June 4, 2023

Woman lying on her back on a yoga mat with knees up and feet together

If you’re looking to add some oblique-focused exercises to your workout routine, heel touches (which you might also know as alternating heel taps) may be the answer. Don’t be fooled by how simple the movement looks: This mighty exercise packs a lot of punch by enlisting multiple muscles across the trunk which, when working together, can improve flexibility by encouraging movement along the spine as well as promoting stability in the lower back. In general, exercises targeting the obliques also activate the hip flexor muscles, which provide support and strength to the lower body, more than abdominal crunches and planks.

Ahead, discover everything you need to know about heel touches, from proper form to common modifications, straight from personal trainers Cat Kom and Jessica Soliz.


What Are Heel Touches?

Heel touches activate most of the primary muscles throughout your midsection, Kom tells us: “This includes your obliques, upper and lower abs, transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis (six-pack area), and even your posture muscles along the spine.”

Specifically designed to help tone and sculpt your waistline, this versatile exercise is suitable for all fitness levels. While lying on a mat with just your body weight to work with, the movement requires you to reach and alternate taps toward each heel. You’ll feel your obliques squeezing and quivering more with each touch.

Benefits of Heel Touches

Even beyond firing up the obliques, heel touches have many benefits for building strength and feeling better overall. Here’s a few perks you can expect from the exercise:

  • Tone and shape the abs: “Although it might seem obvious, heel touches are great for hitting not only the obliques, but also the deep abdominal muscles,” Kom says. And the stronger you are in this region, the more primed and ready your core is to power through challenging workouts.
  • Increase overall core strength: Heel touches work your stabilizing and mobilizing muscles, which is excellent for toning and strengthening the back. This is one piece of the puzzle when it comes to building a stronger midsection, which in turn helps with injury prevention.
  • Can help with back pain: “They increase the strength of the back muscles as you suppress your spine and engage your core all the way down to your mid and lower back,” Kom explains. In strengthening these supporting muscles, you’re also decreasing the likelihood of an injury in the region.
  • Lead to better posture: If you pay attention to your form while performing this exercise, Kom says you can expect to strengthen and elongate key posture muscles along the back, extending into your neck. This is because as the transversus abdominal muscles become stronger, your body can experience an adjustment in posture.

Proper Heel Touch Form

To get you started, Soliz breaks down the steps of how to do heel touches with proper form below.

  1. Lying on a flat surface, let your body relax with your feet flat on the ground and your knees (facing the ceiling) bent at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Keeping your arms out by your side, raise your upper back ever so slightly to engage the abdominal muscles. Keep the lower back fairly flush to the ground, tucking in your tailbone and keeping your chin up with a relaxed neck.
  3. Rotate your midsection to reach your right hand toward the outside of your right heel. Return to the starting position, rest, then move to the next side.
  4. Keep your abs braced and maintain a steady breathing pattern of inhaling when centered and exhaling when tapping the outside of each heel.
  5. Check that you’re not hunched forward by keeping your chest lifted and your movement in a horizontal line.
  6. Alternate back and forth for the desired number of reps.

Important to note: “You may not be able to actually touch your heel, which is totally fine—what’s crucial is to work within your own body’s mobility to help avoid injury,” Soliz explains. “So if you can’t reach the heel, don’t force it—just reach toward it for the best results.”

How to Modify

If you’re just getting started and prefer to ease into the exercise, you can modify heel touches by following the same steps as above but lifting your legs up into a reverse tabletop position to better support your lower back, then reaching to where your heels would be if on the floor.

Alternatively, you can challenge your obliques even further by lifting your heels an inch off the ground or walking your feet away from your butt. Feel free to try both to keep the move interesting and see what works best for you.

Heel Touches vs. Russian Twists

Similar to heel touches, Russian twists hone in on your obliques, core muscles, hip flexors, and more. “This is another effective exercise to boost your core strength,” Kom says. “However, I would first recommend heel taps over Russian twists as the former isolates the core muscles, making it harder to ‘cheat’ by recruiting assisting muscles.”

Although they are a useful exercise for your oblique repertoire, Kom says to be wary if you’re at a more beginner fitness level: You will need to build the foundation strength in your core before attempting Russian twists.

Safety Considerations

Although heel touches are generally safe to perform, you should keep the following in mind before trying them, especially if it’s your first time having a go at the exercise. As part of the movement requires you to hold the rectus abdominis in place, it’s important not to add unnecessary tension to your neck by tucking your chin down, Kom says: “If your neck starts to feel tight or uncomfortable, take a break, then start again with your neck in a neutral position.” Alternatively, you can slow down the movement and focus on quality over quantity. Another common issue is improper breathing, which can cut off the vital supply of oxygen to your muscles during any exercise, Kom adds.

In order to avoid any type of injury, especially in the lower back, make sure to execute heel touches with proper technique and form, which will also enhance the effectiveness of the movement. Of course, if you’re already managing lower back pain or an injury—be that acute or chronic—avoid heel touches until speaking to your healthcare provider, and when you’re ready to give them a try, proceed with caution.

The Final Takeaway

Heel touches activate muscles including your obliques and upper and lower abs. They can also help you tone and shape your abs, increase your overall core strength, and alleviate back pain. Although they are generally safe to perform, make sure you are executing them with proper form—and if you’re managing lower back pain or an injury, consult with your healthcare provider before adding heel touches (or any new move) to your routine.