How proprioceptive training can improve your performance


For most people, proprioceptive training doesn't even touch their radar. They’ve never heard the word before, never mind actually done it. So when we say that proprioceptive training is something that everyone should be doing, especially athletes, we get a lot of sideways head tilts and huuuuuuh’s.


If you’re someone who falls into the group that’s never heard about it, you’re in the right place. Because we love feet so much, we stand behind proprioceptive training wholeheartedly and we want to get you on board with it, too, because it’s about more than just your athletic performance. 


So, we’re breaking down what you need to know about proprioceptive training and giving you some easy and fun ways you can work on it to improve your body’s capabilities.

What is proprioception?

Maybe you’ve heard of it before, maybe you haven’t but proprioception is of huge importance where your performance is concerned. Movements you do daily--things like walking, sitting, standing, lifting, etc.--all depend on signals originating from the moving body to respond and react to the space around us and the constantly changing circumstances. A good chunk of this ‘knowledge’ to our surroundings and the position and movement of the limbs and trunk are provided by sensations coming from proprioceptors. The information that they provide allows us to navigate through our world without crashing into everything in our pathway; they allow us to manipulate objects; they allow us to perform in and out of the gym. 


In order for the body to move, it requires signals from various regions of the body. As simple as it seems to move your feet and walk, the process of walking isn’t simple at all. It’s a complex cascade of feedback from the feet and other areas of the body that regulate movement. And these proprioceptive signals from mechanoreceptors in joints, muscles, tendons, and skin are essential for maintaining neural control of movement [1]. If proprioceptive function is lost, it can result in impaired control of muscle tone, disruption to postural reflexes, and a major impairment to both spatial and temporal movement. 


By definition, proprioception is your body's ability to sense movement, action, and location [2]. It’s the reason why we can walk without being conscious of where we need to put our foot next; the reason we can catch our balance when we trip over something on the ground; the reason why you can touch your elbow with your eyes shut. 


When you’re hiking, proprioception kicks in when your foot senses a small deviation in the even surface of the ground, like a rock or a hole, and to prevent injury your body makes an adjustment to stabilize the foot and ankle in response to the feedback picked up by the proprioceptors in your lower limbs. 

Proprioceptors are everywhere in our bodies and they are what guide our movement, both conscious and unconscious. While the majority of proprioceptors are located in muscles, joints, and tendons, they’re not just concerned with muscular sensibility. We also have receptors signalling the distension of arteries, lungs, and the gut[3]. But traditionally speaking, we’ve always used the term proprioceptor to denote receptors concerned with conscious sensations like limb position and movement, the sense of tension or force, effort, and balance.

how proprioception works

But if you really think about it, proprioceptive sensations are pretty weird. They’re like the black shadows lurking that you can’t see. Unlike exoreceptors such as the eyes and ears, proprioceptors are not associated with specific, recognizable sensations, but somehow even with our eyes shut we can still sense with some accuracy where our limbs are positioned and if they are moving or stationary. 


Simply put, when you move, the receptors in your limbs and trunk send detailed messages to your brain about where your body is positioned and what actions it’s taking. Your brain processes these messages and works with your eyes, nervous system, and vestibular system to generate your perception of where your body is and how it's moving.

What is proprioceptive training?

Now that you know what proprioception is, you’re probably thinking that proprioception isn’t something we have to work at, it’s just something we inherently possess. While that’s partially true, you still need to train it to maintain it. 


Proprioception tends to decline with ​​age, injury, and disease, which means completing everyday tasks that were once easy become more challenging, but it also increases the risk of slips, falls, and subsequent injuries. That’s where proprioceptive training comes into the picture.


Just as you train your muscles for better strength, stamina, and size, you can train the proprioceptors in your body through specific exercises! So, naturally, proprioceptive training is an intervention that targets the improvement of proprioceptive function. It focuses on using somatosensory signals (proprioceptive or tactile afferents) and removes the ability of other senses to provide information (i.e. the eyes) [1].Ultimately, the goal of proprioceptive training is to improve or restore sensorimotor function.


The other piece of the puzzle has to do with the shoes that we wear. Narrow toe boxes, cushioned soles, and arch support all mean that our feet aren’t coming into contact with the ground. The soles of the feet contain an extensive network of touch receptors and nerve endings, and when they are stimulated, they send nerve impulses to the brain about their environment. 


And when you stop to think about it, because feet spend most of their days in cushioned shoes and on flat surfaces at home, they rarely ever get exposed to uneven surfaces and environments that help to enhance proprioception, hence why people think walking on rocks and gravel is incredibly painful. More time in cushioned shoes and minimal time on natural surfaces means less sensory information is transmitted to the brain, which can limit movement and balance.


Here’s something interesting for you.


In Hong Kong, The Leisure and Cultural Services Department added 56 pebble/cobblestone trails in parks and playgrounds over the past several years. In total, they manage 172 trails that promote activation of pressure points in the foot to improve overall health. These kinds of trails are also found in Germany, Korea, and China.


What’s more, a study by Oregon Research Institute (ORI) in Eugene confirmed that walking on a cobblestone mat surface resulted in significant reductions in blood pressure and improvements in balance and physical performance. So, it’s notjust your balance and movement that walking on nitty-gritty, uneven surfaces can benefit.


If getting your feet dirty and walking on rocks outdoors isn’t your thing, grab aRock Mat and place it in your office, kitchen, bathroom, or gym and start waking up those feet! There are a ton of health benefits derived from stimulating the soles of the feet and it’s a super simple way to improve your proprioceptive abilities and your performance. 

