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Full disclosure here, folks: I first became interested in proprioception because it sounds like something you’s find in an X-Men comic book. And while the realities of proprioception may not be quite as impressive as Magneto’s psychic command of the electromagnetic spectrum, human proprioceptive capacities are still seriously cool. More importantly, proprioception is a vital element in cultivating functional movement patterns during exercise and every day life. So let’s take it from the top: What is proprioception?
Proprioception: The cumulative sensory input to the central nervous system from all mechanoreceptors that sense position and limb movements...[p]roprioception uses information from the mechanoreceptors (muscle spindle, Golgi tendon organ, and joint receptors) to provide information about body position, movement, and sensation as it pertains to muscle and joint force. Proprioception is a vital source of information that the nervous system uses to gather information about the environment to produce the most efficient movement. -NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training, 4th Edition, p.100
If you’ll permit me to paraphrase a bit, proprioception is our ability to experience our bodies’ position and spacial movement. The geographic origin of this functional capacity is not located in one isolated bodily region, but takes place via the interconnected feedback of a number of different tissues and organs.
The proprioceptive sense is believed to be composed of information from sensory neurons located in the inner ear (motion and orientation) and in the stretch receptors located in the muscles and the joint-supporting ligaments (stance). There are specific nerve receptors for this form of perception termed “proprioreceptors,” just as there are specific receptors for pressure, light, temperature, sound, and other sensory experiences. Proprioreceptors are sometimes known as adequate stimuli receptors. TRPN, a member of the transient receptor potential family of ion channels, has been found to be responsible for proprioception in fruit flies, nematode worms, African clawed frogs, and zebrafish. The human proprioceptor has yet to be discovered. –From the wikipedia page on proprioception.
There are some good options out there for proprioceptive training modalities, but my personal favorite is using a stability ball (Swiss ball) to augment a simple exercise. By performing exercises in a proprioceptively enriched environment, we can develop our command of sensory input while stabilizing our core and extremities through the completion of various different movements. For example, a standard isometric exercise like a prone plank can be proprioceptively progressed by placing the forearms on a stability ball. Or if we want to add a proprioceptive element to an exercise with concentric and eccentric movements, we can do stability ball push-ups, stability ball chest presses, and a host of great core and leg exercises.
If you’re working with a personal trainer, I highly recommend discussing the benefits of proprioceptive training modalities and exploring what options would fit best into your fitness program. This is an essential attribute for prolonged functional strength, stability, and avoiding injury. Also, these exercises are fun, as you are playing with big plastic spheres (obviously). Any superhero or ninja activities you might have planned will greatly benefit from proprioceptive training, and you might surprise yourself with your own capacity for balance and physical perception. Also, extremely beneficial for combat athletes, and many have contributed some great ideas to these training methods. Here’s a short clip from Frank Shamrock’s MMA for Dummies where he does some introductory ball work. Be safe and enjoy!