Chances are you have heard the concept of “mind/body training” or “mind/muscle awareness”. The idea of establishing a better connection between the brain and spinal cord (where sensory inputs via what we feel, see, and sense come in and signals to initiate movement go out) and the muscles (which create movement) has become increasingly popular over the last five years. The term “proprioception” has been adopted to describe this connection and the body’s innate ability to determine its position in space and coordinate movement effectively. The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) defines proprioception as “the cumulative sensory input to the central nervous system from all mechanoreceptors that sense body position and limb movement.”
So why is it critical for fitness professionals and gym-goers to understand the concept of proprioception? And why do the body’s proprioceptive mechanisms need to be trained? Here are six key points that illustrate the significance of proprioception and explain the concept in more detail.
1.) To quickly have a more comprehensive understanding of what proprioception is, do this little exercise as you read this blog post. Sit or stand nice and tall with good posture. Keep your eyes focused on these words and extend your arms straight up in the air over head. Now, without looking up, point your index fingers on both hands towards one another and try to touch your fingertips together directly over head.
How did you do? Did you touch your fingertips together on the first try? Or did it take two or three attempts before you got it? Now try again, but this time, look up and let your vision guide you.
Much easier with your eyes helping out, right?
What you just experienced is your body’s proprioceptive systems at work. On your first few attempts with this little exercise, you did not rely on your vision to guide the movement of your limbs and fingers overhead. Instead, you relied on your body’s proprioceptive mechanisms (collectively referred to as “proprioceptors”) to intuitively tell you where your limbs were positioned in space, the speed at which they were moving towards one another, and the angles at which they were positioned.
2.) Proprioceptors are sensory receptors located throughout your body – in your skin, muscles, tendons, and even in your joints. There are many subdomains of proprioceptors such as mechanoreceptors and chemoreceptors, but for the context of this blog post, just know that there are lots of these little receptors constantly communicating with one another to tell you where your body is positioned in space. These receptors are continuously delivering information to your brain and spinal cord via sensory neurons to help provide you with an intuitive “body map.” allowing you to “sense” your position at all times, even without major senses like vision or touch.
3.) Try this: first, stand up tall and try to balance on one foot. Got it? Now, do the same thing, but this time, keep your eyes closed. (Liability waiver: we are not responsible if you fall over and hurt yourself, lol!).
Removing your sense of sight eliminated a major sensory or feedback mechanism your body uses to determine its position in space. Along with what we see, what we feel (our sense of touch) and what we gather through our proprioceptive mechanisms collectively gives our body the feedback it needs to produce motor command and movement. See this graphic for a better understanding:
4.) Human movement is produced by two major pathways, in this order:
1. Information comes in based on what we feel, see, and sense, and
2. Movement is produced as a result of the information coming in (our body reacts or responds to the stimuli).
Lots of this happens subconsciously, and as long as we are awake, these pathways are turned on and working. Of course there are exceptions, but this is generally the case.
5.) So why the heck is it important that we train our proprioceptive systems? First, do you remember the old adage, “if you don’t use it, you lose it?” Well, this is the case with our body’s proprioceptive systems. Sitting and remaining sedentary for extended periods of time has been shown to actually weaken or dampen our proprioceptors. Second, aging has lots of negative physiological effects on the body, and one of them is the weakening of our proprioceptive abilities. This is a large reason why adults have issues with balance and coordination as they get older. Overall, regardless of whether or not our proprioception is diminished through a sedentary lifestyle or by age, a weakened mind/muscle awareness system drastically impacts health, fitness and vitality. Balance abilities are weakened, coordination suffers, muscles get weaker and the risk for getting injured during daily activities or sport increases.
6.) Finally, HOW do we train for better proprioception (or mind/body awareness)? The good news is, it’s simple. Just moving “turns on” all of the proprioceptive systems, so at the very minimum, being active in any way can help preserve your proprioception. Resistance training and engaging in drills that require more thought and coordination (like agility drills with cones) also will preserve and build proprioception. Lately, more attention in the fitness and physical therapy industries has been given to fitness tools that force users to react to changing stimuli. BOSU balls and stability balls are common examples. Reacting to the ever-changing stimuli forces proprioceptive mechanisms to react and stabilize the body as the external environment is always changing. ActivMotion Bars are also becoming go-to tools for fitness professionals and Physical Therapists. ActivMotion Bars are hollow and partially filled with weighted ball bearings that shift dynamically when the bar is lifted. The shifting mass of the bars produces a stimulus that users feel and hear, further heightening body awareness as they attempt to stabilize the shifting mass and keep the bar parallel. The bars can also be used to purposely put the body off center. By tipping the bar to one side, all the weight shifts with gravity to the down end. This simulates the loss of balance in a safe and functional way, forcing the user to react to regain stability. ActivMotion Bars are used by world renowned organizations for training proprioception, including the MAYO Clinic, Functional Aging Institute, National Academy of Sports Medicine, and hundreds of physical therapy and corrective exercise institutions across the U.S.
Derek Mikulski, BS, CSCS, CPT, SFS
Founder, ActivMotion Bar