Contents: Why Do Some People Have Better Proprioception than Others? / Can Proprioception be Trained? / Kickstart Your Training
I am a klutz, through and through. And everyone knows it—all my friends and family (along with any acquaintance who’s friends with me on Facebook and sees the countless memes posted on my wall by friends and family poking fun at said klutziness). Like this hilariously clumsy baby elephant.
If you’re a fellow klutz, you probably find yourself tripping over your own feet, dropping things left and right, and walking into telephone poles far more than you’d like.
And learning complex skills or movements? Forget it. You’re far too clumsy for that.
Even if you’re not quite that clumsy, you’ve probably experienced those “how did I even do that?!” moments. Those moments happen when you’re lacking proprioception—awareness of where your body is in relation to your environment.
Poor levels of proprioception make it really tough to navigate through life—let alone your training—without a lot more struggle than others around you might experience.
So let’s explore proprioception and see how you (and I) can work to improve it.
What is Proprioception and Why Do Some People Seem to Have More of it Than Others?
Proprioception, sometimes referred to as the “sixth sense,” is the perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body. This is when you know how your body is moving and relating to what’s around you.
There’s obviously a wide range of levels of proprioception. An example of the highest level would be this clip of Bruce Lee demonstrating “sticky hands” while blindfolded:
He knows exactly where his body is and where it needs to go, just through his proprioceptive senses. Most people don’t have anywhere near that level of proprioception, but if you’re clumsy like I am, it probably looks downright impossible.
Most people have better proprioception in certain activities or environments, and worse proprioception in others. Maybe you’re naturally good with balance, but your hand/eye coordination is lacking. Or your proprioceptive senses are better on some days than on others. There’s a lot of fluctuation, and many possible points along the spectrum between über klutz on one end and Bruce Lee on the other.
So, why are some people more in tune with their proprioceptive senses than others?
What Causes Poor Proprioception?
We don’t know definitively why some people have better proprioception than others, but there are some good theories about what might cause someone to be clumsier than others.
Distraction or Lack of Mindfulness in Movement—This is a big one (of which I know I’m guilty). If you’re not paying attention to where you’re going or what your body is doing, of course you are going to be more likely to trip or bump into something.Differences in Learning Speeds—We all learn at different speeds and in different ways. When learning a new skill or sport, you may just need more time to get the coordination down than some of your peers—and there’s nothing wrong with that.More Finely Tuned Mechanoreceptors—Mechanoreceptors are sensory organs that respond to mechanical pressure or distortion. They give the brain information about muscle length and joint position. There are all sorts of reasons why this might be, but some people just naturally have nervous systems and mechanoreceptors that are more finely tuned than others.
While those may not be the most satisfying reasons for a lot of people—wouldn’t it be nice if we could just pinpoint a gene that causes clumsiness?—these theories make a lot of sense. But can you improve your proprioception if you’re a fellow klutz? Let’s see.
Can Proprioception Be Trained, or Will You Always Be a Klutz?
Believe it or not, there’s been a fair amount of research on proprioception training in various populations—people with serious injuries, the elderly, military personnel—to determine whether proprioception can be improved through exercise. And the consensus seems to be: yes!
So, what can you do to work on your proprioception?
1. Work on Balance and Coordination Exercises
Putting yourself in awkward positions that challenge your balance and coordination is an important part of improving proprioception. If you only work on linear movements (sitting, standing, squatting, etc.), you’re probably not going to be working on the things that are most challenging for you. Here are some resources to help you with this:
Balance Training—These exercises will help you specifically work on your balance, which is a big part of proprioception.Hand/Eye Coordination Games—Tossing a ball or a balloon around may sound like a silly idea, but it’s one of the best ways to work on that hand/eye coordination that is severely lacking if you have poor proprioception.Transitional Movements—We just wrote this article on transitional movements—those “in-between” movements we go through countless times every day—and these ideas will be really helpful if you struggle with proprioception.
2. Incorporate Locomotion Drills
If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ve probably seen lots of videos of people doing “weird” crawling exercises. These kinds of crawling movements are really good for heightening your proprioceptive senses because they demand coordination of your limbs and torso in ways that typical gym exercises don’t. Here are some places to start:
Bear Crawl Variations—This article is a good introduction to locomotion exercises, and gives you a bunch of bear crawl variations to start playing around with. When you’re paying attention to the details (see strategy #3 below), you’re going to see just how challenging these kinds of movements can be on the proprioceptive senses. Playful Movement—Beyond just crawling around, bringing a sense of play and exploration to your movements will help your nervous system adapt to less predictable movements.
3. Focus on Mindful Movement
Probably the most important thing for clumsy people like me is to pay attention. Everyone can benefit from moving more mindfully, but if you have poor proprioception, it’s even more important. Being present in your body and paying attention to your movements and your surroundings means fewer accidents and better success with whatever skills you’re trying to learn.
Be Mindful and Present—Mindfulness is a bit of a buzz word now, but this article will give you a good overview of how to start making it a useful and effective part of your life. And when you start to approach life (and your training) with a mindful attitude, you’ll be much less likely to have clumsy accidents due to distraction.Learn to Use Autoregulation—Once you’re paying closer attention to how your body is moving and adapting to things, you can start to use autoregulation in your training sessions to make sure that, on days when your proprioceptive senses are not as heightened, you can take it easier and maybe shift your focus. Likewise, on days when you’re feeling a bit more in tune with your nervous system, you can ramp things up a bit.
You’re Not Doomed to Be Clumsy Forever
Some people will probably always be less coordinated than others, and I may always struggle with my clumsiness, but working on these strategies can improve proprioception.
And better proprioception means less chance of injury, better control over your movements in whatever activities matter to you, and in my case, fewer memes posted on my Facebook wall making fun of my clumsiness 😉
The kinds of exercises that improve proprioception are big parts of all of our programs (and we’re coming out with a new program soon that address this even more specifically—stay tuned!).
If you want to find out when this new program is available, join the GMB Posse (it’s free!) to get on our list. (You’ll also get a 1-week kickstart program to get you started, and you’ll get 1-2 emails per week from us with helpful articles and tutorials).