When it comes to effective yet simple core training, there are few exercises that compare to the classic heel touch.
Despite the accessibility and lack of required equipment, heel touches are an invaluable tool for strengthening the oblique muscles alongside the abs. To find out how best to take advantage of this bodyweight abs exercise, continue reading.
But if you just want the short version: heel touches are a calisthenic exercise meant to train the muscles of the core. They are performed with the lifter lying on their back as they bend to one side, touching the heel with their fingers before switching to the opposite side.
What are Heel Touches?
In a more technical sense, heel touches are classified as a single-joint isolation exercise primarily performed for high volume sets due to the inherently low intensity and minimal impact of each repetition.
Heel touches are most often employed as an accessory exercise for individuals without access or the desire to perform more intense core exercises – although they can also serve as an excellent rehabilitation tool, in the correct circumstances.
While many lifters may opt to perform core exercises that include further resistance or greater dynamic contraction of the abdominal muscles, heel touches are particularly effective at targeting the oblique muscles, and are easily incorporated into a core training drill or warm-up protocol.
Who Should Do Heel Touches?
Heel touches are relatively simplistic and come with a low risk of injury – meaning that even complete novice exercisers can perform them.
How to do Heel Touches
To perform a repetition of heel touches, the lifter will lie on their back with their knees drawn upwards and the spine kept in a neutral position.
Engaging the core muscles, the lifter will curl at the upper back and bend to the side, reaching one hand towards the heel on the same side of the body as they do so.
Once reaching the limits of their mobility, the lifter will repeat the motion with the opposite side, ensuring that the core remains contracted throughout the movement. Once both sides have been worked, the repetition is considered to be complete.
What Muscles Do Heel Touches Work?
Heel touches are primarily an isolation exercise, and as such only truly work a single group of muscles at a time – that being those of the core.
In particular, it is the external and internal obliques that bear the brunt of the exercise’s resistance, and are the main focus of the exercise.
What are the Benefits of Doing Heel Touches?
Asides from the more subtle benefits of general exercise, heel touches are also capable of providing further benefits specific to its nature as a core exercise – improving the function of the muscles therein both within and outside of an athletic context.
Stronger Core Musculature
Regularly performing heel touches for high volume can result in the muscles of the core becoming taxed in both a dynamic and isometric manner – resulting in subsequent improvements in core strength alongside the other physical improvements seen with having a stronger core.
Accessible to All
Heel touches are among the most simplistic and low-impact core exercises available. In combination with its general lack of needed equipment, this makes it accessible to all individuals that are healthy and mobile enough to perform them.
Emphasis on the Obliques
The obliques are a set of muscles located on either side of the waist, and are largely responsible for allowing lateral movement of the torso alongside general stabilization of the entire upper body.
They are too often a neglected muscle group due to the scarcity of isolation exercises that directly target them, and as such makes heel touches particularly useful for reinforcing this particular section of the core muscles.
For the best results, heel touches may be combined with exercises that target the obliques in an isometric manner, such as with bodyweight planks.
Improved Posture and Bodily Control
The muscles of the core play a major role in maintaining proper posture and moving the torso at the waist – two factors that are reinforced with regular performance of heel touches, as they will not only train the necessary musculature, but also improve general stability and mobility in the same areas as well.
Improved Stability and Mobility
Heel touches involve a relatively wide range of motion for the waist and its ensuing musculature. When combined with its low impact nature and capacity for high volume, this improves not only the strength and stability of the core muscles, but also improves their mobility as well.
Greater mobility of the core muscles will reduce the risk of injury when performing actions that involve a significant stretching motion of the upper body, and will ensure that muscular isometric contraction remains effective, even when in a relatively disadvantageous position.
Common Heel Touch Mistakes
Although the heel touch is a relatively simple and safe exercise, there are a few mistakes that are commonly made, even by more experienced athletes.
Avoiding the following problems is the best way to create a safe and effective ab workout.