Why is proprioception important for athletes?

Powerful, precise, and controlled movements are a huge part of both sports activities and daily functioning activities. In order to perform these movements, the somatosensory system must provide multiple inputs to the central nervous system (CNS) from muscle and connective tissue receptors that inform the brain of where the body is. When combined with vestibular and visual information, this information allows us to maintain stability and move body segments efficiently, accurately, and effectively [4]. 


That’s things like dribbling a soccer ball or basketball without having to look at what you’re going, or a tennis player knowing where the ball is going to land on their racket. While we have proprioceptors located all over the body, the lower limbs no doubt play one of the most important roles in maintaining balance and stability in sport. 


Strong balance is positively associated with enhanced athletic performance and negatively associated with lower limb sports injuries [5], and training proprioceptive function plays an essential role in balance control, of which ankle proprioception is arguably the most important. The more a person practices proprioceptive exercises, the better their proprioception becomes, which translates directly into better athletic and sports performance. 


But even if you’re a high-level athlete, you shouldn’t push proprioceptive training by the wayside. Doing exercises daily can help to improve balance, reaction time, coordination, and agility, all of which make a massive difference to your overall performance. 


If that’s not enough, a strong sense of proprioception is also linked to a lower risk of injury. By working to improve proprioception in the muscles, tendons, and joints, you can increase your body’s ability to adapt to quick movements or shifts in balance to prevent injuries and re-injuries like ankle sprains [6]. Want proof? A 6-year study looked at the impact of proprioception training on reducing ankle sprains, knee sprains, and low back pain in European basketball players. Those who participated in a proprioceptive training program saw an 81% decrease in ankle sprains and a 75.5% decrease in missed games and practices [7]. 

Proprioception and balance

The other part we need to touch on where athletic performance is concerned is balance. Whether you’re jumping to throw a shot or doing a single-leg RDL, balance is non-negotiable. 

Balance is the ability to maintain your centre of gravity over a base of support. The ability to do this comes from three main sensory inputs [8,9,10]:

  1. The vestibular system (motion, equilibrium, spatial orientation)
  2. Vision (eyesight)
  3. Proprioception (touch)

These three systems work together to send signals to your brain to sort and integrate sensory information. The brain then transmits these signals to the muscles, which initiate movement to help maintain balance. And while we talk about proprioception as its own category, it’s actually a component of the body’s balance system that informs your brain about where your body is in space, the amount of force acting on your body, or how much force is required to do something (for example, lifting up weight during a deadlift) [9,10].


For example, if you’re trail running on uneven ground, proprioceptors in the lower limbs detect that and must signal the body to adapt and adjust its centre of gravity to maintain balance in unstable conditions. As such, training proprioception works to improve the overall sense of balance and reduce the risk of injury. 

8 exercises to improve your proprioception

1. Single Leg Balance

Stand with your feet hip-width apart, hands on your hips. Shift your weight to your left foot and lift your right foot a few inches off of the ground so it’s hovering. Hold stable for 30 seconds balancing on the grounded foot and then switch sides. Repeat 2–3 times.

2. Unilateral three-way kick

Stand with your feet hip-width apart, hands on your hips. Shift your weight to your left foot and lift your right foot a few inches off of the ground straight out in front of you, knee extended. Hold for 2–3 seconds, then return to the starting position. Repeat lifting the leg laterally (to the side of the body), and then straight out behind you. Switch sides and repeat 2–3 times.

3. Shoulder wall ball stability

Place a large exercise ball against a wall, holding it in place with one hand. Keep the elbow extended without locking or hyperextending it. With the arm extended, make small circles with the arm and allow the ball to move but remain against the wall. Continue for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Switch arms and repeat.

4. Cone pickups

Stand on one foot with hands on your hips and a cone (or another object) 2 feet in front of you. Engage your core, butt, and hamstrings, and with control, bend at the hips and reach forward to grab the cone. Allow your left leg to extend straight back as you reach down. Squeezing the glutes and lift yourself back up until you’re in the starting position. Then, repeat the movement to return the cone to its original starting point. Switch sides and repeat 3–4 times on each side.

5. Reverse lunge

Stand with your feet hip-width apart, hands on your hips. Shift your weight to your left foot and take a large step back with your right foot so the ball of your foot is on the ground, heel lifted, and right knee at a 90-degree angle. The left knee should also be at 90 degrees. 

Drive through your heel, squeeze your glutes, and push back up to the starting position. Repeat 8–12 times per leg.

6. Bird dog

Start on all fours with knees and hips aligned, and shoulders aligned with your wrists. The spine and neck should be in a neutral position. With the core engaged, extend your left arm forward and your right leg back, leaving the other arm and leg firmly planted on the ground for support. Hold for 2–3 seconds, then alternate sides. Repeat 8–12 times.

7. Tightrope walk

Tape a straight line about 3 to 6-feet (1–2-meters) long on the floor. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hands on your hips. Place one foot on the line or beside the rope, followed by the other foot directly in front as if you were walking a tightrope (toes to heel). Walk to the end of the line without stepping off to the side. Turn around and walk back. Repeat 3–4 times.

8. Flamingo stand

Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hands on your hips. If you need more balance, extend your arms out to the side. Shift your weight to your left foot and lift your right leg up until there’s a 90-degree bend at the knee. Hold for 10–20 seconds (or more if you can). Switch sides and repeat.

Want to increase the challenge for any of these exercises? Do them while standing on the Rock Mat or Stability Board.

bkg balance