So, you don’t give them much attention. But when that pedometer hits the 1-million-mile mark, they need regular servicing!

Walking and quality of life

The ability to walk, or “ambulation” as its technically know, is absolutely essential to one’s freedom and quality of life. And it turns out that flexibility in the big toe is essential to a sound “gait cycle,” the name given to the study of phasic walking motion and ambulation. Patla eloquently expressed the importance of ambulation in our lives: “Nothing epitomizes a level of independence and our perception of a good quality of life more than the ability to travel independently under our own power from one place to another. (Patla:144. Patla A: A framework for understanding mobility problems in the elderly. In Craik RL, Oatis CA, editors: Gait analysis: theory and application, St Louis, 1995, Mosby. 145.)

In this short article we are going to look at the importance of stretching the feet, in particular the big toe. Without too much detail, lets look at some reasons to stretch the toes and then some stretches that you can try in the studio or at home.

Why stretch the toes, in particular, the big toe?

Flexibility in the big toe plays a crucial role in the gait cycle due to its involvement in “toe-off”. The gait cycle refers to the sequence of movements that occur during walking or running, consisting of two main phases: the stance phase and the swing phase. As you will read below, “toe off” marks the beginning of the swing phase where the leg swings forward for the next step.

Image A the Gait Cycle from Neumann, Donald A.. Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System– E-Book (p. 628). Elsevier Health Sciences. Kindle Edition. (see below for additional images)

Entire books have been written on the gait cycle, and indeed it is vastly more complex than one images. Major topics in the study of gait, or ambulation include:

  • Spatial and temporal descriptors
  • Control of the body’s centre of mass
  • Joint kinematics
  • Energy expenditure
  • Muscle activity
  • Walking kinetics

During the stance phase, the foot makes contact with the ground and supports the body’s weight. As the body moves forward, the weight shifts from the heel to the forefoot, and eventually, the toes bear the load. This transition is known as toe-off, marking the beginning of the swing phase where the leg swings forward for the next step.

Flexibility in the big toe, specifically in its extension (dorsiflexion) and flexion (plantarflexion) movements, is essential during toe-off. The big toe acts as a lever, providing propulsion and stability during push-off. The kinematics of this is described in greater detail below, in footnote 1.

Here’s why flexibility in the big toe matters


Image B Toe extension, called dorsiflexion, and flexion, or plantar flexion

  1. Propulsion: During toe-off, as the body weight transfers from the stance leg to the swinging leg, the big toe extends, (called extension, or more accurately dorsiflexion, see image B) helping to push the foot off the ground and generate forward propulsion. This extension movement contributes to the effectiveness and efficiency of walking or running.
  1. Stability and Balance: The big toe assists in maintaining stability and balance during the gait cycle. It helps in weight distribution, preventing excessive rolling or tilting of the foot, especially during the late stance phase when the body weight is primarily supported by the forefoot.
  1. Shock Absorption: The flexibility of the big toe aids in absorbing shock when the foot makes initial contact with the ground in the following step. It allows the toe to adapt to uneven surfaces, changes in terrain, or variations in gait patterns, reducing the impact on the rest of the foot and lower limb.
  1. Toe Clearance: Adequate flexibility in the big toe also contributes to sufficient toe clearance during the swing phase. This clearance ensures that the toe does not catch or drag on the ground, avoiding potential trips or falls.

In Summary

Overall, flexibility in the big toe is important for efficient propulsion, stability, balance, shock absorption, and toe clearance during the gait cycle. Any limitations in the range of motion or flexibility of the big toe can affect these functions, potentially leading to gait abnormalities, decreased efficiency, and increased risk of injuries.

How to stretch the toes

Below are some stretches for the toes and feet divided into flexion and extension. The stretches that you see without equipment are taken from our book titled “StretchFit, safe effective stretching for every body” on Amazon books.

Flexion/Plantar flexion Toe Flexion

Extensors and Dorsiflexors


  • Clasp ankle and foot as pictured
  • Stabilise ankle
  • Press toes and top of forefoot down


  • Press toes up into hand

Major muscles stretched


Tibialis anterior Extensor hallicus

Extensor digitorum


  • Bend toes further downwards towards sole of foot
  • Explore one toe at a time


This second stretch is performed at almost every session in our studio classes.

Our unique slant boards, designed and manufactured by us, can be purchased from us.

Standing Toe Flexion with Box

    • Standard: Any • Muscle Emphasis: Toe extensors, anterior comparment.
      1. How to stretch


  • Place dorsal metatarsals into slot.
  • Try to straighten leg to POT
  1. How to contract
  • Press toes up into pad.


  1. How to restretch
    • Try to straighten leg that is stretching.


  1. How to restretch
    • Lean backwards and bend other knee.

Seated Toe Extension

Flexors Group


  • Clasp foot as pictured and bend toes backwards towards top of foot



  • Press toes down into hand


  • Bend toes further backwards
  • Explore one toe at a time

Major muscles stretched

Intrinsic muscles of foot

Standing Toe Extension

    • Standard: Any • Muscle Emphasis: Flexors of toes




A & B. How to stretch

      • Stand on slant board and place some body weight onto metatarsophalangeal joints (“balls” of feet).
      • Lean forward to POT.

A & B. How to contract

      • Press toes down into slant board (toe flexion).
      • To restretch, lift heel and place more weight onto toes.

A Note on Anatomy

The foot is incredibly complex. Anatomically is consists of approximately 26 bones, 33 joints and numerous layers of muscles. It has intrinsic muscles which originate and insert within the foot itself and are involved in controlling toe movements, arch support, and maintaining foot alignment.

It also has extrinsic muscles which originate from the leg and have tendons that pass through the foot, enabling movement and support. Examples include the gastrocnemius, tibialis anterior, peroneus longus, and flexor hallucis longus.

Consequently, the sensations that you feel when stretching the regions will vary. You may be stretching joints and their capsules, intrinsic and or extrinsic muscles, and several layers of fascia. As always, stretch to the point of mild tension and hold for up to 2 minutes.


Image C shows the some of the extrinsic muscles of the dorsum (top) of the foot.


Image D shows some of the intrinsic muscles of the dorsum (top) of the foot.


Additional images for geeks!

From Neumann, Donald A.. Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System – E-Book (p. 628). Elsevier Health Sciences. Kindle Edition.

StretchFit Studio offers specialized stretching services.

To find a studio near you check out their website