Sep 25, 2017
A Leg Up

This article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.

If only athletic trainers could look beneath the skin and see athletes’ muscle patterns in action, they would know which players had an edge — and which were facing the potential for injury. With new technology from a University of Virginia startup, athletic trainers might soon be able to do just that.

Springbok, the startup, uses an analytics platform and MRI scans to create 3-D renderings of athletes’ leg muscles. From there, the company’s software makes comparisons between each muscle’s size and a predetermined average. The results are displayed by color, with average-sized muscles shown in yellow, smaller-than-average muscles in red, and larger than average in blue.

According to its creators, the technology is providing a new window into how athletes’ muscles function and heal. “We are learning about muscle volume patterns that are important to running fast, jumping high, being nimble, and recovering from injury,” startup co-creator Craig Meyer, PhD, Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Radiology at Virginia, told Charlottesville (Va.) Tomorrow.

The ability to compare an athlete’s muscle mass with a norm is a unique component of the testing. “[This technology] provides athletic professionals with information they can’t get anywhere else,” said co-creator Joe Hart, PhD, ATC, Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Research at Virginia’s School of Medicine and Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at the Curry School of Education. “It tells you exactly which portion of each muscle is bigger or smaller than normal and how that relates to performance.”

Since Springbok’s founding in 2013, the 3-D renderings have been used by Virginia’s baseball, basketball, football, soccer, and track and field teams. One useful application so far has been identifying athletes with persistent muscle weakness following an injury, such as atrophy after surgery. “These athletes were not mismanaged; this is a common consequence of injuries,” said Dr. Hart. “But [an athletic] trainer would want to do something about that if they could see it.”

In addition, about 15 members of the men’s basketball team have been experimenting with the technology. The resulting data has helped Mike Curtis, MEd, CSCS, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Men’s and Women’s Basketball, link vertical jump heights with athletes’ muscular makeups.

“I was intrigued by it,” said Curtis. “I thought there was information that could advance our training or at least triangulate it on specific qualities our athletes need for their sport.”

Springbok’s platform is not available to the public yet, but it may be soon. The company is currently in a three-year beta testing partnership, with the hope of marketing the product in about a year and a half. “We are hoping to get a better idea of how this technology will be used,” said co-creator Silvia Blemker, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Virginia. “That will influence our business model going forward.”

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