Keep your ears open in the gym and you’re bound to hear something about proprioception. After all, proprioception is one of the factors separating elite athletes from weekend warriors. It’s what allows soccer players to juggle with seemingly impossible mastery. And it’s what often keeps us from getting injured when we pick up something heavy or go for a run on the treadmill.
Some call it our “sixth sense.”
What Is Proprioception?
Proprioception is your body’s unconscious ability to sense where its constituent parts are in their environment, explains Openfit fitness expert Cody Braun.
Need an example? Close your eyes. Now touch your nose with your index finger. Wasn’t hard, was it? That’s because of proprioception.
Every second of every day, specialized receptors (called mechanoceptors) throughout your body send information to your brain about how your body’s muscles and tendons are lengthening, shortening, and working — proprioception! From there, the brain tells the muscles within milliseconds how to respond. Then your arms, legs, and whatever other body parts your brain happens to be talking to at that moment do as told.
When it comes to exercise, two major proprioceptive receptors are the muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs (GTOs). Both are part of the musculoskeletal system.
Muscle spindles are specialized fibers within every skeletal muscle that detect when and how fast that muscle is lengthening, Braun says. For example, when your doctor hits your patellar tendon (just below your knee cap) with a rubber mallet, it causes a tiny, but lightning-fast, stretch in the quadriceps muscle.
Your muscle spindles tell your brain, “Woah, something’s stretching the muscle! We need to contract it to keep it stable.” The result: Your lower leg flies up with the famous knee-jerk.
Golgi tendon organs
Meanwhile, Golgi tendon organs (GTOs) are located between a muscle and the tendon(s)that connect that muscle to bone. GTOs detect tension in the tendons, which is caused when a muscle contracts, Braun says.
When you lift weights, it’s the GTO senses whether a muscle is being overworked. If it detects that you’re lifting a weight much heavier than it’s used to, it actually shuts off the muscle to keep you from injuring yourself. If your arms have ever “given out” mid bench-press, you can thank (or curse) your Golgi tendon organs.
Muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs get the most love, but dozens of other forms of proprioceptive receptors exist. Joint kinesthetic receptors, for instance, use an array of mechanoreceptors to determine changes in joint angles.
“Even your skin senses changes in pressure, temperature, and pain, thanks to cutaneous receptors, which add to the feedback your brain uses to process movement,” Braun says. “When it comes to sensing rotation or acceleration, the vestibular system in your inner ears has little hair-like structures that detect directional movement.”
Together, all of these proprioceptors are what keep you balanced and stable, and your joints working in synchronicity. They improve exercise performance and, according to mounting research, can help reduce the risk of injuries like strains and sprains.
Test Your Proprioception
“Balance is one of the biggest tests of proprioception,” Braun says. Using a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being perfectly stable and 4 being wobbly as all get-out, have a friend score your stability in each of these four tests, performed for 10 seconds each. The less sway you display — and, consequently, the lower your score — the stronger your proprioception.
- Stand on two feet with eyes open
- Stand on two feet with eyes closed
- Stand on one foot with eyes open
- Stand on one foot with eyes closed
5 Exercises to Improve Proprioception
Single-arm, single-leg (a.k.a. unilateral), stability, and balance exercises are critical to honing proprioceptive movements. “Most exercises that require some balance component can help to increase proprioception,” Braun says.
Bonus: Improving proprioceptive control in single-limb stance is a key factor in reducing the risk of ankle and knee sprains as well as low back pain, according to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Try these exercises to improve your proprioception.
Single-leg (pistol) squat
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and raise your left foot off the floor as you extend your arms in front of you.
- Keeping your back flat and core engaged, push your hips back, bend your right knee, and lower your body as far as possible toward the floor, your left leg floating off the floor in front of you.
- Pause, and then press through your foot return to the starting position.
- Repeat for reps and switch sides.
Tip: Start lowering yourself to a high bench or step, and progress to lowering yourself unsupported through a complete range of motion.
Single-arm, single-leg Romanian deadlift
- Grab a dumbbell with your left hand and stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding the weight at your side.
- Keeping your back flat and your core engaged, lift your left foot off the floor, and push your hips back to teeter your torso forward.
- Keeping your hips level and the weight close to your body, extend your left foot behind you until the weight is just in front of and below your right knee.
- Pause, then slowly push your hips forward to return to start.
- Repeat for reps, then switch sides.
BOSU ball squat
- Stand on the dome side of a BOSU ball with your hands at your sides and your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart.
- Bend at your knees and hips to lower your body as far as possible while remaining stable.
- Return to the starting position, and repeat for reps.
Single-leg standing hip abduction
- Secure one end of a resistance band to an anchor point at ankle height and the other to your right ankle.
- Stand perpendicular to the anchor point with your right ankle farthest from it, maintaining slight tension on the band.
- Keeping both legs straight, raise your right ankle directly out to the right as far as possible.
- Pause, then slowly release the contraction in your hip to return your ankle to the starting position.
- Repeat for reps and switch sides.
One-arm ABCs on the wall
- Stand several feet from a wall with your feet hip-width apart, holding a soccer or volleyball in your right hand.
- Extend your right arm straight out in front of you, holding the ball in place against the wall.
- Roll the ball around on the wall as if you’re writing the alphabet.
- Switch sides and repeat.