Building neuromuscular control is important for safely building muscle

By Jesse Kepka
NASM Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Nutrition Coach and Corrective Exercise Specialist

Hey, brain – are you awake up there? Is the phone line to my muscles up and running?

You know that one guy at the gym, the one with quads the size of a tree trunk and seemingly way more than 6-10 pack abs, even though you know that’s impossible? He’s really strong. Brute strength, and it shows. But guess what? If you ask him to stand on one foot, can he do it? Nope. Not unless he’s been training his brain to do so. Same goes with the guy that can bench press twice his body weight. If you ask him to do a single push-up on a stability ball, he’ll likely fall apart. Throwing a wrench in his workout with controlled but unstable environments will confuse the hell out of his body! Today I wanted to make sure you know why we ask you to do silly things like balance, plyometrics and lots and lots of abdominal stability. It’s all for proprioception!

Proprioception: Awareness of Your Body and Its Movements

Proprioception is a big trainer nerd word. It basically means that you know where and what your limbs are doing in space, no matter what the environment – stable or unstable. And you know these things because you feel them, and you’ve taught your brain to recognize correct movements. Not because you have a mirror or an outside source, like a trainer, telling you what they’re doing.

Can you touch your index finger to your nose with your eyes closed? Can your body recognize the difference between running on grass, sand or pavement, even with shoes on? And will it respond appropriately to change its movement for each condition? Our bodies have billions of neurons, those little dudes that are coordinating signals between our brain and our muscles (neuromuscular), and we can help them in their efficiency and quickness in response. “Wow, that stove is hot,” to “Move your hand, move your hand!” Sensory integration to muscular response. I hope that one is quick!

Improving stability is foundational and necessary

Stability and balance are huge here. We don’t have you doing a bicep curl with one arm, standing on one leg on top of a foam pad, just to make you look funny and off-kilter. It’s necessary to perfect these skills before we load that body down with tons of weight. It keeps you safe and free from injuries, especially in those joints that were built to last forever! In being able to manage your posture in these unstable environments, you’re increasing your strength and power down the road. Turning those abs on without having to call on them, just by instinct, is invaluable in protecting your body.

We have all these brilliant and efficient mechanisms built into our bodies, we just need to make sure we refine and perfect them. Think about how much children love to play on playgrounds. Balance beams, monkey bars, rock climbs, rope climbs, tree stump hopping…it’s instinctual, and they’re drawn to it. Use it or lose it! Side note: I’m a big warm-up girl. I take so much time to make sure everything is powered on and ready to rock. Before your next workout, add in some balance exercises to make sure you brain is on, too. Some of my favorites are leg swings, see-saws, lunges, hop-hop-to-single-leg stick, skaters to balance, single-leg hops, bear crawl balance…find your favorites (and a couple you hate, because there’s probably a reason you do, wink-wink), and you’ll feel that much more powerful in your workout!

Tip shared by Jesse Kepka, NASM-certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist and owner of Elevate Fitness. Jesse is a co-organizer for Priority Fit Camp. Each week, we publish a health and wellness tip that is shared at the Priority Fit Camp community workout. The free group class happens every Saturday at 7:50 a.m.  

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