In Space – If You Don’t Squat … You Will Die!

Have you ever wondered what it takes to complete astronaut training with NASA? fitness experts Dr. David Ryan and Matt Biss get a first hand look into exclusive astronaut training rooms, flight simulators and more! Check it out!

Article Summary:
  • During space flight, an astronaut has an immediate response to the zero G environments.
  • The best exercises to stimulate muscle growth are squats and deadlifts.
  • Considerable amounts of training are necessary for any astronaut to complete any task.

Imagine your daily workout, as you climb on that exercise bike, you peer out of the window and during your one hour training session, you see 18 sun rises and sun sets. You're traveling at 17500 mph (Mach 25) and the morning commute will take you around the planet earth every 90 minutes. At the initial cost of 1.7 billion dollars the shuttle still costs approximately 450 million dollars to put into orbit for each mission. So with all of that hanging in the window, you might want to make this workout count.

It is an amazing adventure to pilot the space shuttle and it is even more incredible to have been chosen to fly it three times. That is where our story starts. Approximately one year ago, Jim Lorimer, co-producer of the Arnold Sports Festival; was contacted by NASA about a particular astronaut who indicated that he had visited the world's largest sports expo and that "had changed his life." To have a NASA astronaut amazed with the Arnold events really caught everyone's attention. How did the events of our weekend change this man's life?

If you stop and think about it, this statement has a profound meaning to anyone who is interested in the world of fitness. For all of the times that fitness, bodybuilding, weight lifting, exercise science has been laughed at, questioned or been discarded as obsessive-compulsive behavior, this comment finally recognized all that previous work as an important and key factor associated with the future of space exploration. As you will read through this article, without the benefits of exercise while in space, no one can survive currently without performing basic weight resistance movements.

During the Arnold event, Astronaut Col. Charles Hobaugh (USMC) was invited to present items that were actually taken into space to the host of the weekend, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. His presence backstage was rather stirring to the female competitors that evening and at one point his photo presence with most of the figure competitors in a group shot, actually stalled the show. Kris Gethin,'s Editor In Chief, and I quickly decided to pursue a more in depth evaluation of the NASA interest in fitness.

The Main Problem

During space flight, an astronaut has an immediate response to the zero G environments. Blood cells start shrinking; the bone cells start to atrophy. The calcium is dumped back into the blood stream and the kidneys start developing renal stones at an amazing ten times the normal rate. Muscles start to weaken and the spinal column becomes soft and begins to elongate. Even your spine starts to stretch out from the lack of gravity.

If left unchallenged the body will continue to dysfunction and your time in space will eventually cause additional complicating physical factors that actually will result in severe medical conditions and eventually result in death. To counteract this effect, the average astronaut has to exercise in space for two hours daily. If they do not exercise appropriately they will blow up with water and likely experience renal (kidney) shut down and go into a coma.

So how do you feel about your daily routine of fitness now? All of those workouts have finally contributed to years of exercise science and the making of a successful space program.

On the morning of my arrival to tour the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, my morning started at 5 AM preparing to join the colonel for his morning workout. It took a little work to get to the right location, and with some GPS guidance from the colonel's wife, we arrived just in time.

Author Dr. David Ryan Poses With Colonel Holbaugh And NASA Media Rep Gayle Frere
+ Click To Enlarge.
Author Dr. David Ryan Poses With Colonel Holbaugh
And NASA Media Rep Gayle Frere.

We met at one of the local yachting clubs fitness centers. You might think this is going to get boring real quick, but hold on to your hats, this get's real interesting. My partner and media support for the trip was strongman trainer and fitness expert Matt Biss, who was interested in getting in some sort of a workout to round out the day.

As we entered the local "spa fitness area" we quickly noticed that this wasn't what we had planned on. To what did our wondering eyes see, but: bumper plates, rubber lifting platforms, squat racks, power cages, hammer strength equipment, even a Westside Barbell reverse hyper. Matt became overwhelmed with the sight of two farmer's carry apparatuses.

As the colonel walked us around we noticed the local yacht community was quite beautiful, but leaning against the outside wall were two large caterpillar tires. The colonel laughed and pointed at them and said, "The big one is for the boys and the little one is for the girls."

