Superhuman Strength during a Crisis
Popular stories tell of mothers lifting cars off their children. The science behind it is less than compelling.
by Brian Dunning
April 26, 2011
Today we're going to recount heroic tales of superhuman feats of strength, when in the face of disaster, some people are said to have summoned up incredible physical power to lift a car off of an accident victim, move giant rocks, or like Big John of song, single-handedly hold up a collapsing beam to let the other miners escape. Are such stories true? There are many anecdotes supporting the idea, but we're going to take a fact-based look at whether or not it truly is possible for an adrenalin-charged person to temporarily gain massive strength.
In proper terminology, such a temporary boost of physical power would be called hysterical strength. The stories are almost always in the form of one person lifting a car off of another. In one case in Colorado in 1995, a police officer arrived at a single-car accident where a Chevy Chevette ended up on top of a baby girl and sank into the mud. The officer lifted the car and the mother pulled the girl out. In 2009, a man in Kansas lifted a Mercury sedan off of a six-year-old girl who had been trapped underneath when it backed out on top of her. In 1960, a Florida mom lifted a Chevy Impala so that a neighbor could pull out her son, who had become trapped when he was working on the car and his jack collapsed. There's even the case where the MD 500D helicopter from Magnum, P.I. crashed in 1988, pinning the pilot under shallow water; and his burly friend (nicknamed Tiny) ran over and lifted the one-ton helicopter enough for the pilot to be pulled out. And, of course, the list goes on, and on, and on.
In each of these cases, some aspect of leverage or buoyancy probably played some role in reducing the magnitude of the feat to something more believable. And even lifting many cars by several inches still leaves most of its weight supported by the suspension springs. But our purpose today is not to "debunk" any of the specific stories. The majority of them are anecdotal, and interestingly not repeatable; in many cases, the person who summoned the superstrength later tried it again only to find that they couldn't do it. Basically, what we have is a respectably large body of anecdotal evidence that suggests that in times of crisis, danger, or fear, some people have the ability to temporarily exercise superhuman strength.
The typical explanation given centers on adrenalin. Adrenalin, also called epinephrine, figures prominently in what's popularly called the "fight or flight" response. Sudden stress, such as an impending fight or other dangerous situation, triggers the sympathetic nervous system to induce the fight or flight response, sometimes called hyperarousal or the acute stress response. It's a way that your body readies itself to deal with physical harm, very much like calling "Battle stations!" on a warship. The adrenal gland releases adrenalin into your bloodstream, and as it spreads throughout your body, it does different things to different types of tissue. Your airways relax to maximize breathing capacity, and metabolism increases. Your muscles go into glycolysis, which produces energy-rich molecules fueling them for extraordinary action. While blood flow to the muscles is increased, blood flow to vulnerable extremities is decreased. Endorphins are produced in the brain as a natural pain killer. Peripheral vision turns into tunnel vision to minimize distractions. Reflexes and reaction times improve. Non-critical functions like digestion and sexual function slow or even stop.
All of this is physiological fact. But how much does it really do for you? Is it the marginal improvement in ability that it would seem to be, or can it really supersize your strength by a huge factor of three, five, or ten? Fortunately, this has been studied.
Let's look at one such case, when a Camaro ran over a bicyclist in Arizona in 2006. The superhero was Tom Boyle, who lifted one side of the more than 3,000 pound car so that the wheels were off the ground. What's interesting in this case is that Tom Boyle is a powerlifter. He's a huge guy, and he knew exactly how much he could dead-lift: 700 pounds. The world record at the time was 1,008 pounds. Neither number would be enough to get two of the Camaro's wheels off the ground.
As detailed in Jeff Wise's book Extreme Fear, the puzzle of weightlifters such as Tom Boyle has been at least partially solved by Vladimir Zatsiorsky, a biomechanics specialist at Penn State, who has published his results in his book Science and Practice of Strength Training. Zatsiorsky gives three numbers to describe an athlete's lifting potential. The highest is your absolute strength, which is the theoretical maximum that your muscle fibers, tendons, and bones can take. This number can never be exceeded, and realistically, can never be quite reached. The lowest is your maximal strength, which is the maximum you could lift using conscious effort, in a gym or other controlled environment. According to Zatsiorsky's research, the maximal strength of most ordinary people is just about 2/3 of their absolute strength. This means that for a person who can lift 200 pounds, 300 pounds is their frame's theoretical maximum. Tissues would fail, preventing that person from lifting any more, no matter what fight or flight response came into play.
However, for trained weightlifters who practice lifting their maximum every day, this number is higher, about 80%. Taking Tom Boyle's 700 pound maximum lift as an example, we calculate that 875 pounds is the maximum that his body could have taken before structural failure.
