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Train Your Brain
Proprioception Training For Elite Fitness & High Performance
Part 1 in a series of articles on the brain & nervous system’s role in forging optimal fitness and athletic performance.
Ever considered training your brain when you step foot in the gym?
Probably not. But guess what? You were doing it anyway. You see, practice makes permanent, and perfect practice makes perfect. Anything you're doing repetitively (i.e. how you train) gets embedded into your brain. Your body adapts to the stimuli you provide it, and this includes 'instructions' on how to perform movements or motor engrams. This should play a role in dictating your training decisions, including ensuring that your training is functional.
If you're an individual-and especially if you're an athlete-your training should include proprioception-bottom line. This should be a must for everyone to ensure that the nervous system doesn’t stagnate over time and default to basic patterns. You see, when we’re kids, we keep trying new things, playing, learning, and the body & brain go along with it. As we age, we tend to default into one type of training, one set of positions & postures, one set of movements, and we adapt to it. What a metaphor for life on the whole, huh? One of the keys is being able to steadily showing your brain new challenges, puzzles, and movements. We now know that the brain maintains its adaptive potential over time-this has huge implications on everything from heightening fitness & preventing injuries to keeping your cognitive abilities intact & avoiding neurodegeneration. In other words, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
What Is Proprioception?
Proprioception is a sense or perception, ideally at a subconscious level, of the movements and position of the body, independent of vision; this sense is gained primarily from input from sensory nerve terminals in muscles and tendons (muscle spindles) and the fibrous capsule of joints combined with input from the vestibular apparatus.
What this means is that your proprioceptors (i.e. on your hands and feet), send information back to your nervous system, ideally without you having to think about it. Have you ever tripped and caught yourself? You didn't have to think about that, right? You just instinctively did it in a flash.
THIS quality is what we seek to replicate with training-we're all born with proprioceptors, it's just that no one trains to develop them.
Why Is This Important For Athletes?
Think about the first time you played a sport, shot a free throw, threw a ball, went for a run, etc. You likely had to think about it. This was the proprioceptors in your hands sending information up the nerves, up to your spine, and to your brain, before nerve signals headed back in a feedback loop. However, look at the same skill, repeated countless times. Does Steph Curry have to think about how to do the skill of shooting a free throw when he's at the free throw line? Obviously not. Under the hood, what's going on here is the propriospinal process.
This means that enough repetition and proprioceptive training (i.e. practicing the shot in this case) has 'downloaded' the new information from the movement in such a way where the proprioceptors only have to send the information up into the nerves, spine and back down. Thus, you can react to information about your body in place, or in space (kinesthetic awareness) in a split second.
If sports are won and lost in fractions of a second, don't you think this is something worth developing if you could?
Why Is This Important For Everyone?
Everyone else will still want to include proprioception on a baseline level. This is to keep you as able-bodied as possible as you age so you don't 'un-learn' any skill or movement patterns you like to perform/need in daily function. Furthermore, this also will help bulletproof you from injury.
How To Train Proprioception
Basic proprioceptive training is not that hard to kick off. It starts by taking off your shoes and training barefoot as often as you can to train the proprioceptors in your foot (not to mention build up the muscles in your foot).
I also recommend including barefoot balance training, which can simply be getting into certain positions (i.e. standing on one leg).
Ideally, you include some basic proprioceptive training in your warm-up with balance discs, proprioceptive lily pads, balance pipes, and/or slant boards.
Remember, just because some trainers who didn't know what they were doing started doing stuff like squatting on proprioceptive pads, doesn't mean that what said pads were intended for is a bad idea. In fact, it's the opposite.
So check out some of the recommendations and insights provided. Be sure to let us know in the comments if you include proprioception training and how it’s working for you.