Dr. Korey Jay, BSc DC
Have you ever watched a sport, act or event that left you wondering How did he/she do that?! Athletes, performers and the like are able to seemingly defy the laws of gravity and physics in a manner that appears superhuman. The Olympics in particular is a showcase for such acts, as we all witness amazing achievements in the fields of human excellence on a daily basis for two full weeks. While there are many factors contributing to the abilities of these athletes, one factor that I feel does not receive the respect it deserves is proprioception.
Proprioception is the brain’s ability to sense where it is in time and space, and to communicate this information to the rest of the body in an efficient and effective manner. Several regions and structures of the brain and spinal cord are responsible for processing, responding and delivering information regarding proprioception to the body. A basic flow of information looks something like the following….
Receptors (Skin/Deep Muscle/Connective Tissues)
Afferent Sensory Nerves
Dorsal Columns of the Spinal Cord
Gracile and Cuneate Nuclei of the Brainstem
SomatoSensory Cortex of the Brain
CorticoSpinal Tract of the Spinal Cord
Efferent Motor Nerves
Muscle/Joint Complexes of the Body
If the above seems a little complicated, that is because it is complicated (it is neuroscience after all). At the end of the article, I will post a link to a paper that delves into greater detail for those interested.
The musculature and joint complexes of the body plays a vital role in the proprioceptive system, although not perhaps the muscles you might have heard of. Smaller, intrinsic muscles, which lay deep underneath the major muscular groups, provide information on a feedback basis to the brain to aid in proprioception. Thus, exercises which focus on these muscles will aid in overall proprioception and improve your body’s functioning.
So why should we improve our proprioception?
Have you ever slipped on a sheet of ice? Stepped awkwardly off a curb? Back-pedalled into one of your kid’s toys? The functional ability of your proprioceptive system allows your body the split-second timing necessary to turn a major injury/disaster into a slight stumble. Basically, it is the ability for your body to right itself more quickly and efficiently. Athletes and performers take this system to the limit by training themselves to peak proprioceptive functioning, achieving what is loosely termed “cat-like reflexes”.
So how can you train your system to function more efficiently?
Balance exercises are the key. Instead of simply doing bicep curls, lift a leg in the air or stand on a wobble board while doing so. Instead of a simple squat, balance yourself on a Bosu Ball to add instability to the exercise. Placing your body in an unstable position while doing certain exercises will stimulate the intrinsic muscles and provide a stronger feedback loop to your brain, thus boosting the ability of your brain to react to unstable environments or situation you might find yourself in.
Proprioception is a difficult concept to understand, as most neurological processes are. However, a working knowledge of proprioception will open the door to more efficient exercise and a reduced risk of injury.
Here are a few links if you are more interested in proprioception….