Are you the type of person who claims to have poor balance? Are you described as clumsy or sarcastically referred to as graceful? You may lack a sense of proprioception, which is our awareness of our body position and movement necessary for balance and coordination.
Poor proprioception can affect anyone, and balance naturally deteriorates as we age. Brain injuries, Autism spectrum disorder, joint injuries, strokes, and multiple sclerosis can cause disruptions in proprioception. Luckily, anyone can improve proprioception with targeted exercises and training.
What is Proprioception?
Your muscles and joints contain proprioceptors, which are basically sensors that send and receive signals from the brain to control body movement. Here are some examples:
- Taking a sip from a cup and not missing your mouth (body awareness)
- Holding a fragile item without breaking it (understanding force)
- Walking with one foot in front of the other with the eyes closed (balance and coordination)
The Importance of Proprioceptive Training
Proprioception is necessary to carry out daily activities, but it also keeps you safe and elevates your athletic abilities. Coordination is a requirement for most sports, such as dribbling a basketball while running or hitting a ball with a bat or racket. Proprioceptive training offers the following benefits:
One study that assessed proprioception training on joint position in handball players showed that following a prescribed proprioception training regimen reduced the risk of injuries. High-impact sports such as basketball, volleyball, and football commonly cause joint-related injuries. Proprioception training using single-stance movements increases stability, posture, and strength around a joint or muscle to reduce ankle and knee sprains.
There is a connection between proprioception and balance. The vestibular system located in the inner ear regulates balance and spatial orientation, in other words, our equilibrium. Touch, vision, and motion help us maintain balance.
Aging causes changes to our motor abilities, sensations, and cognition. Proprioception naturally declines with age, changing joint biomechanics and limb control, placing older adults at risk for falls. Proprioceptive training can improve posture and balance, reducing falls.
Athletic Ability Improvement
Awareness of body positioning, muscle strength, and speed is obviously crucial to peak athletic performance. Combining static balance training with dynamic proprioceptive training (plyometrics and agility training) positively affects strength, power, and movement.
Help With Disease And Disability
Evidence concludes that proprioceptive training is especially beneficial for treating specific diseases. Rehabilitation of neurological deficits caused by stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and musculoskeletal conditions like ACL reconstruction and knee osteoarthritis showed improvement through active movement and balance training.
Sensory Regulation Management
Children who struggle with processing disorders may display poor coordination and sensory-seeking behaviors. Dysfunction in proprioception may cause a child to play too rough, write too hard, or walk on their toes in an attempt to regulate sensory input. Training specific to proprioception may help children control motor responses to curb disruptive behaviors allowing them to participate in play and everyday tasks.
Exercises to Improve Proprioception
Balance exercises may seem boring, but these are foundational to teaching your body and brain to maintain proprioception. You may need to hold onto a wall or chair before progressing to a balance board or Bosu ball. Closing your eyes while balancing is a challenge in itself.
Focused strength training of muscle groups establishes the mind-muscle connection. Repeated firing of muscle fibers builds strength and contributes to proper form over time. Strength training will depend on the specific muscle group. Examples include bench presses, shoulder presses, and squats.
Plyometrics And Agility Drills
Athletes combine plyometrics with agility drills to maximize explosive power and shift seamlessly between movements. Box jumps, squat jumps, and jumping lunges (notice a pattern?) are plyometrics that, when combined with agility ladder drills or shuttle runs, improve speed, reaction time, and coordination.
Exercises for Better Balance and Body Awareness
You can easily work on your proprioception from the comfort of your home. As your posture and balance improve, you can add advanced movements or equipment.
Bend one knee back while you stand on one leg. Hold the pose for 1 minute, then rest for 10-20 seconds. Repeat each leg 3 times.
As you master this movement, make it a little harder by raising your leg out in front of you, to the side, and straight behind you. Next, perform these movements with your eyes closed.
Table Top Or Bird Dog Pose
Begin on all fours, arms, and legs evenly spaced, back flat. Look at the floor while you extend your left arm straight out and your right leg straight back.
Hold for a few seconds, release, and repeat.
Perform 10 times on each side.
