Proprioception Exercises – Move Like Spider-Man

By on August 6, 2019

In this series, I’ve been exploring how we can move with more agility and grace, just like Spider-Man. Crucial to this discussion is the concept of proprioception exercises – and the notion that muscles are not just power generators, but also sensory organs.

Proprioception Exercises

Proprioception is sometimes described as the “sixth sense.” This is appropriate given Spider-Man’s ability to sense danger, but of course it is also a complete misnomer. In fact, we have many more than five senses! It’s a great fit if we’re trying to emulate Spider-Man however, who actually does have an additional sense!

proprioception exercises

Proprioception is just one example of a sense that we often overlook and few of us practice proprioception exercises. This is our ability to sense the position of our limbs in space, which is essential whether we’re trying to pull off a backflip, leap over an obstacle, or catch a ball. It’s also a sense that many of us have neglected to the point of allowing it to atrophy over time. Because we use our bodies so little, we are getting nothing back from them – they have become insensitive and inert. This makes us significantly less agile, hampers our ability to balance, and hurts our hand-eye coordination. Proprioception exercises can fix that.

But it’s good news, because it means that you only need to do a little training to get an advantage over everyone else!

Meet Your Proprioceptors

Proprioception uses proprioceptors, which fall into a few categories.

Muscle Spindles: First, you have muscle spindles. These are our “stretch receptors” and detect changes in muscle length. This tells you how long the muscle is and by getting that information from every joint, you can infer the position of the muscles.

Golgi Tendon Organs: These are found in tendons and tell us about changes in muscle tension: how much force we are exerting at any given time. They are useful for preventing injury, but also help us to use graded muscular force when taking part in dexterous activities. It’s thanks to your golgi tendon organs that you don’t constantly rip the tap off the sink!

Pacinian Corpuscles: These are located in the skin and help to detect pressure changes, telling us about texture, temperature, and more. Effective proprioception exercises should target all of these.

Spider-Man Crawls

When you balance or move through space, the brain should be using information from all these along with further data from the eyes and ears to help you maintain an upright position. For example, if you lean forward then you will detect this with your vestibular system inside the inner ear, and with your eyes as you see the horizon change. You’ll then use your proprioceptors in order to gradually increase muscular tension in the necessary areas to close certain joint angles, bringing you back into alignment with your center of gravity and preventing you from falling over.

Much of this happens reflexively when we aren’t actively training proprioception exercises. Through countless attempts to stand and crawl as a baby, your nervous system lays down extremely concrete pathways to help you quickly right yourself when you would otherwise lose balance. For instance, the myotatic reflex – or stretch reflex – is a muscular contraction that happens in response to a muscle suddenly stretching. So if you start to fall forward, your antagonistic muscles will automatically contract and keep you in position.

This is almost “decentralized” thinking, outsourcing to the muscle cloud!

This is called a monosynaptic reflex, meaning that it contains only two neurons and never actually passes through the brain – this allows us to move far quicker and reduces mental processing. This is almost “decentralized” thinking, outsourcing to the muscle cloud! This is true “no mind” or “ultra instinct.” And interestingly, it does show signs of plasticity (study) through proprioception exercises.

Most of our reflexes are polysnaptic, meaning we can take conscious control over them and utilize more sensory information. When we learn a new skill such as a flip or a perfect karate punch, we build fast and efficient neural pathways relying on this same sensory feedback. This also lets us quickly react to an unexpected punch or slip.

We are constantly receiving information about the world around us through our bodies, and then using those same senses to move elegantly around obstacles or exert just the right amount of force.

One arm one leg push up

Problem is, that most of us spend all day sitting at a desk fixed in one position, not listening to our bodies at all. Furthermore, we wear thick shoes which remove a huge amount of crucial proprioceptive feedback from our feet. The golden rule in the brain is “use it or lose it” and most of us have lost it. That’s why proprioception exercises are so important right now.

How to Train Your Proprioception

Body Scan Meditation

Stop and ask yourself where your limbs are in space right now. Where do you feel pressure on your body? Which parts of the muscle are holding tension?

As you start to listen to your body, you can begin to feel the positions of the joints and suddenly you might notice little things like a slight spinal misalignment, or perhaps tension being held in your shoulders. Fix those things and you’ll be in a better position to move quickly and access all your explosive power should you need it.

Ninja Meditation

You can practice developing this awareness so that it becomes second nature by using bodyscan medication. This is meditation where you observe your own body and actively relax each muscle group starting from the head all the way to the toes. This kind of meditation is an easy proprioception exercise anyone can use.

Where your limbs are in space right now?

This can also help to prevent injury. As we get older and our vision starts to fail us, being able to feel with our feet when navigating stairs for example can greatly help to prevent falls. Next time you’re walking down stairs, try to navigate with your feet as much as with your eyes. Likewise, strengthening the myotatic reflex can help us catch our balance if we should slip.

