The Importance of Training the Proprioceptive System

Mike Campanella

I’ve been on the personal training floor about 14 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 14 years. That’s 49,000 hours. (Also, holy sh*t). I literally have seen everything. I have seen every type of client, every type of coach, and every style of training. Just from experience alone, I think I could classify myself as an expert. At the very least, I am an expert in standing on a personal training floor for a long time.

I think one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the personal trainer/client relationship is the focus, or lack thereof, on developing the proprioceptive (pro-pree-oh-sep-tiv) system (sis-tem).

Proprioception is a crucial aspect of motor control and involves the ability to perceive the position, movement, and orientation of the body in space. It provides essential feedback to the nervous system for coordinating motor patterns and maintaining postural stability. Focusing on internal feedback, such as the feeling of correct posture, motor unit recruitment, and muscle engagement, can enhance proprioceptive acuity.

Why is this important? Understanding how an exercise feels is essential for achieving proper form and technique, which ultimately leads to better performance and reduced risk of injury. Often, people rely on external feedback, such as a trainer telling them how an exercise looks, to gauge their performance. However, this is putting the cart before the horse. Being able to feel the exercise intrinsically is crucial, as it allows you to orient your body on your own, repeat the position/pattern/movement again, and correctly translate this to sport or real-life situations

As mentioned before, developing proprioceptive acuity can improve motor control, coordination, and balance. It also forces you to become an active participant in the task at hand. Instead of talking about last night’s dinner, while simultaneously balancing on one foot and doing a single leg squat (dangerous, no?), focusing on how the exercise feels, versus what the trainer told you to feel, forces you to think about the exercise. This type of proprioceptive training can enhance the neuromuscular system’s adaptive capacity and improve motor learning.

It is the role of the trainer to reinforce this so that position corrections can be synchronized with the feeling of the exercise itself. This should only be done a few times, at most, as the ultimate goal is to get the positions & feelings to stick. Give a person a fish, feed them for a day, teach a person to fish, feed them for life, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum.

The Flow Chart of Client-to-Trainer Dialogue Should Look Like This:

The Setting

Coach → thoroughly explain the exercise, the set-up, and the muscles being used. Demonstrate it multiple times with proper technique.
Client → don’t pay attention and immediately forget everything the coach just said, begin exercise.

The Conversation

Client: “How does it look?”
Coach: “How does it feel?”
Client: “It feels like my right shoulder is drooping, and my lower back is working too much.”
Coach: “Remember when I was explaining and demonstrating the exercise and I said to ‘pull your right shoulder back, tuck your hips and squeeze your butt to turn off your lower back?’ Do that. How does it feel now?”
Client: “Better. I feel my glutes and core engaged and my upper body posture feels better.”

When you feel an exercise correctly, you can tune in to your body’s subtle cues and make adjustments accordingly. In conclusion, while it’s important to receive external feedback on how an exercise looks, it’s equally crucial to learn how it feels. Developing a sense of proprioception and training your nervous system to respond effectively to internal feedback can lead to better posture, form, balance, and control, reducing the risk of injury and improving your overall performance.

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