Place a light object on the floor that you can easily reach by bending at the hip. (A water bottle, for example). You will essentially perform a one-legged deadlift by bending forward at the hips, sending one leg back, and reaching for the object. Using your core, maintain control and lift yourself back up. Repeat each leg 5 times.
This yoga pose is harder than it looks. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Raise one leg, pointing the knee away from you while the sole of the foot touches the opposite leg’s inner thigh.You can make this pose as difficult or easy as you like by keeping your foot at your ankle, resting on your calf, or tucked high against your inner thigh. Find your balance by pressing your palms together or extending your arms like tree branches.
Balance Board Exercises
Balance boards are a popular tool used in proprioceptive training. Balance boards come in all shapes and sizes, but the goal is the same: to improve balance, stability, core strength, and proprioception. Some examples of balance board exercises include:
- Standing with both feet on the board
- Standing with one foot on the board
- Squats on the board
- Push-ups on the balance board
Bosu Ball Exercises
Bosu balls are another piece of equipment used in proprioceptive training. A Bosu ball is a half-sphere with a rubber ball on one side and a flat platform on the other. You can use either side to work on balance and stabilization. Bosu ball exercises used in proprioceptive training include:
- Squatting on either the flat or inflated surface
- Side lunges
- Hip thrusts
Resistance Band Exercises
Resistance bands are an amazing tool to improve joint stability, muscle activation, and balance. Resistance bands come in different sizes and may include handles. Some resistance bands have clips to attach to walls or other equipment, such as Bosu balls, for a complete workout. Examples of resistance band exercises include:
- Lateral shoulder raises with a resistance band
- Lateral walks with a resistance band around the knees or ankles
- Squats with shoulder press with a resistance band
- Hip bridges with the resistance band around the knees/thighs
The following video demonstrates using a resistance band system either attached to a wall or used alone:
Single Leg Exercises
Bodyweight exercises are often challenging enough, and performing any movement unilaterally raises the difficulty. Single-leg exercises force you to focus on proprioception, balance, and body control. Examples of single-leg exercises include:
- Single-leg squats
- Single-leg bridges
- Single-leg calf raises
- Single-leg deadlift
Tai Chi and Yoga
Tai Chi and yoga are forms of exercise recommended for older adults. However, they benefit anyone looking to improve their balance, flexibility, and proprioception. Tai Chi and yoga incorporate one-leg stances (which we have covered above) proven to enhance balance.
How Occupational Therapy Can Help With Proprioception
Children with autism, developmental disorders, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may struggle with proprioception. Sensory integration activities work through the concept of neuroplasticity, which essentially molds the brain through repeated exposure and practice. These activities include swings, trampolines, balls, joint compression, and body massage. Positive benefits of sensory integration include improved focus, reduced inappropriate or self-harm behaviors, and improved functioning in language and reading.
Proprioception declines with the aging process yet is preservable through regular physical activity. Combining the proprioception training listed here with your preferred exercise activities is ideal for improving your athletic abilities and avoiding injuries and falls later in life.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does walking improve proprioception?
Walking meditation, a mindfulness practice that combines a mental grounding practice while walking shows improved ankle proprioception and balance in older adults.
What causes poor proprioception?
Proprioception declines as we age. Brain injuries, herniated disks, multiple sclerosis, neuropathy, joint replacement surgery, and Autism spectrum disorder are potential causes of poor proprioception.
How long does it take to improve proprioception?
Regular training exercises performed over 4-6 weeks proved to be the most beneficial.
What types of equipment enhance proprioception?
While you can practice proprioception without equipment, feel free to incorporate balance boards, Bosu balls, and resistance bands.
What is the best exercise to regain balance?
Standing on one leg, heel-to-toe walking, and standing 3-way kicks are exercises you can do at home to promote balance. Perform these exercises with your eyes closed for added difficulty and effectiveness.
Maegan Baker, BSN RN CCM, is a nurse with over a decade of healthcare experience. As a medical writer, she creates content to educate audiences and guide healthcare businesses to success.
Maegan has been an avid Crossfitter for the past 5 years and she takes advantage of every opportunity to bring awareness to this growing sport.
Maegan is our resident Crossfit expert at PreWorkout.org