Do you need to retrain a joint after injury, or just feel like your balance and reaction time could use some work? Either way, improving your sense of movement, force, and position (AKA your kinesthesia or proprioception) is essential. So, here are the top 6 exercises for proprioception and other key tips to improve this sense.
Why proprioception is important
Proprioception is your awareness of positioning, movement, and force output, as determined by the signals your nerves send to the brain. Your proprioception informs your ability to sense:
- How your knee (and any other joint) tracks and moves
- The amount of force you need to make a jump
- How much power your arms need to pick something up
- How to adapt your centre of gravity when walking on uneven terrain
And more. As you can imagine, proprioception plays a huge role in moving you through everyday life. And it also plays a huge role in athletic performance and preventing injuries. For example, a Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport study found that elite athletes showed the greatest levels of proprioception. Meanwhile, a Journal of Athletic Training study found that proprioceptive training reduced the incidence of ankle sprains.
Now, not everyone’s sense of proprioception is fantastic. And what’s worse is that it can deteriorate with age, certain medical conditions (like arthritis), and injury. Tissue damage, for instance, causes swelling and competing nerve inputs (chief among which is pain), affecting your nerves’ ability to send messages. Fortunately, though, proprioception can be worked on and improved.
The best exercises for proprioception
The best exercises to improve proprioception are the ones that challenge your balance, coordination, and muscle strength. We’ll start off easy with some activities for beginners and those still recovering from injury, then go into more advanced workouts.
Single-leg scissor stand
You might remember this one from our knee pain exercises article.
- Place a small rolled-up towel on the floor.
- Step onto the towel with your right leg and slightly bend the knee.
- Step forward with your left leg, crossing your body’s centre line as though your toes are drawing a circle. Keep your weight on your supporting leg throughout the exercise.
- Step backwards with your left leg, crossing your body’s centre line.
- Point the kneecap or the right leg toward the right big toe at all times.
- Do 10 reps.
- Repeat for the other side.
As this exercise targets your knee, it’s great for strength and proprioceptive rehabilitation after a knee injury.
Bird dog, meanwhile, is the perfect fit for general back pain. It activates your core and back, hip, and glute muscles.
- Get on your hands and knees on a mat.
- Raise your right arm and raise and extend your left leg to align with your spine. Only raise your leg as high as you can without your back arching. You should also work to minimise hip movement throughout.
- Hold for 5 seconds, then release.
- Switch to the other side.
- Do 5-10 reps per side.
Please note: if you have a knee injury or knee bursitis, check with your doctor if it’s safe for you to do. Applying force to a bent knee may aggravate your symptoms.
This exercise is similar to Bird Dog but concentrates more on the lower body and builds ankle stability.
- Stand upright on a gym mat with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Slowly bend at the hips while extending and lifting your left leg and lowering your right hand toward the floor.
- Once you’ve touched the floor (or come as close as your body allowed), slowly bend up and return to the starting position.
- Repeat for the other side.
- Do 10 reps per leg
One-legged sumo squats
Moving into more advanced exercises, let’s start with one-legged sumo squats. These activate pretty much every leg muscle you have while forcing you to adapt your centre of gravity.
- Stand on a gym mat with your feet a little more than shoulder-width apart and turned outward at 45-degree angles.
- Squat down, keeping your spine neutral and heels firmly on the floor.
- Unlike a regular sumo squat, you won’t push up evenly with both legs. Instead, shift your weight into your right leg as you lift up. As you do so, kick your left leg up to the side.
- Squat back down into a regular sumo squat, then repeat the process for your left leg.
- For more of a challenge, try pushing up all the way onto your tip-toes.
- Do 15-20 reps per leg.
During this exercise, you’ll engage your legs, hips, core, and arms while trying to keep your balance.
- Get into a high plank position on a mat.
- Make sure you keep your spine in a neutral position and your core activated throughout.
- Shift your weight onto your left arm and briefly touch your right hand to your left shoulder.
- Return to the starting position.
- Repeat for the other side.
- Do 5-10 reps per arm.
To do this exercise, simply grab any bouncy ball and a mate and play catch while standing on one leg. Your other foot should not touch the ground.
While one-legged catch might not be overly strenuous, it does require a very good sense of proprioception to pull off. You’ll need to correctly position your arm and hand and rapidly shift your centre of gravity to catch the ball without falling over.
Improving proprioception through bracing
Working out does go a long way. But you shouldn’t overlook the proprioceptive benefits of a compression brace. Quality compression knit instantly communicates with your nerves, helping you better activate your muscles and build your kinesthetic awareness.
For instance, a PLOS One study found that the GenuTrain knee brace improved neuromuscular control among knee osteoarthritis patients, positively affecting their gait. This is because Bauerfeind products combine medically graded compression knit technology with external supports.
Wearing compression garments when you’re not in pain can also improve your proprioception and even help you avoid injury. Sports compression socks that are of medical-grade stock, for example, use their compression knit to support and stabilise your ankles, helping you avoid soft tissue and overuse injuries like mild ankle sprains and tendonitis.
Learn more: The Benefits of Wearing Sports Compression Socks
To sum up
Proprioception is crucial for pretty much every movement you make. How your nerves activate your muscles informs how you walk, jump, and even pick things up. But while not everyone’s sense of kinesthesia is perfect, adding a few exercises for proprioception into your workout routine and wearing a compression brace can help improve it.
If you require assistance selecting the right product for your needs or wearing the brace, call us on 1300 668 466 or contact us via live chat.
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