But here is where Zatsiorsky found that things get interesting. Somewhere in between the maximal strength and the absolute strength is a middle ground that appears when the body goes into competitive mode. The fight or flight response also appears when faced with the pressure of competing. Some research has even found that simply shouting encouragement toward competitors can even physically improve performance. Zatsiorsky has measured some athletes reaching as high as 92% of their body's absolute strength during the most intense competitions. This explains why world records are often set at the Olympics; there is no venue that places more pressure on athletes.
If Tom Boyle had this much pressure on him, and it's more than likely that a young man's imminent death is more stressful than the possibility of winning a contest, he could have dead-lifted perhaps 800 pounds. It's still not enough to get two of the car's wheels off the ground. No matter what inspiration, mental mode, or adrenalin rush came over him, lifting much more than that would have resulted in structural failure, and the car would have fallen and crushed the young cyclist.
Sadly for the anecdote, we must conclude that the story is not accurate as reported. Perhaps both wheels didn't actually leave the ground and the suspension was doing some of the work. Perhaps Boyle lifted from the lighter back end of the car and not the heavier side. Perhaps the car was inclined in such a way that the leverage angle was more favorable. Whenever these rare events happen to be captured on film, some such advantage always comes into play. When Tiny was said to have "lifted the helicopter", it's pretty clear that he merely rocked the bulbous craft as it was lying on its side against the sloped and uneven riverbank.
So when we shine the light of science upon the notion that a dangerous situation can breed superhuman strength, we find that it's only partly true. The fight or flight response can indeed help you exceed your normal capabilities, but only by some limited increment; not enough to justify the common perception of these extraordinary stories.
But fight or flight is not the only possible booster available. There are other similar stories that have nothing to do with lifting a car off an accident victim. One such example is that of criminals fleeing police, fighting people off with apparent invincibility, shrugging off attacks and making an escape. The illegal drug PCP is sometimes offered as an explanation, and it can indeed be a good one. Among PCP's many psychological effects are a feeling of great strength and power; and among its physical effects is the blocking of pain. Put these two together, and an idiot on PCP can do just about anything. He won't actually have any greater strength, but he'll think he does; and as a result, such clowns often end up with a myriad of self-inflicted injuries, sometimes even killing themselves.
Such drugs have also been suggested to explain groups such as the Norse berserkers, a subset of Viking shock troops who fought like enraged wild animals, impervious to pain, and contemptuous of injury. Some researchers have suggested that berserkers may have taken hallucinogenic mushrooms before going into battle, as did Zulu warriors. Another theory states that they may have simply gotten really drunk, but this likely would have resulted in poorer performance in battle. It's also possible that berserkers simply worked themselves up into a frenzy, and combined with the fight or flight response to the impending battle, did indeed gain heightened physical ability.
Anecdotal evidence has suggested that cases of electric shock have caused people to launch themselves across the room involuntarily, presumably because the electricity fires the muscles. If true, it would support the notion that the musculoskeletal structure is indeed capable of feats that exceed even Zatsiorsky's absolute strength measurements. But this is not only unproven (and obviously untested), it is an incomplete theory. If such a thing has happened, exhibiting strength that has in fact exceeded the absolute strength, there is no evidence that it was done without crippling injury to the muscles or tendons.
The ability to acquire superpowers, even if only temporarily, is such a compelling possibility that most of us really want these stories to be true. And many of them probably are true to some degree, just exaggerated, misreported, or even misinterpreted by those who were there; and so, sadly, they're not yet the confirmation of superpowers that we're hoping for. It's a really intriguing field of research, and an attractive goal. But it's a goal we'll only reach if we go beyond the popularly reported versions of the stories and take the trouble to learn what's really going on.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Superhuman Strength during a Crisis." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
26 Apr 2011. Web.
25 May 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4255>
References & Further Reading
Campenella, B., Mattacola, C., Kimura, I. "Effect of visual feedback and verbal encouragement on concentric quadriceps and hamstrings peak torque of males and females." Isokinetics and Exercise Science. 1 Jan. 2000, Volume 8: 1-6.
Fabing, H. "On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry." Scientific Monthly. 1 Nov. 1956, Volume 83: 232.
Foote, P., Wilson, D. The Viking Achievement: The Society and Culture of Early Medieval Scandinavia. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1970. 285.
Friedman, H., Silver, R. Foundations of Health Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Walker, A. "The Strength of Great Apes and the Speed of Humans." Current Anthropology. 1 Apr. 2009, Volume 50, Number 2: 229-234.
Wise, J. Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Zatsiorsky, V., Kraemer, W. Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champagne: Human Kinetics, 2006.
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