It was a wonderful setting watching the colonel and his training partner Mark Martin go at the steel. One of the most amazing things was to see a small young boy at the age of 12 enter the gym to train at 6 AM. It was simply fantastic to see an astronaut starting his morning with a full leg workout including heavy, deep, parallel squats.

Colonel Holbaugh Performs Squats At The Workout Facility
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Colonel Holbaugh Performs Squats At The Workout Facility.

This is 6:15 AM and somewhat even more impressive was a 10-11 year old boy named Ryan, who was in the gym training. I was so impressed I gave him a gym bag. The entire lifting experience was overseen by head trainer Dave Davis, who is a locally trained competitive strongman. My whole day could have stopped right there, but we had a full day in front of us.

As the morning progressed we entered the grounds of the Johnson Space Center (JSC). Our first stop was the Gilruth Center. This is a fully developed exercise facility that is available to all of the staff of the JSC. It has a full working staff and is housed in two buildings. NASA is again defining the importance of fitness for the non-flight personnel.

It takes lots of people to make a space mission successful, so no one is overlooked. This is an important lesson for any company to learn. No person in a company is considered too insignificant and everyone is given the opportunity to remain healthy. For the complete story of this facility, which is a story in itself, visit: Starport Fitness

Most of the buildings at JSC are just numbers. They house various elements of the NASA team and perform various functions. As the needs for space exploration change, the specific buildings take on a new function; their insides are changed to remain amendable to the needs of the program. We started at the nutritional support building after we obtained our security badges.

Nutrition For Space Men...

The nutritional support for the astronauts is a very complex situation and just like with any other field of fitness, it represents the main factor in keeping the astronauts healthy. Food science is mainly associated with safety. In space you can't just run to the emergency room if you get a food born pathogen, so making the food safe is priority one.

Dr. Vickie Owens has been directing the food labs of NASA for many years. Her kitchen doubles as a museum to show the changes made to space program food over the years. There are no refrigerators in space since it isn't cost effective to put a Kenmore in orbit and exposure to the exterior of space would surely freeze the contents, but it isn't stable and the deviations' of temperature are by hundreds of degrees as the shuttle orbits.

As she showed me the various packaging of the foods I had to ask some obvious questions. We talked about how the food had changed over the years of the space program and also the changes for food preparation. The current packaging uses vacuumed sealed pouches and each with a Velcro tab on it to keep it secure in zero G. The most shocking information was to learn that food is basically store bought and then packaged by NASA.

Most of us avoid processed foods since it lowers the nutritional value, but consider that cost and shelf life are key factors in the space program. Vickie explained that another major consideration was the issue of "comfort foods."

In space flight you are extremely closed in, so remember those car trips across America? Imagine doing it several times and you don't leave the car. Cabin/Car/Space fever is very real and the psychology of keeping the moral up is at a high level of priority. In spite of all of that, no one stays fit and healthy long on Taco Bell in the back of a motor home or a space shuttle/station.

In the defense of Dr. Owens, she is not the final decision of the food going into space. A team of flight surgeons are making the ultimate choice of the diet for the astronauts. The simple problem is associated with the lack of nutritional training offered to the basic medical doctor.

So a simple answer to some of the issues faced with space nutrition may be partially solved by fortifying the food. Adding protein powder to the grits or oatmeal is an easy improvement to the basic meal. Sending some fresh vegetables and fruit is also needed. Even the English sailors of the early years needed to have fresh limes on ship to prevent scurvy (hence the name Limeys).

Flight Simulator...

The next stop was at an amazing opportunity to fly the shuttle simulator. The next building houses the computers and motion and flight control simulator and oddly enough a working shuttle toilet. Col. Hobaugh had authorized us to fly in and actually simulate a landing in the shuttle simulator. It is amazing and no one takes your ticket as you enter the two stairway walk to the entrance.

As you get seated you can't help but notice this isn't going to be like any Disneyland ride. There are eight screens and over two thousand working buttons. You get into a five point harness and listen carefully to your pre-flight programming. As you are preparing for liftoff, the simulator tilts 90 degrees on your back and the countdown begins. The bumps and jolts that you feel are pretty authentic according to the three time veteran astronaut piloting the craft.

As You Get Seated You Can't Help But Notice This Isn't Going To Be Like Any Disneyland Ride
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Ryan: As You Get Seated You Can't Help But Notice This Isn't Going
To Be Like Any Disneyland Ride.

