Balance training in the physical preparation of athletes. Part 2.

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

In Part 2 of this series on balance we will look at how the postural control system maintains balance with a focus on proprioception. You can also go back and read Part 1 by clicking here.

The postural control system and proprioception

Balance is governed by the postural control system via sensory information from the visual, vestibular and proprioceptive systems. These systems assess the position and motion of the body in space followed by the generation of appropriate forces to control body kinematics. Of these three systems proprioception may be of the most interest to strength and conditioning coaches since when it comes to improving balance performance this is what the majority of our training targets.

Proprioceptive training, although often incorrectly used interchangeably to describe balance training, represents a different performance quality. Proprioception refers to a sense of joint position and the relative movements occurring at them, whereas balance is an ability to control one’s mass over its base of support. Proprioceptive feedback primarily originates from sensory receptors located in muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons. The visual and vestibular systems also contribute to a knowledge of joint position but as described above can be considered as separate systems.

Proprioceptive ability is important in everyday movements and especially so in the complex multi-joint actions commonly practiced in sport. The demands of sport often require precise movements performed at high speeds involving large forces, high impacts, evasion and sudden changes of direction. Proprioceptive feedback of the conscious and unconscious position of a joint or limb in motion is crucial in these situations for the avoidance of injury and to enhance performance.

As a coach there are a number of the things you can do in training that can have an effect on the proprioceptive feedback an athlete experiences so as to enhance and/or challenge balance performance. These include:

  • Adding directional loads to steer a body segment into a sub-optimal position so the athlete can have a greater sensation of what the wrong position feels like. Such as using mini-bands to pull the knees into valgus when squatting.

  • Adding directional loads to steer a body segment into the correct position so the athlete can have greater sense of what the right position feels like. Such as when spotting a novice lifter through the full range of motion.

  • Adding external load to a movement so the body has a greater sense of what direction it is applying force. Such as teaching an olympic lift with a weighted bar rather than a dowel.

  • Causing moderate localised fatigue at a particular muscle group, since this will give a heightened awareness of the structures involved.

  • Decreasing the contribution of the visual system by performing exercises with eyes closed or without looking at the joint being trained, as this will require the other feedback systems to work harder in line with the overload principle of training.

  • Reducing the repetition velocity, increasing the time-under-tension and increasing the number of repetitions performed will all increase the time window for sensory feedback to take place.

  • Using tape and tight clothing to increase feedback from receptors on the skin as it moves.

  • Applying external pressure to a muscle group as it contracts concentrically, such as applying pressure with your thumb to the VMO during a leg extension.

  • Using external objects as targets to teach a specific point in a movement, such as touching a box with the glutes to increase awareness of a desired depth in a squat.

There are many more strategies that you can used and I would be interested to know what other coaches have found effective. I hope you enjoyed Part 2 of this series. In Part 3 we will look at the main strategies the body uses to maintain balance.

Please do share and comment on social media. Would you love to know peoples thoughts. Dan.

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