The psychology of ‘super-human strength’

Scientific American has an interesting short piece on whether people can really demonstrate super-human strength in emergency situations. The typical story is where someone is trapped under a car after an accident and a friend or relative manages to lift a seemingly impossible weight to free them.

This common tale has all the hallmarks of an urban myth, but it turns out to be partially plausible. Fear seems to increase our available muscle strength – but not by super-human amounts – only by a fraction of our normal lifting power.

Vladimir Zatsiorsky, a professor of kinesiology at Penn State who has extensively studied the biomechanics of weightlifting, draws the distinction between the force that our muscles are able to theoretically apply, which he calls “absolute strength,” and the maximum force that they can generate through the conscious exertion of will, which he calls “maximal strength.” An ordinary person, he has found, can only summon about 65 percent of their absolute power in a training session, while a trained weightlifter can exceed 80 percent…

But there’s a limit to how fast and how strong fear can make us. We’ve all heard stories about panicked mothers lifting cars off their trapped babies. They’ve been circulating for so long that many of us assume that they must be true. Zatsiorsky’s work, however, suggests that while fear can indeed motivate us to approach more closely to our absolute power level than even the fiercest competition, there’s no way to exceed it. A woman who can lift 100 pounds at the gym might, according to Zatsiorsky, be able to lift 135 pounds in a frenzy of maternal fear. But she’s not going to suddenly be able to lift a 3,000-pound car.

The SciAm article is apparently an excerpt from a new book entitled Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

Link to SciAm excerpt on ‘super-human strength’
Link to book website.

12 Comments

  1. Steven Marzullo
    Posted October 17, 2010 at 3:47 am | Permalink

    On November 9th, 2007 A friend and I had a horrific car accident. We slid out of control, started spinning at 70mph. The car slammed sideways in to a concrete covert over a ditch. It sent us barrel rolling through the air, we rolled over a street in the air with out touch down. Hit a stop sign, then stuck a utility pool about 15ft up head on. I was ejected from the front seat with my seat out of the back window. About an hour later I woke up and seen two men and a male officer trying to pry the door open to where my friend was she was knocked out in the driver seat, I ran over there pushed the three men out of the way and with one heavy tug I ripped the door almost completely off the car snapping one of it’s metal hinges. I’m 5’6 feet tall and 130lb’s. No way could I ever phantom the idea off pulling off such a feet. On top of that I felt 110% like nothing was wrong or nothing had happened only to slip into acoma not 20 minutes after doing this, I was life flighted and in acoma for 4 day’s and somehow lived

    • joesombody
      Posted June 10, 2011 at 4:09 am | Permalink

      really your my space page where you talk about the accident never mentions your superhuman feat sorry man had to call you out

      • John
        Posted July 1, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        Thank god there is someone else that just can’t stand bullshit. ALWAYS call someone out when you see bullshit. If you and I don’t, who will?

    • Stuart
      Posted June 30, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

      That is superhuman stupid.

  2. dimanth
    Posted August 28, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    i dont know really what is truth and what is not. i like to know more about this

  3. Larry barnett
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    that is not completely true, A few years ago me and my cousin was changing out a transmission on,his mom’s van, we dropped the old, and then we started putting in the new one, well anyway, my we had two small floor jacks under it, while my cousing was trying to line up the holes , to mount it to the motor block, I took the driver side tire off, and axle out so I could reach in with my arm to help move it or adjust it if needed, well the next thing next I know, the jacks gave out, my cousins head was was just a few inches directly under the bell housing , were the torque converter sits in the transmission, before I knew it I caught it with just my left hand and held it up with my arm stretched out until my cousin was able to move, then I let it go

    • neil
      Posted December 30, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      U have the ability to that evrytym without practice.

  4. neil
    Posted December 30, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    If we use 100% of our brain, then we have the ability to activate all our muscle fibres all at once, when we want. U can call it muscle control. Activating all our muscle fibres at once mean we can bend steel bars any time, any place. The same with misfiling our memory. To activate all our information we gathered from a young age and never forget anything, such as reading sumthing 30 years ago and still remember and understand it.

  5. Dominique
    Posted July 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I’d say those are acts of love, not fear

  6. Nessie
    Posted January 12, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    What your talking about is Hysterical strength. The brain usually limits the amount of strength we use in our muscles for our own safety.

    In a moment of great hysteria the brain momentarily switches of said limit to either ensure survival or ensure the survival of someone you care for.

    So a human being is very much capable of lifting a car or ripping open a jammed car door. However you would not walk away unscathed.

    The brain limits your strength be cause if you used all the strength you had all at once you could very well destroy your muscles, bones and joints. That limit is there for a reason.

    Sorry if I sounded rude in anyway. I just wanted to explain it.

  7. Devon Wagner
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 3:56 am | Permalink

    I experienced this “hysterical strength” once. It was in the middle of a powerlifting comp at my high school a few years back. Everyone was watching me as I stepped up to a 750 pound squat that would have never happened, but my adrenaline slammed straight into me and then I remember I completed the squat, but as soon as I stood up my hamstring, ACL and gluts tore.

  8. Steven
    Posted February 20, 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    The brain controls your body. Scientist haven’t fully studied the brain and there are many mysteries still to discover. One of those mysteries could be having full access to the humans maximum strength. We don’t know yet. Scientist and other critics will always try talk down the possibility. But they themselves have not experienced the superhuman capabilities that others have either seen or have had themselves and therefore the theory always gets dismissed. Maybe the strength is caused when there is danger and adrenaline taps into the enhanced strength part of your brain and therefore temporarily giving you the strength capabilities that you never thought you had.


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