They ran us backwards after the colonel had landed us on a dime perfectly and you are given the controls and some pre-landing instructions. The colonel cautions you that if it gets ugly, he will take over. I'm very proud to say that neither Matt nor I needed any overbearing assistance from the colonel, but it is easier to know he was there. It is a lot smoother with him handling the landing gear and shoots too. The whole process was just amazing and now to know that the shuttle has been retired by President Obama makes that day all the more special.

We visited the simulator building, and I finally saw it; the thing we all know that NASA has, but we just never see it. No not just the toilet, it was the room full of computers! A whole room just stuffed with computers and servers and they were all working. It is a geek's heaven, so I asked and just had to shoot a picture of it. Eventually the next stop was an even more detailed simulator and they were actually in communication with mission control.

We Visited The Simulator Building, And I Finally Saw It; A Whole Room Just Stuffed With Computers And Servers And They Were All Working
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Ryan: We Visited The Simulator Building, And I Finally Saw It; A Whole Room Just Stuffed With Computers And Servers And They Were All Working.

The toilet on the shuttle is quite unique. What looks like handles to bear down on either side are actually tension loaded thigh restraints and they keep your butt down during delivery. Sanitation is of the utmost importance during space travel and nothing should be floating around during zero G. To master this, the engineers have developed a toilet that has a negative air flow and so it pulls in any matter that might be around.

To help with "bombs away" there is a practice toilet complete with a spy cam to make sure that each astronaut is on target with their approach. It might seem that NASA has an odd fetish, but again remember this is no joking matter when you are in space you don't want crap floating around. Okay, I couldn't help it.

As we were leaving the simulation area, they handed me a sheet of paper, which read like a report card and numbers. The colonel said I would need more practice and that my landing would have likely "scuttled the ship," and then he smiled in jest. The astronauts practice for thousands of hours prior to flight and this all ends with a cake cutting ceremony prior to flight.

There Is A Practice Toilet Complete With A Spy Cam To Make Sure That Each Astronaut Is On Target With Their Approach
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Ryan: There Is A Practice Toilet Complete With A Spy Cam To Make Sure That Each Astronaut Is On Target With Their Approach.

Each simulator has a mission control and I was standing in the area and took the picture with my panoramic camera. The NASA engineer looked at what I was doing and said, "WOW." "Hey," I said to the colonel, "I just made a NASA guy say wow!" This made me feel better about my supposed damage to the simulated shuttle landing.

Our next stop was to the actual training center for the astronauts and upper support staff. When you walk in it looks like any common gym area and then some odd pieces of equipment are in view.

An underwater treadmill helps the astronauts recover from the effects of zero G. It is currently taking about thirty days for a complete recovery when they touch back down to earth. They cannot fly or participate in heavy activities since their bodies are so fragile following space travel. This is all known as adaptive physical sciences and it is headed by a team of exercise scientist, who are constantly trying to improve the protocol.

An Underwater Treadmill Helps The Astronauts Recover From The Effects Of Zero G
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An Underwater Treadmill Helps The Astronauts Recover From
The Effects Of Zero G.

Their latest contribution is associated with the ARED (advanced resistance exercise device). This is a very special exercise device, which produces a possible resistance of 600 pounds. It is very high tech and not likely something you will see in the gym anytime soon.

I asked why they need 600 pounds in space, frankly who is that strong? Interestingly enough, when you squat on earth, you have whatever is loaded on the bar, plus your body weight. In the environment of space you have no body weight, so a 200 pound man, who normally squats 400 pounds on earth, needs 600 pounds of total resistance. Remember there is no gravity pulling on your body and so you need to add resistance to obtain the earth bound total force against you in space.

Interestingly enough after years of testing, millions of hours of reading articles, thousands of hours of simulation and hundreds of hours of actual space flight testing a simple fact still remains: The best exercises to stimulate muscle growth are squats and deadlifts. So don't believe me or the hundreds of other articles written, it is NASA tested and NASA approved.

Total Squat weight on earth X
Body weight on earth Y
Equation of X + Y = New PR in space!

Issues With Space Travel...

Other issues of space travel involve exercise protocols and maintaining a motivating workout. One piece of exercise equipment is a fitness bike. Not your normal sprint cycle since this one folds up to the size of an average carry-on bag; it is also quite durable and oddly enough was built by a Dutch company.

