Written by Hannah Dykstra

Have you ever wondered how gymnasts and dancers move so gracefully and seemingly effortless? The nature of both of these sports is all about positions. These athletes spend a significant amount of time in proper positions, thus developing proprioception or the unconscious ability to perform routines within these patterns.

Proprioception or “sense of self” refers to proprioceptors which are sensors that provide information about a joint angle, muscle length and muscle tension to the brain. This information provides the brains cognitive awareness about the position of a joint or limb in space at any given time.

Proprioception and the ability to detect motion through space is a form of body ownership. Research shows that the brain doesn’t require visual input for body ownership – this is illustrated in the fact that you can reach two fingers behind your head and touch them together without seeing, or how someone who is visually impaired can still coordinate essential movements. The brain-body connection is best understood as an organization of maps. Just as lines on a map represent roads, proprioceptors represent a road for information to travel to a certain area. These maps are built via consistent movement over a period of time.

When a certain body movement pattern is performed in a coordinated and mindful fashion, there are physical, observable changes to the area of the brain that controls that body part.
If the “maps” in the body are constantly confused through unconscious and improper movement, these signals will become confused. When these signals are disoriented we develop compensation, meaning our brain channels muscles and joints to move in positions that they aren’t supposed to due to a lack of proprioception of the correct area. For example, if a person lacks proprioception in their glutes, their brain may tell the back to compensate. This may eventually lead to injury, chronic or acute.

Do you have good proprioception? Here’s some ways to test it out:

Exercises that challenge balance and equilibrium can help teach your brain to control the position of a deficient joint. The best way to develop this balance in on an uneven surface such as a body ball or balance board. If that’s too advanced, a soft surface such as carpet or a thin mat can substitute.

‘Blind’ Exercise
The ability to trust your muscles and spacial awareness through joints is very important in terms of communication from the brain. The more you can trust your proprioception, the more the brain will become familiar and feel “safe” in positions and movements. To develop this trust, perform balancing and strengthening exercises with your eyes closed.

Strength and Plyometrics
Once you master correct positions, add an external load to strengthen those positions, specifically in a unilateral fashion. Examples such as single leg split squats or single arm bench press performed controlled and with weight.

Bulgarian Split Squats are a great exercise to work unilateral strength and awareness.

After strengthening with external load, apply correct coordination and movement patterns that will enhance kinesthetic awareness for every day activities and performance. Vertical jumps, lateral hops, ladder drill and pivot movements are great exercises to develop proprioceptive plyometric movements.

So…how well do you know yourself?