Humans love quantifying everything in the fitness world. Percent improvement. WOD Times. Mile splits. All the data you could ever freaking want from the Power Tap on your bike.
If you want to measure it, you can.
But do you need to only look at things that can be measured, or is there value in looking to hard-to-quantify, things like the mind-body connection (or more specifically: proprioception & kinesthetic awareness)?
Mind-body awareness can be about high-flying tricks. But it also is about how you move in your daily life.
So what is the mind-body connection and why is everything easier if yours is well-developed?
Proprioception is the subconscious awareness of where your body is positioned in space & that information is being sent back to our bodies from our brains to keep us informed of our body position.
The subsequent conscious response you have to activate your muscles or change your position accordingly is called kinesthetic awareness…from the pros over at Athletes’ Performance:
“Kinesthetic awareness is a conscious effort to react to the situation, while proprioception is an unconscious or subconscious process.’
If you combine proprioception with strong kinesthetic awareness, you’ve got a rock solid mind-body connection. However, this doesn’t mean that you should hang out on BOSU’s or wobble boards to develop a strong mind-body connection.
Standing on, and doing strength moves on top of, unstable surfaces is not The Thing the 90s and early 2000s seemed to want to make it. In fact, unstable surface training is one of the big ‘we know better now’ things to come through the fitness training world in the last few years.
From this article that covers industry leader Eric Cressey’s research on unstable surface training:
“The study found that performing half of the exercises in a training program on a BOSU ball not only didn’t offer a group of Division II soccer players any fitness advantage in terms of speed or agility, it actually decreased their jumping ability.
The new findings back up research first done by Eric Cressey, president of Cressey Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts, and the author of The Truth About Unstable Surface Training. In his study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2007, Cressey found that adding unstable surface training — even when it took up just 2 percent of a strength and conditioning program — curbed overall speed and agility gains. On a 40-yard sprint, for example, the regular training group improved their times by 3.9 percent, while the unstable group improved by only 1.8 percent.”
There is some benefit to unstable surface training if you are recovering from an already-existing injury. For example a foam pad under your foot as you do lower body exercises like squats can help you rehab an ankle injury because, in that case, there was damage done to the nerves & fascia around the injury site and this proprioceptively rich environment can help re-establish the connection of those nerves from the ankle to the glutes and up to the brain.
However!…even in ankle rehab settings, you should be on a stable surface first and show proficiency there before moving to a foam pad.
Ok, so if not unstable surface training, what the hell are we talking about here?
The main tool I use to develop proprioception is 'experience'.
I put individuals in the position to have to respond, and think, and feel while in a controlled environment like the gym. When it comes time to perform in real-life, their body has a strong sense of interconnectedness from which to draw stability, strength & power.
Seeing that strong sense of body awareness & control develop in my clients is one of my favorite things to see in this whole world.
I use a combination of the following in my coaching:
- Controlled, “isolation” type exercises – these are exercises where very little else is going on in the body so that all focus can go into “feeling” the muscle that we’re strengthening.
- A great example of this is the clam shell.
- Exercises that require the client to actively recruit a certain muscle and, in which, there is potential to use the incorrect muscle or joint to do the movement. Part of kinesthetic awareness is the ability to control the amount, type, and location of muscle contractions you want to have. For example, when we’re in a controlled environment like the gym, we can teach the brain how to fire the lats and serratus correctly so that when you need them in life and sports, you fire them intuitively, without a thought.
A great example of this is the scaption pushup. It’s actually pretty funny how often I’ll show the movement, verbally tell them not to use their elbows, then they try it and the first thing they do is use their elbows because they don’t have the kinesthetic awareness to see what I did & know to use their lats & serratus yet rather than bend their elbows.
- Heavy strength exercises that require the entire kinetic chain of muscles to work together thereby increasing the overall power of the muscular contractions that go into pushing, pulling, pedaling, etc.
Deadlifts, squats, lunges, overhead presses in the 1-3 rep range are just a few great examples of this as they require massive neurological linking, and are an excellent way to learn to control force production within the body. T-nation author, Jimmy Smith, says this on the matter: “Heavy weights force your body to lock in, to engage [everything]….you have to respond to heavy weights, where with light weights, yon can sneak in some half-ass movement.”
- Explosive movements that require the body to run these neurological connections with the greatest intensity possible.
HOWEVER: I often hear of endurance athletes throwing ploymetric drills into their training but they have never done heavy weightlifting before – doing this is a recipe for disaster. Your connective tissue needs to become strong & your fast-twitch fibers need to build their capacity to work, and doing plyos without ever having done heavy (like in the 1-3 rep range) weightlifting is putting the cart far before the horse.
When you do a plyometric drill like jumping, the force against your connective tissue is several times greater than the weight of your body. ?[For comparison, a back tuck in gymnastics is measured to have 14x bodyweight forces against the body. Box jumps, squat jumps & other typical plyo drills would be somewhere slightly less than that, but still – a major force against the body for sure.] If you can’t handle that load in a controlled manner as you would when weightlifting, it’s questionable to assume you can handle it in a less-controlled manner like when jumping.
As clients of mine move through this progression of mind-body connectedness, I start getting texts like this: “hey! just wanted to tell you, when I move around, I can feel my core holding me up better”….and…“I just feel so much better supported and in-control of my body now.” And my absolute favorite: “I felt my glutes today!”
THAT makes me beyond happy. It tells me that the focused work they’re doing in training – to get stronger, to build a better neural connection from the body to the mind and back again, to move better – is working. And for them, sports (& life), are becoming easier because they’re developing a better mind-body connection.
Because everything really is easier if you’re connected.
Not sure how to add mobility, strength, and mind-body connection all into one program? Considering how a custom-made strength & mobility plan can help you reach new levels of success in your training and performance? Head over to the Coaching page and drop me a note so we can connect about how I can help you do just that!