The  article that follows was published on June 18, 2010 on an internet group called EPICSKI.  I have revised the article to improve clarity and consistency with the technical terms used in the THE MECHANICS + BIOMECHANICS OF PLATFORM ANGLE series of posts.

The Birdcage Experiments

 by David MacPhail

In the summer of 1991 a science team Steve Podborski and I had assembled to develop a new ski boot conducted pioneering studies on the Blackcomb summer glacier with a device we affectionately named the “Birdcage.” The purpose of the studies was to test my hypothesis of the mechanics and biomechanics of platform angle as it pertains to skier dynamic stability and the basic premise of my hypothesis that explains how  GRF acting on the inside edge of the outski is extended out under the platform of the ski. The Birdcage is shown in the photo below.


The Birdcage was fit with 16 sensors each with its own channel as shown in the legend below.

Specific mechanical points of the foot, in particular the ends of the eccentric torque arm, connected to specific points of the rigid structure of the Birdcage while leaving the remaining areas of the foot substantially unconstrained. The object of the experiments was to study the effects of specific forms of constraint applied to key mechanical points of the foot we had previously identified on skier balance as it pertains to steering and edge control. The experiments also included tests that studied the effect of interfering with specific joint actions. The experiments were designed in accordance with a standard scientific protocol; one that standardized conditions from test to test while varying one factor at a time.

For example, to study the effects of cuff forward lean angle on specific muscles, the range of rotation of the cuff was kept the same from test to test while the initial angle at which the cuff was set was varied from test to test. The cuff was fit tightly about the leg so as to reduce to a minimum any effects of movement of the leg within the cuff. Other aspects of the test such as position of the heel and ball of the foot in relation to the centerline and inside edge of the ski were kept the same.

By using such test protocols the firing sequence of specific muscles and their effect on dynamic stabilty could be studied. This data could then be used to determine the sequence of events and relationship steering to edge platform angle control. It was discovered that by varying the conditions that affected the firing and effectiveness of the soleus muscle, it could be played like a musical instrument. For example, if the cuff angle were set too erect the soleus muscle would make multiple attempts at the start of each loading sequence to try and get COG over the head of the first metatarsal.

Our primary tester for the experiments was Olympic bronze medallist and World Cup Downhill Champion Steve Podborski. Steve is shown in the photos below having the Birdcage adjusted to his foot and leg.

The cable coming from the rear of the device is connected to a Toshiba optical drive computer (remember, this is 1991) that Toshiba loaned us in support of our program. The biomedical engineer and the Toshiba computer are shown in the photo below.

Since telemetry was too costly and less positive we used a 1200 ft cable that linked the Birdcage to the Toshiba computer set up in a tent. Although the technician could not see the skiers being studied within a short period of time he could easily analyze their technical competence in real time by assessing the incoming flow of data from the sensors fit to the Birdcage. This was even more remarkable considering that the technician had no background in skiing, ski teaching or coaching.

The testers wore a harness to keep the cable from interfering with their movements. A chase skier ensured that the cable remained behind the testers and did not pull on the testers. Of interest is the fact that I was unable to elicit any interest in the results of the Birdcage study

As far as I know a study of this nature had never been done before and to the best of my knowledge a similar study has never been repeated since the Birdcage experiments. The Birdcage remains one of the most sophisticated analytical sports devices ever conceived even by todays’ standards. The Birdcage research vehicle is the barefoot minimum standard for the ski boot.


In this post, I will expand on the content of The Shocking Truth About Power Straps (1.) which was by far the most popular post since I started this blog in 2013.

While the truth about what power straps can potentially do if improperly adjusted is shocking, the lack of support in principles of applied science for the basic premise that I describe as indiscriminate envelopment as the approach to achieving a fit of a ski boot with the foot and leg of the user with the objective of substantially immobilizing it’s joints with unknown consequences, is even more shocking. Little or no consideration appears to be given to the effects of indiscriminate envelopment on the balance and motor control systems of the skier.