Bending Too Little
A full range of motion equates to a full host of benefits, and the heel touch is no exception.
In order to get the deepest and most intense level of core contraction from the exercise, the lifter should strive to bend to the limits of their mobility, touch or nearly-touching their heels with their fingers before doing so with the opposite side of the body.
For individuals who cannot bend to such a degree – it is entirely fine. So long as their core musculature is being worked to an intense level, the heel touch remains an effective exercise.
Failing to Contract Core
The entire purpose of heel touches is to train the muscles of the core, and as such failing to properly contract them throughout each repetition will negate many of the benefits of the exercise.
Throughout the entire movement, the lifter should focus on properly contracting their core and squeezing their oblique muscles as they bend to the sides, ensuring that a full length of time under tension is being created throughout the set.
Poor Upper Spine Neutrality
Although less common than other mistakes, failing to maintain proper cervical spine positioning can unnecessarily strain the muscles of the upper back – or even the spine itself.
Throughout each set of heel touches, the lifter should avoid excessively tucking their chin or bending the head to the side as they bend at the torso. If strain or pressure is felt in the neck or the upper back, it is best for the lifter to reset their stance and attempt the exercise with proper spinal neutrality in mind.
Heel Touches Variations and Alternatives
For lifters who find the heel touch to be uncomfortable or otherwise unsuitable for their needs, there are a few other core exercises with a similar focus on the obliques – or the same partially unilateral nature.
1. Plank Shoulder Taps
Although not quite as dynamic or oblique-focused as heel touches, plank shoulder taps feature similar aspects like isometric core contraction and unilateral movement of the body as the abs are firmly tensed.
While this has admittedly niche applications in athletics, plank shoulder taps can allow lifters to better focus on building up core endurance and stability than heel touches – all while also challenging their coordination.
2. Side Planks
For greater isometric contraction of the obliques, side planks are the perfect alternative to heel touches – especially in cases where core stability is an issue for the lifter.
Like regular planks, side planks are performed with the lifter staying in a disadvantageous position and contracting their core muscles so as to keep the body rigid. Unlike with regular planks, side planks involve the lifter lying with their side pointing towards the floor, and as such will recruit the muscles of the obliques to a greater extent.
3. Bicycle Crunches
For an exercise even more dynamic and rigorous than heel touches, lifters may wish to try out bicycle crunches.
Bicycle crunches feature a similarly one-side-at-a-time movement pattern and significant dynamic contraction of the obliques – making them not only an alternative to heel touches, but potentially a progression exercise due to their greater intensity.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
How Many Heel Touches Should I Do?
Because of the variability between individual exercisers, it can be hard to give a specific number that is meant for all.
Instead, you will want to aim for a number of repetitions that place you almost at the point of muscular failure, but stop just short of it. A good burn should be felt in the abs, but without exhaustion causing poor form.
Are Heel Touches and Heel Taps the Same?
Yes – both heel touches and heel taps refer to the same exercise, where the lifter will lie on their back and bend at the torso so as to reach one hand towards the heels of the same side.
Do Heel Touches Make Your Waist Smaller?
In truth, it is unlikely any sort of exercise will make your waist smaller, as the main method of shrinking waist circumference is by being in a state of caloric deficit – or what is otherwise known as going on a diet.
It is entirely possible for heel touches to firm up the waist, improving its muscular definition and the physical capabilities of the muscles therein.
Heel touches are a safe and effective way of getting your core work in – but don’t forget to also include other exercises in your workout plan as well.
Remember that heel touches are only as effective as you allow them to be, and that it is important to complete a full range of motion with each repetition so as to build strong and muscular abs.
If you are unsure of how to go about programming or performing the exercise correctly, it’s a good idea to ask a professional athletic coach.
1. Dong, Kuan et al. “Effects of Core Training on Sport-Specific Performance of Athletes: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.” Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 13,2 148. 9 Feb. 2023, doi:10.3390/bs13020148