Here’s How A Mere Weakling Can Become Super Strong Thanks to Adrenaline

Here’s How A Mere Weakling Can Become Super Strong Thanks to Adrenaline

At this point, the idea of super strength lent to the human body by an adrenaline rush is practically a mythical tale all its own. The most prevalent version is the story of a mother, with no day-to-day experience in powerlifting, heaving a car off her endangered child. It always felt like someone was referencing a specific event, but also feels like it could just be an easy example. A mash-up of the strongest emotional bond most people can imagine (mother and child) with something incredibly heavy but still feasibly lifted with a little imagination (a car). 

Looking to find what might serve as the OG mother-gone-strongman leads to a story thats pointed to as the most well-known tale: Angela Cavallo of Georgia, who lifted a ‘64 Impala (sweet) off her son Tony when it slipped off the jacks. A list from the medium-trustworthy collective consciousness at Wikipedia recording similar instances is almost exclusively occupied with somebody lifting some manner of vehicle off of someone they love. Im not sure if this is just confirmation bias or the fact that making really heavy machines that are designed to roll around is inherently dangerous. Also, one lady beat the shit out of a polar bear, which is basically a car that actively wants you dead.

Springfield Union

Yeah, that guy drives an Impala.

So, unless all these tales involve people who were sneaking into gyms after-hours and lifting the whole place, theres evidence that this is possible. The next question, posed to doctors who spent the time and money to learn how the human body actually works while I was drinking Miller High Life in dive bars, is how? The term that professionals have given these sorts of feats is “hysterical strength.” But their understanding of them varies depending on who you ask. Trying to figure out exactly how this functions is a lot tougher given that reproducing the events in a lab setting would be an ethics nightmare. Its not like you can tuck a Raggedy Ann under a pickup and tell someone, “Okay, imagine that's your baby and lift the truck.”

If I were forced, perhaps by threat of a car suspended over my own body, to guess how this was possible, I would babble some nonsense about adrenaline flooding through muscles like nitrous in a street racer. What seems to be the prevailing hypothesis of people who know much more than me is a little more complicated. Yes, adrenaline is key, but its not necessarily causing any increase in the actual, physical strength of the hero-to-be. Instead, the adrenaline is just removing the pain and natural fear instincts that control how much muscular power our body allows itself to exert. 

Which isnt to say that those overbearing gym meatheads screaming “its all in your mind, bro” arent dumb assholes. Its less “mental weakness” and more your brain deciding its continued health isnt the priority at the moment. Vladimir Zatsiorsky, a professor at Penn State, refers to ideas of “maximal strength,” the most strength that can be exerted through the power of will, and “absolute strength,” the pure mathematical maximum force muscles can apply.


Next time youre deadlifting, just imagine you have two tiny sons under each side of the barbell.

That maximum force is probably a lot higher than youd expect, even without lives on the line. We can do some comparison, since lifting a car the way they usually do in these stories is basically a deadlift (theres a pun there that I wont do either of us the disservice of pursuing). The world record for the deadlift is 1,104 pounds by Hafthor Bjornsson, who you probably remember best from making Oberyn Martells head into an improvised bowling ball as The Mountain in Game of Thrones. No movie magic needed to make that guy terrifying. Even if were looking at guys who are, say, not 6-foot-fucking-9, youd be surprised what the human body is capable of. For instance, famous powerlifter Lamar Gant was able to, at 123 pounds, deadlift 639 — over five times his body weight, with scoliosis, no less. 

Yes, of course, these feats are the result of a lifetime of training, but Id suspect even so, you wouldnt have thought that a human could lift five times their body weight without snapping like a fortune cookie and their spine rocketing out like the snake from a can of prank peanut brittle.

Extreme situations can give you a momentary shortcut to peak performance. Even though adrenaline is the most commonly name-dropped, its not the only ingredient: When youre in a life-or-death situation, a three-piece cocktail is released that lets you go full anime and access 100 percent of your power. Again, adrenaline is one of them, sending more oxygen to your muscles. Meanwhile, cortisol lets your body access emergency glucose reserves for extra energy. Endorphins are also released, which make your body, well, not feel the pain caused by lifting a car. When their powers are combined, youre Captain Babysaver. 

Hopefully, youll never be in a situation that would spur this process, but know that if you are, youre about to set a PR.

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