What is done to the foot and (lower) leg can affect the entire body. In his post, Foot biomechanics is dead. Discuss (2.), Professor Chris Nester states:

The foot is not a compilation of interconnected mechanical components that respond precisely to the laws of mechanics. It is a complex matrix of at least 11 biological tissues (i.e. skin, fat, muscle, tendon, joint capsule, ligament, bone, cartilage, fascia, nerves, blood vessels….) that responds to external loads through the symbiotic relationship between the motor control system and tissue properties.

Professor Nester goes on to state:

I believe the integration of our current foot biomechanics knowledge with insights from motor control, neurophysiology and related domains (e.g. tissue biology) will drive advances in foot function more than pursuing a pure mechanics paradigm.

Professor Nester proposes that the term biomechanics be replaced with the term Neurobiomechanics. I concur.

How Does the Ski Boot Affect the Human Performance of the Skier?

The short answer is that when the structures of a ski boot indiscriminately envelop the structures of a foot and a portion of the leg (aka the Perfect Fit or the Holy Grail), no one knows. While it is essential that a ski boot create a secure connection of the foot of a skier with the ski, it should not achieve this connection at the expense of natural neuromuscular function, especially balance.

In 1980, when I was about to prepare a new pair of Lange race boots for Steve Podborski, I asked myself whether it was possible to obtain a secure connection of the foot with the ski without compromising natural neuromuscular function or, even better, was it possible to enhance natural neuromuscular function?

I took a significant step towards answering this question in 1980 when I designed and fabricated a device I called a Dorthotic. The Dorthotic supports the upper or dorsal aspect of the foot as opposed to supporting the plantar aspect (i.e. the arch). My theory that loading the top of the foot or dorsum with a force perpendicular to the transverse or medial-lateral plantar plane of the foot has positive benefits for motor control and balance has begun to be recognized. The Dorthotic enabled Steve Podborski to compete and win on the World Cup Downhill circuit mere months after reconstructive ACL surgery and to eventually win the World Cup Downhill title, a feat no non-European has repeated. US and international patents for the dorsal device were awarded to me (David MacPhail) in 1983.

The success of the Dorthotic gave me a start towards answering the question of whether a secure connection of the foot with a ski was possible without compromising natural neuromuscular function. But I knew that I needed to learn a lot more. I realized that finding the answers I was seeking and especially unraveling the secret that enables the world’s best skiers to stand and balance on their outside ski, would require a multi-disciplinary approach.

The Missing Factor in Skiing: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach

A significant influence that served as the impetus for the design of the Birdcage research vehicle and the on-snow studies, was the work of Dr. Benno Nigg. In 1981, Dr. Nigg accepted an invitation to move from ETH Zurich, where he was the director of the biomechanics laboratory, to the University of Calgary, where he founded and developed the Human Performance Laboratory (HPL), a multi-disciplinary Research Center that concentrated on the study of the human body and its locomotion.

The publication of the Shoe In Sport in English in 1988 served as a seque to introduce me to Nigg’s research at HPL. Studies done at HPL found that any interference with the function of the human foot, even a thin sock, extracts a price in terms of the adaptive process the human body has to undergo to deal with what is really an externally imposed disability.

The Effect of Footwear on the Neuromusculoskeletal System

There is an excellent discussion in a recent post on the Correct Toes blog (3.) on the impact of a narrow toe box, toe spring and elevated heel of traditional footwear on the human body. Elevating the heel in relation to the forefoot will predictably cause a realigment of the ankle-knee-pelvis joint system with a corresponding adjustment in the tension of the associated muscles with a global effect on the Neuromuscularskeletal System. This has been known for decades. Elevating the heel in relation to the forefoot, will cause the ankle joint to plantarflex (reduce dorsiflexion) in relation to the support surface under the foot in order to maintain COM within the limits of the base of support.

Ramp Angle Rules

Due to the unstructured nature of the indiscriminate envelopment characteristic of the fit of the majority of conventional ski boots, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine the effect of constraint of this nature on the Neuromusculoskeletal System. So I’ll focus on the one aspect of the ski boot that has consistent and profound implications on skier human performance, especially motor control and balance; boot board ramp angle or zeppa. Binding ramp angle or delta compounds any effect of zeppa. For the sake of simplicity we’ll assume zero delta.

