Proprioception: The Next Frontier in Performance

Crawling drills will awaken your sixth sense and reignite your brain-body connection.

If you’re stuck in a rut and unable to bust through a plateau, the problem isn’t your muscles. It’s your brain. When your brain and body don’t know how to talk to each other, performance suffers. In this article we’re going to explore a simple process to reignite your brain-body connection.

Take action to prevent your brain from forgetting how to talk to your body.

Awaken Your Sixth Sense

You know the body’s five main senses: hearing, touch, taste, sight, and smell. Together they combine to form your picture of the world. But without your sixth sense, you’d have a hard time making your way through that world. This sixth sense is proprioception. Proprioception is that unconscious awareness of your body’s position in space.

To get a clearer idea of proprioception in action, try this: clap your hands together behind your back. With a healthy proprioceptive sense, you’ll find this pretty easy, despite not being able to see your hands.

To get another example of how proprioception relates to external feedback, try the drill in this video:

  1. Begin standing with your hands by your sides.
  2. Close your eyes and try to get a sense of where your spine is in space. You might need to shift around to get a feel for your spinal curves.
  3. Next, make your way down onto your back and repeat the visualization exercise, this time comparing notes on how your mental map differs from when you were standing.

So how does proprioception work? Throughout your body, you have sensory receptors that send constant messages to your brain. These messages help the brain keep track of just where those receptors are in relation to each other. It’s a complex job that we often take for granted. But it took years and years of exploratory movement for this sense to develop. For example, we spend a huge amount of time rolling, creeping, and crawling on the floor in our development. These formative movements help us develop this bodily sixth sense.

What do we do once we’ve developed this sixth sense? We squander it, forced to sit still in classrooms for the next 12+ years. And when we aren’t actively moving our bodies, these maps grow fuzzy, leading to sensory-motor amnesia. Essentially, the brain forgets how to talk to the body. And we hop right into our training, ignoring the fact that our software no longer works the way it should. Performance stalls, injuries crop up, and we forget that movement should feel good.

Add Variety to Movement

There was a cool study published recently that explored a simple solution to this predicament.1 The researchers looked at quadrupedal movement (you know, crawling) as a way to influence cognition and “joint reposition sense”- also known as proprioception. What they found was surprising. After just four weeks, participants in the crawl training group found significant improvement in executive function and joint repositioning (within the training range). In a sense, crawling made these folks smarter.1

The logical question is: if the effects are specific to the trained ranges of motion, how do we make the most use of these findings? Simple: we need to train with more variety in our movements. Exploring novel movements has repeatedly been shown to influence our cognitive capacity,2 from working memory to proprioceptive response.

The possibilities are endless, but here are three crawling patterns to explore variety in quadrupedal movement:

  1. From hands and knees, float your hands and knees up and begin to move opposite limbs together, crawling forwards and backwards. You can use this as part of a dynamic warm up or as a conditioning unit on its own.
  2. From a squat, reach your arms to one side and using your hands as a new point of support, pop yourself up and reach your legs through, moving in a lateral direction. You may notice that one direction is easier than the other.
  3. From a squat, reach your hands to one side and rotate yourself in a circle from the point of support in your hands. Land facing the same direction as you started.

Stay Ahead of the Curve

In a nutshell: if you know you’re in a rut, get yourself out of it. Learn new skills, or attend an unfamiliar workshop. There are dozens of natural movement workshops offered by MovNat. The brain-body connection is the next frontier in performance. Ignore it at your own risk.

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1. Matthews MJ, Yusuf M., Doyle C., Thompson C, “Quadrupedal movement training improves markers of cognition & joint repositioning,” Human Movement Science, 17(2016): 70-80.

2. Alloway RG & Alloway TP. “The working memory benefits of proprioceptively demanding training: a pilot study.” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 120(2015):766-775.

Photo courtesy of MovNat.

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