Developing Better Proprioception
It is ironic that many people exercise to stay healthy, but end up injured. A number of studies have tried to calculate the incidence of injuries in Crossfit athletes, power lifters and Olympic weightlifters. Injury rates across these various disciplines are fairly similar, and occur at about a rate of 2.3 injuries for every 1000 training hours. More than 25% of athletes reported injuries. The main location of injury were the shoulder (22.6%), knee (16.1%), and lower back (12.9%).
It is (obviously) of great concern to any exercise participant to stay injury free! One of the most important aspects of avoiding injury is achieving good quality of movement and control of joint coordination during any sport activity. Good proprioception is a crucial factor in maintaining that control and coordination. So, what is proprioception, and how can it be improved?
What is proprioception?
Proprioception is what we call that sense of knowing where your body is in space (body awareness) and the ability to safely move about in your environment. Proprioception is a sense, just like touch, sight, hearing, taste or smell. It is invisible, except when it goes wrong. Lack of proprioception could be called being “joint blind”.
An example of proprioception in action would be a pianist, playing the piano with their eyes closed. How do they know where to put their fingers and find all the notes? They have a strong sense (through excellent and highly trained proprioception) of where they are in space, in relation to their environment.
Conversely, and example of proprioception going wrong would be a person with advanced multiple sclerosis. Amongst other things, multiple sclerosis attacks the nerves that carry proprioceptive information. This means that the person begins to “lose touch” with where their ankle joints and foot bones are, and they become more likely to trip or lose balance.
Why is proprioception imporant?
To safely navigate around our environment, we need to know “where all our bits are”. Imagine trying to flick a fly off your nose if you didn’t have proper information about where your hand, elbow, shoulder, neck and head were in space. Maybe the information was only semi-accurate; perhaps accurate to the nearest 5 cm. To an observer, the sight of you taking a swing and slapping yourself in the head would be quite entertaining. You were aiming to flick the fly, but whacked yourself in the face, instead, because you didn’t know the exact relationship between your head and your neck. You were partially “joint blind”.
Implications of proprioception on gym based exercise
Being partially “joint blind”, even if it’s a mild reduction in proprioception, can be expected to increase your risk of injury. For instance, having poor proprioception from out low back joints might not result in injury when you walk from the car to the shops and back, but what if you have a barbell across your shoulders with 30 kg on each side? Or 50 kg? The body has to constantly measure exactly where the joints of the spine are and make compensatory increases or decreases in muscle tone throughout the body to resist the force. Even a tiny miscalculation could end in severe overload of joints, muscles or ligaments.
Recommendations for improving your proprioception
Chiropractor, Dr Lotte Hansen, who works in our Gosford office and has a special passion for proprioception says:
- Three areas are especially crucial in proprioception – the feet, the pelvis joints and the neck
- Walking in bare feet, every day, on different textured surfaces (eg sand or grass) helps stimulate the proprioceptors in the feet and ankles
- Make sure you spend time, every day, working on one leg balance
- Try running slowly through each movement you might do in a gym session slowly and unweighted
- Start any new exercise with minimal weight and run through the moments with someone spotting and correcting your form
- Participate not only in cardio and weight based classes, but also seek out an exercise program that challenges your balance and quality of movement, such as the class that Bryce and Angus participated in
- Dancing and gymnastics are two forms of exercise that, if appropriate, are fantastic for proprioception
When to see a Chiropractor
If you have a spinal, pelvis, shoulder, hip or ankle injury, it is likely that the proprioception in this area is now functioning sub-optimally. A Chiropractor can assess the quality and control of your movement and create a care plan to get you back on track. This may involve co-consultation with your personal trainer, physiotherapist or an exercise physiologist.
Have you had an injury in the gym that you believe was because of poor “body awareness”? Comment below!
Montalvo, et. al. Retrospective Injury Epidemiology and Risk Factors for Injury in CrossFit. J Sports Sci Med. 2017 Mar; 16(1): 53–59.