The Mind body connection can be discussed from many different angles. When discussing movement such as in exercise or rehabilitation proprioceptors are a very important aspect to consider. Proprioceptors are the main source of communication between our brain and our musculoskeletal system. These receptors are found throughout our joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and fascia. It is how we know where parts of our body are in relationship to other parts of our body. In a sense it is the old school term “muscle memory” but much more complicated than that. They allow the perception of one's own body position and movement . Proprioceptors give our brain information that is crucial in adjustment of movement force, position, speed, timing, and angles. They are the key to learning new skills and preventing injuries.
So you might be asking yourself why are proprioceptors important for me to consider? Proprioceptors are important for anybody who is interested in improving the mind body connection as it relates to staying healthy through movement. They must first be understood and then they must be trained. Mainly they are important to consider when stretching and exercising.
When muscles are stretched the proprioceptors (muscle spindles) are activated and they send information to the brain regarding the change in length of the muscle. This triggers what is called the stretch reflex which is an attempt to resist the change in muscle length by causing the stretched muscle to contract. The more sudden the change in contraction of muscle the stronger the stretch reflex will be. An example of this would be plyometric training. One of the reasons for performing a static hold while stretching for long periods of time is that the proprioceptors habituates and becomes accustomed to the new length and reduces the signal and eventually you then train the proprioceptors to allow more muscle length. Now if you perform static stretches to simply gain muscle length as in people with muscle imbalances this is a good technique but if you are a person who moves such as a runner or dancer dynamic stretching makes much more sense because you should train the proprioceptors to respond accordingly with just the right amount of reflexive contraction to resist end ranges of motion.
If you stretch statically you create mobility but this can be dangerous as the body has no information on how to resist the end of the movement. Dynamic stretching allows the muscle to gain length but then learn exactly how much length to gain for the specific movement and then what to do at the end of the movement. This is mainly important for preventing injuries.
When exercising proprioceptors are important and should be considered when making your goals. If your goals are weight loss then proprioceptors are less important but if you goals are improved balance, activity or sport specific, strength, or power improvements then proprioceptors should be considered. Exercise should be designed to meet your specific goals. For example if I am exercising in order to become a better cross country skier than my exercise routine should have movements that are functional and replicate specific movements that are involved during cross country skiing. Proprioceptors are trained during these activity specific exercises and allow our muscles to learn how to act during these movements. Our brain remembers these movements and then allows us to perform better during the activity we are training for. Let me give you an example. Let’s say I am exercising today to increase my abdominal strength so that my abdominals can help me be a better cross country skier and I choose a sit up to strengthen my abs. While doing the sit ups I can definitely feel my abs working hard as they are burning like crazy. Now when examining somebody cross country skiing it would appear as though each time the person strides forward there is an element of trunk flexion that occurs similar to a sit up motion but there is one element to consider. When standing upright while skiing and flexing forward gravity actually flexes your trunk, not your abdominals. Therefore, when performing a sit up you are not training your proprioceptors the right way. In fact a sit up or flexion based abdominal exercise is training your abdominals to be strong during flexion while laying down. When we are skiing we need our abdominals to stretch out into extension and rotation and control our stride length and spine extension. The sit up will train your proprioceptors the wrong way and can actually create a higher risk for injury while skiing. Specifically injuries in this situation would include abdominal muscle tears, sports hernias or lower back pain because our abdominals have not been proprioceptively trained to control the spine and legs as we stride forward.
Overall Proprioceptors are what dictates how we move. They connect the brain and the body for movement. Once we understand how they work it makes it easier to design exercise and flexibility programs that allow each one of us to reach our goals. It is truly one of the most important mind body connections that will allow us to be healthy.
Andrew Gorecki, DPT