The Motion Hunters

Science and technology, a dive in the modern-day sports biomechanics

A science that makes technology the pivot to achieve applied and measurable results.

Scenario number 1
1878, with photography still in its infancy: photographer Eadweard Muybridge takes up the challenge launched a few years earlier by the governor of California Leland Stanford – to confirm or disprove the hypothesis that there comes a moment when a galloping horse has all four hooves off the ground. Muybridge managed to capture that very moment, immortalizing a running horse by using 24 cameras positioned alongside the route it would follow, with each frame in the sequence triggered by a thread acting as a tripwire for the galloping hooves. The sequence generated showed how all four hooves were lifted simulta- neously, but not with the legs fully extended in the way usually portrayed by the painters of the day.

Scenario number 2
1888: Jules Marey, inventor and physiologist, dedicates himself to the analysis of human and animal movement. Faced with the problem of creating multiple images in the shortest possible time, especially for studying the flight of birds, he designed and built the photographic gun: it was an ordinary shotgun, equipped with a circular photographic plate inside a tiny pinhole cam- era. The barrel served as a true photographic lens. In the same way, he pursued his studies of human movement thanks to the availability of French volunteer soldiers. Marey had them parade along a level surface, dressed in black with white dots marking the position of the joints, in a forerunner of modern motion capture film-making.

Scenario number 3
2018: in some of the most famous golf clubs in the United States, members can enjoy having their swing filmed and then comparing it with that of a champion, to understand their errors and refine their coordination.

Three different examples, far removed in time from each other. Put together, though, they enable us to reconstruct the kaleidoscope of today’s Human Motion Technology. Progress in the study of movement, spanning more than two centu- ries and bringing us to modern-day sports biomechanics – the scientific discipline dedicated to the study of human movement in sports, aiming to improve motor performance and its constituent parts.

Many movements can now be described and understood through kinematic and dynamic parameters; the most widely studied and practiced example, in both medicine and sport, is gait analysis. A system of infrared cameras and force plates shows how (but, above all, why) movement takes place in one particular way rather than another. All this data, combined with bioenergetic signals such as muscular and respiratory activity, shows how good we are, how efficiently – and even harmoniously – we accomplish a particular type of movement.

Technology has allowed us to move from descriptive analysis to objective analysis.

The science of transforming an enormous amount of data into information to improve not only sports performance but, above all, the quality of life of people suffering from motor disorders.

Through infrared cameras and dynamometric plates set in the floor, it is possible to measure all the most important space-time parameters of walking, but also to calculate the angle of articulation and the forces generated by joints such as the hips, knees and ankles. The result? An impressive amount of data that must then be synthesized to obtain all possible applications – for example, by comparing them with a reference database in order to evaluate any acute pathologies, or to monitor the effectiveness of a rehabilitation program.

The study of the turn in swimming, the analysis of foot contact in running, the movements that make up a golf swing, muscular fatigue in particular fields of work, but also analysis of motor responses by simulating on-court action (perhaps the run-up to the spike in volleyball, the service in tennis, or the free throw in basketball) – these are small examples of how science puts itself at the service of sports.

In Italy we find some of the most advanced sports biomechanics laboratories. Their services are in demand with both professional and amateur athletes. An interdisciplinary project at the Milan Polytechnic has spawned e4Sport Lab, a facility boasting state-of-the-art equipment that can generate bespoke training proto- cols designed to the highest standards.

The Luigi Divieti Laboratory of Posture and Movement Analysis, another spin-off of the Polytechnic in the same field of research, provides data to measure any functional limitation in athletes and fine-tune possible rehabilitation protocols. Many years of experience with the Mapei Team in the world of professional cycling, to mention another example, have allowed the Mapei Sport Research Center to become a leading authority in the biomechanical study of bicycle racing – with particular reference to optimizing the cyclist’s position in the saddle.

A question arises at this point: how far can the human body go with the support of science and technology?


PH Giuseppe Ippolito
TEXT Mauro Farina


April 15, 2020

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