Is conservation of center of mass mechanics a priority in human walking? Insights from leg-length asymmetry experiments [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Kirsty A. McDonald, Daniel Devaprakash, and Jonas Rubenson

Center of mass (COM) control has been proposed to serve economy- and stability-related locomotor task objectives. However, given the lack of evidence supporting direct sensing and/or regulation of the COM, it remains unclear whether COM mechanics are prioritized in the control scheme of walking. We posit that peripheral musculoskeletal structures, e.g. muscle, are more realistic control targets than the COM, given their abundance of sensorimotor receptors and ability to influence whole-body energetics. As a first test of this hypothesis, we examined whether conservation of stance-phase joint mechanics is prioritized over COM mechanics in a locomotor task where simultaneous conservation of COM and joint mechanics is not feasible: imposed leg-length asymmetry. Positive joint mechanical cost of transport (work per distance traveled; COTJNT) was maintained at values closer to normal walking than COM mechanical cost of transport (COTCOM; P<0.05, N=15). Furthermore, compared with our measures of COM mechanics (COTCOM, COM displacement), joint-level variables (COTJNT, integrated total support moment) also displayed stronger conservation (less change from normal walking) when the participants’ self-selected gait was assessed against other possible gait solutions. We conclude that when walking humans are exposed to an asymmetric leg-length perturbation, control of joint mechanics is prioritized over COM mechanics. Our results suggest that mechanical and metabolic effort is likely regulated via control of peripheral structures and not directly at the level of the COM. Joint mechanics may provide a more accurate representation of the underlying locomotor control targets and may prove advantageous in informing predictive models of human walking.

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