Proprioception is your body’s invisible skill. Put simply, it’s your ability to sense the movement, action and location of your limbs in space.
It’s what enables you to dribble a football without looking down, rapidly change direction on the rugby field, return a tennis serve, run over rocky or uneven terrain, or lift weights with fluency and precision.
It’s the reason you can touch your knee even when you’ve got your eyes closed. And it remains one of the most mysterious and neglected sporting attributes.
What is proprioception?
“This proprioception is achieved via several different receptors in structures surrounding the joint, such as muscles and ligaments. These send messages back to the brain to let it know the position of the joint.
When you move, the receptors send detailed messages to your brain about your positions and actions. Your brain processes these messages and works with your vision, nervous system, and vestibular system to create your perception of where your body is and how you’re moving.”
Importance of proprioception
“Proprioception is vital for developing and refining movement patterns and control. It also helps improve sports performance and activity execution,” continues James.
“An intact sense of proprioception is crucial to learning a new skill and achieving the movements and activities we wish to perform with skill and confidence.”
As proprioception conditions your muscles, tendons and joints to adapt to quick movements, it can also help you to avoid injury.
A major six-year study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that athletes who participated in regular proprioceptive training experienced an 81% decrease in ankle sprains.
And best of all, with a few simple at-home training drills, you can work on your proprioception any time you want…
Proprioception training tip #1: Single-limb exercises
Simple balance and agility drills – like bending forward on one leg to pick up cones, juggling tennis balls, or hopping over small hurdles on one leg – can boost your proprioception.
“This generally involves standing on a single limb, or on an uneven or unstable surface. Then, performing a task that would usually be performed on both limbs or a more stable surface,” explains James.
“The aim is to go slowly, with your main focus on remaining controlled throughout.”
“Think of wobble boards, Swiss balls and other unstable surfaces as a novel progression that may be useful sometimes, but not a mandatory tool for everyone,” says James.
Skipping is also an incredibly powerful proprioception-pumping challenge.
Proprioception training tip #2: Visual cue removal
Next time you’re doing some balance exercises, try digging out that fancy dress pirate eye patch.
“Visual cue removal involves the execution of a given task with one eye or both eyes closed,” explains James. “The body is then required to gain its feedback from the proprioceptive system.”
This exercise could be as simple as doing lunges or single-leg squats with one or both eyes closed.
“You can also use other kinds of visual disturbance,” adds James. “Try working out in a dimly lit or dark room.”
Training tip #3: Complex task training
To really turbo-charge your proprioception, take your routine squats and lunges up a gear with some complex task training.
“Complex task training requires adding additional variables to a familiar task to make it more testing,” explains James. “This could be performing a bodyweight squat while catching a ball, for example.”
Other complex task drills include performing a press-up with your feet suspended in a suspension trainer, standing on one leg while lifting a dumbbell, or throwing a ball against a wall and catching it while standing on a wobble board.
Need a set of dumbbells? Discover our pick of the best dumbbells for home workouts
Training tip #4: Keep it specific
Whatever proprioception exercises you devise, try to make them as relevant to your sport as possible. If you play racquet or catching sports, do drills which develop proprioception in your arms.
If you are a cross-country runner, focusing on leg drills is a better priority.
“Always integrate real-world activity,” says James. “Training proprioception should be specific to the task. For many, the development of balance and proprioception will be to facilitate a return to a sport after injury, or an increased ability to perform a desired task.
“Make sure that the training is gauged appropriately to progress in this particular activity.”
Training tip #5: Be more consistent
For a maximum proprioception boost, make sure your proprioception training becomes a regular part of your weekly workout regime. This is a skill which needs to be honed.
“Improvements and refinements in your balance and proprioception occur through repetition,” says James.
“It’s much more than simply trying these things a couple of times and hoping for a miracle reaction. Practise, practise and practise some more to see tangible and observable improvements.”