Just like every other building at NASA, the previously used inventions are lying around to remind and inspire staff of the older versions. When I was at Ohio State University we worked with the cardiac protocol for the treadmill. It is a very unique device since you can't pound your feet on the treadmill without suffering the consequence of altering the ships direction of travel.

Think about that the next time you are busting out a cardio session. Each movement you make on the cardio equipment, it directly affects the direction of the ship. To counteract the force on the space ship, scientists have literally suspended the treadmill in a hammock-type setting. It helps resist the forces of the treadmill.

Remember any motor on a treadmill can quickly send the ship off course. If you didn't enjoy math in school, then determining a spinning double-helix position in space is just beyond any level of your understanding. It isn't what NASA scientist enjoys doing when lives are at stake.

So the next time you are wondering about setting up a training program for someone, consider all the difficulties that scientist/trainers like Mark Griffin and Robert Tweedy need to consider. All of the issues need addressed and don't forget that you have to handle the influx of the massive past and current exercise information being produced across the world.

It is also complicated by various limitations of physical ailments that are constantly occurring in an aging astronaut staff. The average age range of astronauts is between 32 and 40 years of age. This means several have pre-existing injuries coming into the program and each can develop new injuries as they prepare and participate in space travel.

Underwater Training...

After lunch our next building was a building that actually was named after Sonny Carter (A Naval solder who lost his life). The facility houses the underwater training that the astronauts use to simulate the zero G environments, originally developed by Buzz Aldrin. The training boasts a safety record of over 100,000 hours without incident. This building also prepares each spacesuit for each astronaut. This is where while trying on just a pair of gloves became a scary situation. Lucky for me, my adventure started with a seamless glove underlying that finally allowed me to remove my hand.

Another part of the building housed the coolest tool I have ever seen. It is a simple cordless drill, but not something that you will just find on any shelf at Home Depot. This device digitally counts each rotation and, oh yeah, it's made of titanium. Consider that if you are not strapped in when using this drill, you will spin like a fan. They have complex forms of tie downs to provide stability while training.

Considerable amounts of training are necessary for any astronaut to complete and assure the safest most effective way to accomplish any given task. I would like to thank the guys at Nigel and all the guys at NASA's "Tool Time" for allowing me to experience those devices used in space.

The Facility Houses The Underwater Training That The Astronauts Use To Simulate The Zero G Environments
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The Facility Houses The Underwater Training That The Astronauts
Use To Simulate The Zero G Environments.

Space Shuttle Models

One of our last buildings was the "house of models" as I termed it. Here there are full scale working models of the shuttle, international space station, and other common space items. These are very necessary to run through extensive training that the crews need to complete prior to lift off.

In The
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Ryan: In The "House Of Models" There Are Full Scale Working Models Of The Shuttle.

Thousands of hours are spent training for each mission and typically several years are spent for any single mission. Once assigned to a mission, each specialist has to train for their specific task and also the overlap of other astronauts' events. The various parts of this training facility have resulted from the combined efforts of several countries, which is all evident by the multitude of international flags flying.

Ellington Field

Our last stop was at Ellington Field. Here is where the flight ready astronauts stay sharp on their flight skills with the T38's and the Gulfstream 2 converted aircraft. All of this training adds up to make NASA astronauts the most space ready and helps them return safely from each mission. NASA is completely filled with dedicated, highly motivated, highly trained people who are all focused on successful missions to space exploration.

Ellington Field Is Where The Flight Ready Astronauts Stay Sharp On Their Flight Skills With The T38's And The Gulfstream 2 Converted Aircraft
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Ryan: Ellington Field Is Where The Flight Ready Astronauts Stay Sharp On Their Flight Skills With The T38's And The Gulfstream 2 Converted Aircraft.

Putting this training together with the fitness requirements offers some simple perspectives on the difficult task given to each astronaut. This also provided the beginning of an explanation of the appreciation that Col. Holbaugh obtained with his visit to the Arnold Sports Festival.

The amount of training, dedication and organization that goes into each athlete's success at their respective event puts down the basics for his admiration. Given all of this insight, we all can only be humbled at the amount training and resulting admiration that NASA has given to all of us.

I would like to especially thank Gayle Frere media rep for NASA for her relentless organization and friendship during our visit in Houston.

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