Contrary to the widely help perception, raising the heel of a skier in a ski boot does not cause CoM to move forward. In fact, it usually has the exact opposite effect. It puts a skier in the back seat with the weight on their heels. Worse, it can disrupt the competence of the biokinetic chain that dynamically stabilizes and protects the joints of the lower limbs. Excessive heel elevation can render a skier static and cause the balance system to resort to using the back of the shaft as a security blanket.

As of this writing, I am unaware of any standard within the ski industry for zeppa. It appears to be all over the map with some boots having as much as 6.5 or more degrees. The default zeppa for the human foot on a hard, flat level surface, is zero.

Through subjective experiments in 1978, I arbitrarily determined that zeppas in excess 3° had a detrimental affect on skier balance. In 1991, zeppas of 2.3° and 2.5° were chosen for the large (US 8-12) and small (US 4-8) Birdcages based on an analysis of the effect of ramp angle on COM and neuromuscular activity. This range appears to work for a majority of recreational skiers. But recent tests with a dynamic ramp angle assessment device that I designed and fabricated is finding the stance of elite skiers optimizes at much lower zeppa angles, with some skiers below 1.5°. Interestingly, when NABOSO insoles are introduced for the assessment, zeppas decrease even further. With minimal training, most skiers are sensitive to dynamic changes in zeppa of 0.1 degrees.

Implications for the future of skiing

A tectonic shift is underway on a number of fronts (see A Revolution) that is challenging the mechanical and static premises that form the underpinnings of the key positions in ski teaching and the design of equipment such as ski boots and the fit process. In my next post I will post recent material by Dr. Emily Splichal, functional podiatrist and inventor the revolutionary NABOSO small proprioceptive stimulating insole.

  1. https://wp.me/p3vZhu-UB
  2. https://talkingfeet.online/2018/01/18/question-3-foot-biomechanics-is-dead-discuss/
  3. https://www.correcttoes.com/foot-help/footwears-impact-musculoskeletal-system/


In LESS REALLY IS MORE I talked about how I gone in a direction opposite from that of the industry after my perfect fit experience with Mur. I was now removing material from ski boots instead of adding material and expanding shells where necessary to make room for the structures of the foot. While this seemed to generally have a positive effect on skier balance and the ability to control skis, especially edging, removing material from the sides of the boot liner  exacerbated the fact that in the majority of cases I was encountering the shell wasn’t loading the instep of the foot. The reason for this turned out to be  that there was a void between the top of the tongue of the liner and the inner surface of the shell over the forefoot. This was allowing the foot to move upward into the void space or unload from contact with the sole plate (aka boot board) in response to changes or perturbations in ground reaction force. I coined the effect Separation Anxiety because of the alarm bells it was setting off in the skier’s balance system.

After I became aware of this effect, I started doing experiments to try and understand how it was affecting a skier’s balance and ability to control their skis. While riding ski lifts with foot rests (the old slow chairlifts) I would let one of my feet drop off the foot rest and try and feel what was happening with my foot and leg inside the boot when the foot unloaded from the boot board. At that time, I wasn’t thinking in terms of trying find a solution for knee injuries. I saw this as an issue that would be addressed by refinements in bindings which at that time were rapidly evolving. Through my experiments I had come to the realization that the unloading and reloading of the sole of the foot with the boot board, such as occurs when a skier is moving over irregular terrain, was setting off a chain-reaction of physiological events that were creating balance issues. Although I didn’t know exactly how, this unload/load cycle  seemed to be placing stress on the knee. But my focus was trying to find a way to reduce the effect on skier balance. In effect, I was trying to achieve a net improvement in skier balance by reducing negative balance artifacts.

The standard solution in those days was to attempt wedge the heel with heel or L-pads inserted in the liner. The objective was to keep the foot from lifting. I tried this approach. But I  found it didn’t work as advertised. The pads invariably caused problems with the Achilles tendon or they prevented the heel from seating in the back of the shell, or both. The latter had the effect of making the liner shorter and the boot hell to put on. I was looking for a better solution. But it wasn’t until 1980, while working on Podborski’s boots, that I came up with a device that eventually led to my being granted US Patent Number 4,534,122.