Weight(less) lifting Kansas Citian has sky high hopes for his exercise device

Paul Francis with his SpriraFlex machine, now being used by NASA to provide exercise to astronauts in space.
Paul Francis with his SpriraFlex machine, now being used by NASA to provide exercise to astronauts in space. KANSAS CITY STAR

This article originally was published in The Kansas City Star on Nov. 13, 2000.

Orbiting the Earth at this moment is Paul Francis’ latest invention. His piece de resistance, you might say.

Francis calls it the Resistive Exercise Device. RED for short.

A squat cylinder stands about 2 feet tall, with a spiral pulley and cable attached. This humble-looking gizmo could turn out to be the long-sought fountain of self-preservation that keeps astronauts from changing into puny weaklings during extended journeys in space.

Two of Francis’ units are on the international space station. The three astronauts who boarded the space station Nov. 2 are expected to start working out with them in the next few weeks.

Five more pairs are at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where astronauts train with them. The Russian cosmonauts have a set. And Francis keeps one in his one-room office overlooking the Country Club Plaza.

Francis wasn’t thinking outer space when he started tinkering 10 years ago with an alternative to free weights. He’s been an avid weightlifter since receiving a 120-pound set of dumbbells at the age of 12. Francis imagined there must be a better way to build muscle than by hoisting hundreds of pounds of iron. Something that might, say, fit into a briefcase.

“I thought if someone could duplicate (free weights) in a lightweight, safe package, they might make a lot of money,” he said.

Francis had abandoned an architecture career in 1984 to indulge an entrepreneurial impulse.

“I wanted to invent something and have ‘em mass-produce it,” he said. “A building they just build once.”

The RED was a big leap, technologically, from Francis’ earlier creations, the sorts of things you might find advertised on late-night TV.

He dreamed up an adjustable clothes rack and a battery-operated back and body massager. Later he devised a plastic modular hand tool with a lever that rests on the forearm and has attachable heads for sanding, scrubbing and scraping.

Francis sold 12,000 of his PowerStroke Systems in the United States and Europe. In England he marketed them over a shopping channel. Before a live camera he scraped, scrubbed and sanded for 12 minutes every hour for 24 hours. He hopes never to repeat that experience.

The guts of Francis’ latest invention, which he created with his partner Will Nelson, is something they call a FlexPack. It’s a sort-of wheel with spokes made of a compound of rubber plus “secret ingredients.”

The wheels are stacked up inside a can and attached to a pulley and cable with a handle. When you pull the handles, the wheels rotate back and forth. Each one can create up to 20 pounds of resistance, just like a 20-pound barbell.

The potential cosmic connection struck Francis one autumn day three years ago. While reading a newspaper in a Plaza coffee shop, he spotted an article about how much muscle mass astronaut Shannon Lucid lost while aboard the Russian space station, Mir.

Something clicked.

Francis sent information about his technology to NASA’s chief medical director, who invited Francis to stop by the next time he happened to be in Houston. Francis boarded a plane with his prototype the next week.

As Francis demonstrated his system, a few engineers came by to inspect it. Then a few more came in and a few more.

Two days later Francis returned to Houston to demonstrate his technology to the entire life sciences staff. They decided to purchase several units.

“We are constantly looking ... for different ways to apply resistance,” in zero gravity, said Mark Guilliams, an exercise physiologist for the space agency in Houston. “We are trying to mimic as close to free weights as we can possibly get.”

The task has become more urgent lately. Although bones and muscles can hold their own during a week or two aboard a space shuttle, four months circling Earth on a space station is another matter. And on NASA’s agenda: a mission to Mars, estimated to take six to nine months each way in zero gravity.

Jerry Linenger remembers feeling uncoordinated and leaden when he returned to Earth after 132 days aboard Mir in 1997.

“To roll over at night, I’d have to grab my head and yank it over,” he said from his home in northern Michigan. “It’s so effortless up there. If you wanna fly, you take your fingertip, push, and you’re on your way.”

And Linenger had worked hard to stay in shape while on Mir. For two hours most days, he tortured himself. He stretched bungee cords and ran on a treadmill while wearing a harness that pulled him down with the equivalent of 150 pounds.

“It felt like I had someone sitting on my shoulders,” he said.

Even with those efforts, maintaining himself was “a losing proposition.” He lost 35 percent of his strength while on Mir.

Only after 18 months of gradually more difficult workouts did he feel like himself. Even now, Linenger said he has 3 percent less bone mass in his hips and lower spine, which will leave him more vulnerable to breaks and fractures.

NASA’s Guilliams said the space agency, in its search for an antidote to astronaut atrophy, will eventually test RED and two competing designs at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and on the space station.

Although RED’s performance in zero gravity is, well, up in the air, Francis is making progress selling his technology here on the ground. Schwinn developed a workout system it calls the Resistance Performance Program that functions like a weight machine. The resistance is built into a bench and can be set anywhere between five and 140 pounds with the flick of a dial.

Schwinn is working on selling it to fitness clubs. The system will be for sale in the next month or two at some Schwinn Fitness dealerships, including some in the Kansas City area. The price tag: $1,200.

Francis is dreaming up other applications for his technology, which he calls SpiraFlex. He imagines incorporating it into a treadmill or other fitness machines or powering garage doors with it.

SpiraFlex behaves like a spring, but it’s based “on a whole new way to create resistance,” Francis said.

And gravity’s got nothing to do with it.