In Part 1 (Use it or Lose it: Boost Body Awareness in Your Pilates Clients), we learned about what proprioception is and how it works, how body awareness is an element of proprioception, and why these are important to our clients. Here, I will give you eight strategies to create more body awareness.
1. Use Closed Chain Exercises
These are exercises in which the hand or foot is fixed on a surface (on the ground, wall, bar of a Reformer or other apparatus) and cannot move, causing compound movement of other joints up the kinetic chain. These types of exercises load more joints and fire more muscles than open chain exercises do. Open chain exercises are ones in which the ends of joints or body parts are moving freely in space. With closed chain exercises, more joint and muscle loading means more mechanoreceptors can fire. Closed chain exercises also involve a balance or stability component, which challenges and improves the proprioceptive system.
A slightly unstable surface causes micro movements in joints and muscles, which activate more proprioceptors in an attempt to help the client maintain stability. Try exercises standing on one leg, or remove bases of support (quadruped to arm leg reach). You can also include props, such as a wobble board, Swiss ball, sit fit, foam roller or any destabilizing surface if the client is ready for it. And for clients who do not have any specific equipment at home, towels, blankets or yoga mats can be rolled or folded to make the surface less stable.
3. Take A Sense Organ Out of the Equation
Having your client close his or her eyes increases the information sent from mechanoreceptors to the brain because there is one less sense to get in the way at the spinal cord level. Also, closing the eyes decreases stability, requiring more small joint motions to maintain equilibrium.
4. Slow it Down and Break it Down
This strategy increases the time available for the brain to register small changes in muscle tension, limb position, and tissue stretch. Slowing down an exercise means that the client can focus on HOW they are doing the movement, not just getting the movement done (the latter keeps them in their old movement pattern). Breaking up a complex movement (like a roll up) into component parts helps your client focus on the body parts and specific actions required for each stage of the exercise.
5. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition…and more Repetition
One of the most important factors in learning a motor movement is practice, and LOTS of it. Coordinated, efficient movement can require dozens of repetitions. Get clients to do the exercise in many different ways (seated, standing, on a Reformer, eyes closed).
Make the movement meaningful, so the client can use the movement on a daily basis. One of my clients with lower back pain was disinterested in doing exercises, but wanted to get better to be able to lift up his infant son. I showed him proper lifting technique but had him picture himself lifting his son.
6. Decrease Pain
Pain signals will drown out the proprioceptive inputs that also want to travel up the spine to the brain. Pain also decreases joint movement, which negatively alters the brain maps of the body, decreasing proprioception and thus body awareness. To help a client who is having pain, try these strategies: diaphragmatic breathing, decreasing the intensity of an exercise, modifying an exercise so that the body has more support, and stop whatever exercise is causing pain.
7. Use the Power of Touch
Information from the skin is crucial for proprioception. There are almost ten different kinds of sensory receptors in the skin, making touch a powerful way to bring a client’s attention to the body part we want them to be aware of. When working with clients, use sustained, moderately deep hand pressure when possible; this helps to increase tissue temperature and blood flow, which increases awareness; it helps the client feel safe, understand your verbal cues better and know which part they need to be working.
Touch that is too light can make clients feel ticklish and does not give them information on how they are supposed to move. Using directional pressure with your touch also helps clients understand what we want that body part to do. Be mindful about making your touch specific and directive; touch only the places you want the client to become aware of in that moment. If you touch other areas simultaneously or arbitrarily, that is where your client’s awareness will go. Use your powers for good!
Lastly, research shows that therapeutic touch can decrease pain.
8. Make it Fun!
Learning happens better in a relaxed environment; we cannot take in new information when we are under stress. Making movement playful encourages creative, novel movement, which means more joints, muscles and body parts are involved, thus more proprioceptive input for the homunculus! Plus, clients will do something more if they enjoy it!
To summarize, as movement instructors, we want to wake up in the client the ability to sense what body part they are moving and how they are moving it. If we can slow down the movement, use touch appropriately, use strategies to challenge the client to fire more mechanoreceptors and make sure they’re having fun doing it, the client is on the way to improving their body awareness!
Have you ever had a client who has trouble detecting their movement during a certain exercise? What tricks have you used to help them become more aware of their movements? Please feel free to post any questions and comments below.