If you can remember the first time you learned some kind of coordinated movement, such as dancing or martial arts, you may have experienced a difficulty in copying the instructor. You see what they are doing, and you are cueing your body to do the same, but your body’s expression of it is very different than what you think you’re doing. The instructor may suggest a correction and you think “I know, that’s what I’m telling my body to do!” It takes great concentration to get all the parts into the right position. Maybe when you are looking in the mirror and correcting your end-position you can manage to fix everything but when you try to do it at a natural speed, or don’t have that visual reference, it’s hard to coordinate everything properly. The translation between your mental image, and what your body is doing is your proprioception.
Proprioceptors are the sensors that give you a sense of where your body is in space. These sensors are what relay to your brain information about joint angles, muscle length, and tension, which translate to the accuracy between your mental image of your body and its actual position. Proprioception is the sense of body awareness.
We all have a basic sense of proprioception without even needing to be aware of it, but we can cultivate and refine this sense. When you see a graceful dancer or a competent athlete, the poise and control you see, and the ability to precisely contort their bodies in action to elicit high-levels of movement, what you are seeing is a level of proprioception that has been deeply developed.
Everyone can develop their proprioception, and this sense is largely responsible for your agility and balance, which means the higher your level of proprioception, the less likely you are to trip, slip, or fall in daily life and physical activities.
Proprioceptive sensors are found in the skin, fascia, muscles, tendons, and joints, which means a loss in proprioceptive awareness can affect your reflexes as well as your general ability to move your body.
An experiment you can do right now involves putting your foot flat on the ground and raising only your big toe. Now lower your big toe and raise the other toes. Now keep your toes on the ground and raise your big toe and pinky toe. Try this without looking at your toes and feel how challenging it is to coordinate this. Even if you can do this on your first try, you probably have to put a lot of awareness into this action. Your limitation is probably a mix of a lack of motor control, as well as proprioceptive awareness. If you found this easier with your eyes open, the difference is probably the visual input supplementing the lack of proprioceptive awareness.
Athletes and dancers are examples of people who have developed a high level of proprioceptive awareness. Accident-prone individuals are examples of people who have underdeveloped proprioceptive awareness. People with certain illnesses or injuries can experience a resulting deterioration of proprioceptive awareness. Everyone can employ exercises to help cultivate proprioception, and everyone benefits from an enhancement of quality of life as a result.
Proprioception and motor learning develop in tandem, which means your awareness is enhanced when you practice certain movements, and your movements are enhanced when you develop your awareness. This means mindful practice of movement is the most beneficial. Think, going for a run and spending your time examining your form as you exercise, rather than just spacing out and fantasizing about something while you run.
Training that challenges our balance and equilibrium make for good proprioceptive exercises. Balancing practice is an excellent way to develop proprioceptive awareness along with motor learning. This can involve just standing on one leg and reaching in different directions with your arms and free foot, or getting a 2x4 and practicing a balancing walk. If your balance is a bit shaky you might want to do this kind of thing next to a wall so that you have something to lean against if you do lose your footing.
Strength training exercises also help build proprioceptive awareness. Going to the gym and sitting at a machine is not going to have the same effect as bodyweight training exercises that involve using your entire body. Standing exercises, or exercises that transition to a standing position (such as a Turkish Get Up) are going to involve a lot more proprioceptive awareness than sitting in a chair and doing chest flys. When it comes to preventing falls and developing stability during daily life activities, strengthening exercises that target the knee joints and ankle stability are going to be more effective.
Heavy weights are not necessary for these benefits, and moving through these ranges of motion are the most important part when it comes to development of proprioception. Simply practicing different techniques of getting up from and down to the ground are the most helpful in this regard. Static holds, where you maintain a position with proper form for a long time, relies very much on your ability to sense your body position, and more so are a good indicator of our current level of proprioceptive awareness.
Natural Movement training involves learning how to better coordinate movements that are innate to all humans. This can involve plyometric exercises such as vertical jumps, throwing objects, and changing directions during running patterns. Natural movements also involve mundane activities such as stepping over or under obstacles while walking, hopping across a small gap, walking up a set of steps, getting up and down from a chair, and anything else you can think of that you do on a daily basis. Stimulating these patterns as part of an exercise routine is great, but when it comes to the actions you do in your daily life, bringing awareness to them when they come up throughout the day is a great way to develop your proprioceptive awareness outside of the confines of your training sessions. Bringing awareness to the way your move in daily life takes the improvements you make during exercise sessions and programs them as your “default settings”.
Proprioceptive training is a massive part of injury prevention. This is the part of injury prevention that makes you less likely to trip or slip, enhances your reflexes and reaction, and also allows you to catch yourself before getting to the point where you have no choice but to fall.
In the Natural Mobility Injury Prevention program, we combine proprioceptive training to improve balance and coordination, joint conditioning to make the body more resilient, and Ukemi safe-falling techniques to improve our relationship to the ground and actually learn how to fall properly without incurring injury.