Human strength potential is a topic many people have pondered throughout history. The ancient Greeks founded the first Olympic games on the question of human physical potential. No one truly knows what human beings are capable of in terms of maximum physical strength. We are only using a tiny fraction of the strength available to us.
Do we have more strength available than we realise?
The possibility for strength is far greater than what any human being has been able to demonstrate. To illustrate this I will use the example of hysterical strength. Hysterical strength is when a person is faced with a dire emergency like the classic example of a child stuck under a car. There are stories of mothers who have been able to lift cars weighing over a tonne off of their child.
Could those mothers lift a car in their normal state? There is absolutely no way. They are tapping into hysterical strength. This is when the adrenalin and other hormones are stimulated due to the emergency situation and the mother gets a sudden burst of strength. The burst of strength is the body overriding the protective, inhibitory mechanisms that are in place inside every human.
This proves that physically we are capable of enormous feats of strength, we just aren’t realising them due to these inhibitory mechanisms. If there were a way to override them like in an emergency, the strength produced could be that of superhuman proportions.
What are these inhibitory mechanisms?
Human strength potential is not as much of a mystery as it once was. There is a science to all of this. To explain it lets look at a little science…
Every muscle has what are called proprioceptors. These are nerve bundles throughout the muscle that serve various purposes such as balance, body awareness, stretch reflex and of course strength inhibition. There are various types of proprioceptors, the one we are talking about is called the Golgi tendon organ. The Golgi tendon organ is a plexus of nerves that inhibit strength through various measures.
Two of these measures are…
1. Keeping a certain percentage of motor units dormant. A motor unit is a motor neuron and all the muscle fibres that it innervates to cause muscle contraction. We are never able to use all of these motor units at the same time. This would result in the superhuman strength displayed in certain emergencies. So some of these are dormant.
2. The second inhibitory mechanism is the activation of the antagonist muscle. Lets use the bicep as an example. The bicep whilst lifting something is the agonist muscle, the antagonist is the tricep because it performs an opposing action. During attempts at strength the agonist muscle is working to lift the weight, the antagonist is slightly activated in order to inhibit the strength output of the agonist.
So why would we want to inhibit strength? If we were able to display our maximum human strength potential we would severely injure ourselves. We would literally rip the tendons straight off the bone. However, this protective mechanism is a little over-protective and seems to inhibit the muscle’s strength a little too much. This is where strength training comes in.
Training for maximum human strength potential
The more trained a person is in terms of strength, the more these protective mechanisms can be switched off and the potential for strength is increased. A power-lifter for instance trains to lift the maximum amount of weight possible. Through this training he/she is able to lift more weight for two reasons; first the muscle can get bigger and hence become stronger. The second is the training of inhibitory responses to be less inhibitory. So maximum strength is often a neurological adaptation, not always a muscular one.
Any amount of maximum strength training will produce this result. Whenever you strength train you allow the body to unleash more of its natural human strength potential. It also comes down to psychological aspects. Some people are able to lift more weight naturally due to the belief in their ability to do it and their focus on concentrating all of their power into the task at hand.
So to answer the question “what is the maximum potential for strength in humans?”, about the strength of two gorillas. This strength will not be 100 percent realised due to protective measures but it can be realised at least in part. The more research is done on human strength and athletes, the better the training methods used to enable people to realise a higher percentage of their maximum human strength potential.
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YOUR COACH – Chris Lyons
Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Unleashed Training, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.