Prototyping the Bar Heel Pad
That casual and usual way of accepting the status quo is everything I'm trying to break with each product that Asher Athletic develops. This Bar Heel Pad is the first example of the way things get done around here. Read on to learn about development of this flagship product.
Released in April 2018 – along with the inception of this website– the Bar Heel Pad was met with simultaneous eager anticipation from small gymnastics circles, and shrugs of indifference from those who didn't yet know how this is any better or different than what is widely accept and used in gyms all over.
As you may well know, the basic Acme standard of heel protection for gymnasts training higher level bar skills has been pretty much anything from indoor volleyball knee pads, skateboarding elbow pads, and similar devices made for other sports, to a coach or teammate hastily sliding a mat over the bar (*cough cough* men's gymnastics!).
Not good enough.
Of course there had to be a better way. Gymnasts deserved better. So from early 2017 I began working to produce a prototype of a new kind of heel protection that is designed specifically for gymnasts and their unique training needs and conditions. Testing would be done at my home gym, Aerials Gymnastics in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Most prototype heel pads were sent to the gym over a several month period to keep chipping away at a final design.
What I didn't like about previous heel protection examples needed to be intensely looked at and assessed. Namely:
- Inadequate cushioning, leading to skills practice hesitation and injury.
- Inadequate ankle, heel, and foot surface coverage.
- Poor materials, leading to chalk and sweat absorption.
- Lack of purposeful features for gymnasts.
- Poor overall quality.
Let's now take a look at some of the prototype evolution that happened during the more than one year of developing the Bar Heel Pad.
Just look at that thing! This first example of what I came up with had some merit, but a lot needed to change from the get-go. The heel pads were very over-built. It was big and bulky, made up of two sections that could articulate according to pointing and flexing of the feet. They were also cumbersome to put on and take off.
The main wins were the adeptness of construction, as well as a couple confirmations in materials choices. Also a basic proof of concept was achieved.
Though still lightweight, you can see how much material was used in the first prototype. This model did have really nice protection of the heel, but there was too much padding higher up above that, which was unnecessary. At the same time the middle section that did not have any cushion made me nervous. The elastic band would also need to be upgraded.
After realizing what needed to be done for a second attempt, it was best to simply cut the first heel pad prototype in half and go from there. The way the heel fit inside the protection was definitely off to a good start, and so new versions were created from there...
Now we are getting somewhere.
A handful of prototypes after the first one, form would begin to take shape for what would be more intently worked on as the overall shape of the heel pad. You can see full coverage from the back of the heel, and around to the side of the foot.
On the inside in the Velcro portion. This original section was much too large, and it was difficult to separate feet easily for landing or doing any number of skills. The intention of the Velcro is to act as an audible sound for the gymnast and/or coach to hear when feet become separated. This improves timing and attention to detail.
Top view of the Bar Heel Pad prototype when placed together. Covering the heel and portions of the foot to prevent injuries and just generally fit better on gymnast's feet was pretty much the only goal.
In this view of the heel pads, we can see how the bottom sole of the heel pad meets very nicely with the surround cushion shell. I like how when standing, the padding covers from the floor and up past the achilles.
Another minus for this version was that the cushion of the sole was too firm for my liking; this wouldn't have been as ideal for smacking bars compared to what the current spec.
Rear view of the heel pads, showing full cushion coverage with no gaps, also allowing the gymnast to fully and comfortably make a handstand with feet together plus point and flex the feet. Go ahead and name any knee or elbow pad that can do that for a gymnast on bars!
Taking into account the edits that needed to happen for an improvement, this next version was made. It featured a more streamlined and reworked body, perhaps a different combination of cushioning densities than before, and sewing technique/structural improvements.
Further detail of a new Bar Heel Pad version. Still, materials changes/upgrades, and reworking the Velcro portion needed to be seen to.
New inside shape to fit better on and around the feet when they are together for a pirouetting skill, for example.
Again here we can see a new experimental shape. All parts of the ankle, bottom of foot, achilles, and heel portions are covered and protected from impact.
Okay, okay. So now things were really getting exciting in the workshop and in the gym. Colors aside, the using more correct materials were beginning to happen.
- Air mesh inner sole for comfort and to help with sweaty gymnast foot (SGF).
- Washable outer shell to prevent chalk build up and odors.
Final form begins to take shape with this new version. Technically speaking, this was much closer to my vision for this product.
Great pic. Here dimensions for the instep strap are refined so the things don't fly off feet during a giant or dismount. That would be bad.
In addition, it was sort of 'back to the drawing board' with figuring out the Velcro proportions.
Another reason why this prototype version was successful is the cushion from the bottom sole meets up to the main body. Soft goods creation is a heck of a thing if you want your object to perform as necessary and look at least halfway great while doing it. Many years of experience and problem solving in the workplace are required to get this far, and I am so thankful for the skilled hands that make these so well!
Also loving the texture and materials choice for the bottom sole. Just look at it. The purpose here is to prevent slip on any gym surface – dry or wet– while wearing the heel pads.
Getting closer to the real thing!
Many hours and feet were slipped into this version of the heel pads in order to double-triple check various things like dimensions, materials choices, durability, sizing, and so on.
While very good and still an improvement, sometimes I made missteps and went back on a decision that was a good one. For example here the bottom sole cushion is much thinner than before. It also wasn't as good.
As I remember now, the thinking basically came down to a mix of frugality and practicality. Ultimately however I'm glad this only lasted for one prototype, as I realized the previous version was better.
Top view of resized elements. Still not finished but closer.
Rear view of this version – working out that inside Velcro portion.
By this time we were close enough to begin stamping the logo; probably mostly to feel like the finish line was closer.
Still no bueno on the inside of the heel pads. Too much material and not cost or user effective.
This is another instance of when I went back on a solid design decision, only to waste time and money! Why oh why. Sometimes I guess it's just going to happen.
For whatever reasons, this version was super slimmed down. I was probably trying to figure out more cost effectiveness and find what was minimally necessary for a gymnast to have a safe pair of heel pads to wear. More would be necessary.
Just a sliver of padding, more or less, covering the achilles and bottom of the heel only. As you can tell, this version did not cover or any other areas of the foot.
The heel cup or sole of the heel pads was also made much smaller. In fact it was uncomfortable to wear because of the way the material rested along the middle of the ball of the heel. It did not feel like the heel pads wanted to stay on, either.
Well fast forward to a couple more versions down the line, and we have the final prototypes on the tatami mats of my bedroom floor. More about how Asher Athletic started can be read here.
Here they are.
The marathon to develop a first new piece of equipment for gymnastics was complete. The time was past due for innovation in this very special and rapidly changing sport.
Slender and sleek, purposeful and effective.
I sincerely hope you find this original piece of work and awesomeness adds value to your training and hard-earned skills. My aim is to greatly improve the quality of training for gymnasts and their experience in the gym. Please allow my products to do that for you!
Gymnastics is a sport that pushes boundaries and strives for perfection. In that same spirit, Asher Athletic creates products that matter to you as a specialized athlete deserving of correct support and attention to detail. Thanks for reading!