July 31, 2001 FORT COLLINS -- A group of Colorado State University students are going to be floating over the skies of Texas in July, trying to determine just how one does a dead lift when neither lifter nor lifted weighs much of anything.
A NASA program, Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, will give the Colorado State undergraduates an opportunity to see if their exercise machine works as intended. If so, the device could prevent bone mass and muscle loss for astronauts on long missions aboard the International Space Station or to other planets.
By flying parabolic arcs, a KC135 aircraft from NASA's Johnson Space Center will provide teams from Colorado State and other universities with 30-second periods of microgravity 26 times a day in which to test their hypothesis.
The Colorado State team -- human development and family studies major Erin McFadden, the team leader; mechanical engineering majors Michael Blackledge, Donny Newsom and Josh Porter; engineering science major Kirsten Kilbourn; and David Bower, the odd-man out with a double major in economics and wildlife biology, will conduct an experiment that NASA is watching closely.
A dead lift involves bending from the waist, grabbing a weight (e.g., a barbell or exercise machine handle) and slowly standing up, keeping the knees slightly bent and bringing the weight near the waist to strengthen thigh and back muscles. On earth, it's a staple of weightlifters. In space, it just might help prevent crippling weakness.
NASA is definitely interested. Leaders of last year's team and inventors of the exercise machine, Paul Colosky and Tara Ruttley, are working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, further refining their device.
Susan James, associate professor of mechanical engineering and the team advisor, said the difference between this year's project and last is that the 2000 flight sought to determine if the machine worked as designed. It did. This year, the experiment will focus on how exercisers can use the device effectively in microgravity.
"The dead lift is a good exercise in gravity, but people have different postures in microgravity," she said.
What astronauts need is a constant-force weight machine that simulates weight-bearing exercise on earth. Earlier efforts have involved elastic bands with varying resistance. Colorado State's machine uses constant torque springs to provide constant resistance, just as weights or a home gym device would.
"We're going to try to find out if the straight-legged dead lift can stop (muscle and bone) atrophy by looking at the biomechanics of the exercise without a gravity vector," said Bower. During the weightless portions of the flight team members will stand on a pad with 2,400 micropressure sensors while electrodes attached to their skin will measure muscular electrical activity. Data should indicate if muscle groups are being worked properly.
"We know what a proper dead lift looks like in gravity, one that avoids injuries and uses the right muscle groups," McFadden said. "In microgravity, things are going to change."
Adds Newsom, "We're trying to find out just what the correct posture is in microgravity for this exercise to have maximum benefits and not, for example, use the lower back too much."
Support comes from the NASA Space Grant Program and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, with pressure sensor equipment donated by Tekscan Inc. of Boston and the EMG system donated by Cleveland Medical Devices Inc. of Cleveland, Ohio.
Paul Wilbur, professor of mechanical engineering and head of Colorado State's Space Grant Program, said of the team, "They work together well and hard, and they've done an excellent job so far. They're a very unique group and an interesting one."
James has been impressed, too.
"I'm really proud of them," she said. "They're an interdisciplinary group, which is exactly what you need on a project like this. It's really been their energy this whole time that has driven the effort."
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