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Proprioception Training: An integral aspect of joint replacement fitness

Proprioception refers to the conscious and unconscious perception of postural balance, muscles sense, and joint position and stability. Basically, it is your sense of where you are in time and space for movement. We have found over the years that the best way to explain proprioception to clients comes from Dr. Eric Cobb at Z-Health Performance Solutions:

“Proprioception is the body’s 3D map of itself in time and space. AKA our movement and awareness map”.

The detail and definition of this “proprioceptive map” comes from several specialized mechanoreceptors (i.e. nerve endings) in the muscles, tendons, joint capsules, fascia, and skin. As fitness trainers as we are usually taught about muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs when we learn about flexibility training, but there is a lot more to proprioceptive input. You are affecting the proprioceptive input to the brain when you use a neoprene knee sleeve (pressure), kinesiology tape (skin stretch), heat or ice packs (temperature), TENS units (electric), etc. 

Why understanding and training proprioception is important for joint replacement clients

Several conditions can alter proprioception, thus “clouding” the map and degrading movement sense and capability, including pain, trauma, effusion, and fatigue. A joint replacement client also likely had poor motor control of the joint in the first place that resulted in compensatory movement patterns and overuse injury over time. Complicating the matter further, although it may have been necessary, the surgery itself is an “insult” to the musculoskeletal and nervous systems.

To move a joint well, you must be able to feel the joint and surrounding tissue well. An extreme example of what can happen without the sense of touch or joint position is the story of Ian Waterman. A rare neurological illness resulted in his losing all touch and joint position sensation, effectively paralyzing him from the neck down even though the motor control area of his brain and the descending pathways to send movement information to his musculature were fine!

Varied stimulus drives improved mapping

We can improve proprioception in several ways:

  • Reduce causes of proprioceptive “inhibition” (i.e., pain, fatigue, and effusion) – Therefore we need to only move in pain-free ranges of motion, and build muscular endurance.
  • Augment sensory information – We can do this by providing novel sensory stimulus to the affected area such as vibration, kinesiology taping, skin stimulation, pressure, or temperature. 
  • Weight Bearing Exercise Therapy – Loading, appropriately and progressively, compound movements.
  • Motor Skills Training – Exercises to target accurate movement such as multi-directional movements based on visual stimulus.

The important take away is that building a “library” of prior movement patterns is especially important for the post-medical joint replacement client. We want to get their new joint moving in multiple directions, at multiple speeds, under multiple loads.

The concept of proprioception and how to harness it is not only for joint replacement, but also for general fitness, performance, and pain clients! Begin learning a neuro-centric approach to medical fitness and how to work with joint replacement clients with our Joint Replacement Fitness Specialist online course, available through the MedFit Classroom!

Pat Marques is a Z-Health Master Trainer and NSCA-CPT specializing in training the nervous system to improve performance and get out of pain.  After retiring from the Active Duty Army, Pat pursued his education and certifications in exercise science, initially working with wounded, ill, and injured soldiers. During this time that Pat discovered the power of using a neurological approach to training to get out of pain and improve fitness and performance. He currently provides exercise therapy, movement reeducation, and strength and conditioning for all levels of clients at NeuroAthlete, from chronic pain sufferers to Olympic-level and professional athletes.



  1. Lephart, SM and Fu, FH. (2000). Proprioception and Neuromuscular Control in Joint Stability. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  2. Roijezon, U., Clark, N., and Treleaven, J. (2015). Proprioception in musculoskeletal rehabilitation. Part 1: Basic science and principles of assessment and clinical interventions. Massage Therapy (20).
  3. Cole, J. and Waterman, I. (1995). Pride and the Daily Marathon. MIT Press.
  4. Roijezon, U., Clark, N., and Treleaven, J. (2015). Proprioception in musculoskeletal rehabilitation. Part 1: Basic science and principles of assessment and clinical interventions. Massage Therapy (20).

MFN Contributing Author

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