Every so often, we hear stories about people who have made headlines for unbelievable feats of strength in dire situations. Just recently, Charlotte Heffelmire, a 19-year-old woman in Virginia, lifted up a truck to pull her father to safety after their garage went up in flames and pinned Mr. Heffelmire beneath the vehicle.
A 19-year-old, 120 pound teenager lifting up a truck is impressive enough. Hell, it’d be mind-blowing if a person twice her size did it. These feats of strength (not Festivus-related) are called “hysterical strength,” and as the name suggests, they generally occur in life an death situations. Back in 2012, another woman from Virginia, then 22-year-old Lauren Kornacki, lifted a BMW off of her father when it fell on him during a repair job. While we’re pretty sure there’s nothing making superheroes out of the citizens of Virginia, we do know that events like these have been happening for decades.
Small cars generally weigh around 3,000 pounds, and the world record for a dead-lift set in 2014 by Zydrunas Savickas is 1155 pounds. The average man can only manage one-fifth of that, and when you try to lift way more than you can handle there’s one of two things that happens: you tear a muscle or tendon, or you just fail to lift the object. But still, we repeatedly hear about these moments of hysterical strength in which the human body shatters the ceiling of what’s traditionally considered to be possible.
Believe it or not, most people “can lift six to seven times their body weight,” says Michael Regnier, professor and vice chair of bioengineering at the University of Washington. However, most people don’t push themselves to that point, mainly due to fear fatigue and pain… which makes plenty of sense. The extra strength has been attributed to increases in adrenaline, but there’s no scientific evidence to back that up since the events are always reported after fact and tests aren’t conducted on the person after it happens.
His first order of business was to point out that these people are super human and not superhuman. These people aren’t reported to have lifted the entire car like Superman — only a portion of the vehicle is being lifted and 3 of the 4 wheels remain on the ground. Now, these feats are still nothing to scoff at, but the notion that these individuals are suddenly becoming the Hulk are simply not accurate. But still, we have guys like Michael Regnier, who was a former weightlifter himself, saying that we’re stronger than we realize, so let’s expound upon that.
“Your muscles are normally activated in a very certain way that’s really efficient,” says E Paul Zehr, a professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. “Why use your whole muscle mass to lift up a cup of coffee?”
These feats of strength are examples of humans tapping into reserves that we didn’t know we had. Researchers say that we generally use 60% of our muscle mass during maximum exercise efforts, and even elite athletes only use 80% of their theoretical strength. As aforementioned, this is because we have a safety on our bodies.
“Our brains are always trying to make sure we don’t get pushed too far to where we actually damage something,” says Zehr. “If you actually used all the possible force or all the possible energy you could to complete exhaustion, you’d wind up getting into a situation where you might die.”
That said, these explanations don’t paint a complete picture. There’s still a great deal we don’t know about hysterical strength and it’s very difficult to test these situations in a controlled environment.
“You can’t really design an experiment to do this in a lab and make people think they’re going to die,” said Zehr. And he’s right. Because of that, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever truly understand exactly how this happens, unless we outfit ourselves with some kind of biological readers just in case that day does come, but it is very cool to know that we have the potential to burst out in these fits of super human strength, even if we don’t know how to control it.