Hand Balancing

As for more active proprioception exercises, what options do you have?

Common advice is to practice such things as balancing on one foot, then to listen to the lengthening and the shortening of the muscles.

That’s good and well, but is more useful for rehabilitation and maintenance. It’s not going to help you move like Spider-Man.

Bent arm strength

For that, I recommend trying more ambitious balancing movements such as sissy squats, one legged calf raises, and hand balancing. A handstand requires a lot of feedback from your arms and core, and few people actively train the upper body in this manner.

Sensory Deprivation

As you become more confident, I also recommend attempting some of these with your eyes closed. Doing this will allow you to remove some of the distracting data from other senses, thereby allowing you to focus exclusively on the information you are getting from your body. Try to picture yourself in space, and to feel the tension in every muscle and the position of every joint.

Daredevil is another guy with awesome proprioception

This is one of the most powerful proprioception exercises you can perform if you want to become as agile as Spider-Man.

Barefoot Exercise

Another crucial tip is to try training barefoot, or to invest in a set of minimal shoes. I wrote a review of the pair I’m wearing right now – The Vivobarefoot Primus Knits – which I’ll link to in the description down below. If you want something cheaper though, a pair of Feiyus will do the job nicely. Trail running in shoes like this and feeling the ground beneath you is particularly good for this, as is making note of which toes you are using when performing movements like the squat or a box jump. I made a video on this, so check that out too!

Vivobarefoot Primus Knit

Stretching

Stretching can further help to develop proprioception, especially if you focus on the sensation as you practice those movements and really feel the stretch as it happens. Particularly useful is something called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation – or PNF stretching. Here, you actively contract the stretched muscle before letting it relax and lose all tension. This can also help you to override the myotatic reflex where necessary to improve your mobility and flexibility.

Mobility Training

Also powerful is to use weighted stretching, slow eccentrics, and quasi-isometrics. Doing a pull up or push up extremely slowly gives you the chance to really feel the feedback from the muscle contractions and to alter the amount of force minutely as you do.

Animal Moves

Practicing a wide variety and range of movements is also useful and important, and all novel movements can be considered to be proprioception exercises. In part one of this series, I explained how using contralateral movements like the Spider-Man crawl could improve your coordination and dexterity. You can take this a step further by incorporating more complex movements, known as “animal moves.”

Animal moves are currently a trendy topic in fitness, with the idea being that you move like a variety of animals in order to develop strength, mobility, agility, and proprioception. You’ll be crawling like a bear, kicking your back leg like a scorpion’s tale, and moving along on your back like a crab – all perfect proprioception moves. Many programs also then involve transitioning between these movements, to create a seamless endless flow. You’ll find yourself in positions you would never normally reach, which can come in handy when you find yourself leaping and twisting in the air to dodge a bunch of pumpkin bombs.

Squat walks for single leg strength

You can similarly take movements from other practices, such as capoeira for example, dance, gymnastics, and more. This helps to create new neural pathways and grow your brain, as well as developing new strength and mobility that you previously did not have. Ido Portal is a huge advocate of this kind of training, believing that the purest way to train is to train “movement” and to focus on learning new skills and patterns from a variety of disciplines. He famously trained Colin McGregor to great effect.

Train Outdoors

I’ve spoken as well about the value of training outdoors – where every movement is slightly different and unique thanks to the different levels of the ground, small stones and twigs, the different heights of the branches, and the different levels of wind resistance. No two movements are the same, which is huge when compared to the set, rigid, up-down patterns that we usually practice ad nauseum in the gym.

Proprioception training

Closing Comments

This type of proprioception training is not for everyone. It definitely falls into the “hipster” category, and there are those that would likely turn their noses up at the guy bouncing like a monkey, while they do the “serious” work in the squat rack. It’s possible preferable to proprioception exercises that involve standing on balance balls and curling weights against resistance bands though!

Adding novel movements to your training has repeatedly been shown to boost brain function

But the fact that this is goofy is part of the point. The book Animal Moves: How to move Like an Animal to Get You Leaner, Fitter, Stronger, and Healthier for Life actually recommends having “fun” days spent doing things like climbing trees and juggling balls.

Playing is learning, and in this case learning with your body. This is one of the best ways to develop not only more agility and dexterity, but also greater plasticity and learning potential.

Spider-Man agility

In one cool study, it was found that practicing Spider-Man crawls could help to boost both joint repositioning and executive function (study). Adding novel movements to your training has repeatedly been shown to boost brain function, including seemingly unrelated aspects such as working memory (study). My theory is that this is linked with embodied cognition.

Whether you want to be more athletic, or just more resistant to age-related injury, I highly recommend practicing proprioception exercises.

So if you want to move like Spider-Man, practice moving like Spider-Man. But also like the Lizard. And like the Scorpion. And like Batroc the leaper. Listen to your body. And sometimes try it with your eyes closed.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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