The effects of ankle stiffness on mechanics and energetics of walking with added loads: a prosthetic emulator study

Erica Hedrick, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Philippe Malcolm, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Jason M. Wilken, University of Iowa
Kota Z. Takahashi, Department of Biomechanics

© 2019 The Author(s).



The human ankle joint has an influential role in the regulation of the mechanics and energetics of gait. The human ankle can modulate its joint ‘quasi-stiffness’ (ratio of plantarflexion moment to dorsiflexion displacement) in response to various locomotor tasks (e.g., load carriage). However, the direct effect of ankle stiffness on metabolic energy cost during various tasks is not fully understood. The purpose of this study was to determine how net metabolic energy cost was affected by ankle stiffness while walking under different force demands (i.e., with and without additional load).


Individuals simulated an amputation by using an immobilizer boot with a robotic ankle-foot prosthesis emulator. The prosthetic emulator was controlled to follow five ankle stiffness conditions, based on literature values of human ankle quasi-stiffness. Individuals walked with these five ankle stiffness settings, with and without carrying additional load of approximately 30% of body mass (i.e., ten total trials).


Within the range of stiffness we tested, the highest stiffness minimized metabolic cost for both load conditions, including a ~ 3% decrease in metabolic cost for an increase in stiffness of about 0.0480 Nm/deg/kg during normal (no load) walking. Furthermore, the highest stiffness produced the least amount of prosthetic ankle-foot positive work, with a difference of ~ 0.04 J/kg from the highest to lowest stiffness condition. Ipsilateral hip positive work did not significantly change across the no load condition but was minimized at the highest stiffness for the additional load conditions. For the additional load conditions, the hip work followed a similar trend as the metabolic cost, suggesting that reducing positive hip work can lower metabolic cost.


While ankle stiffness affected the metabolic cost for both load conditions, we found no significant interaction effect between stiffness and load. This may suggest that the importance of the human ankle’s ability to change stiffness during different load carrying tasks may not be driven to minimize metabolic cost. A prosthetic design that can modulate ankle stiffness when transitioning from one locomotor task to another could be valuable, but its importance likely involves factors beyond optimizing metabolic cost.


Funded by the University of Nebraska at Omaha Open Access Fund