Is Superhero Strength Real?


You’ve probably heard rumors about mothers
lifting cars to save their baby trapped underneath–but is that really possible? Are we all just Clark Kent ready to snap into
action? A mother hurling a car off her baby is an
urban myth, but there are reports of people tapping into a crazy strength they didn’t
know they had to save someone else. So where does that superhero strength come
from? Well, in part, from the release of neurotransmitters
including epinephrine—also known as adrenaline. Adrenaline is involved in the “fight or
flight” response. Essentially, it gets your body ready to take
action. In the case where someone lifts a car, they’ve
decided to fight. Seeing someone trapped under a car would activate
your sympathetic nervous system, which sends chemical signals to your adrenal glands, which
flood your body with adrenaline. As adrenaline begins circulating through your
bloodstream, it does a couple of things. First, your heart will beat faster, and blood
will begin flowing out to your extremities more than usual to prepare your arms and legs
to move. Fast. And with as much force as possible. The airways in your lungs will open up more
than usual, allowing more fresh oxygen to rush in, making your brain more alert to your
surroundings. And then there’s adrenaline’s “side
kick,” called noradrenaline, which is also released in times of stress. Activation of the noradrenaline system is
important for fight or flight, as well as behavioral and cognitive changes that could
support feats of superhuman strength, such as increased arousal and focused attention
to what is happening in the environment, sort of like spidey sense. And then there are endorphins. Released by your pituitary gland, these ”feel
good” hormones bind to opioid receptors that are distributed throughout your body. Endorphins are painkillers–they actually
work similarly to morphine, numbing your body to the pain you would have normally felt with
that much physical exertion. Cortisol also joins in. Concentrations of this hormone increase during
fight or flight, causing the release of temporarily stored glucose and fats, which gives your
muscles that extra energy on top of the increased oxygen they’re already getting. Cortisol also stops the activity of “non-essentials”–like
your digestive, reproductive, and immune systems. Think about it this way: If you’re in a
dangerous or high-stakes situation the last thing your body should be doing is digesting
that cheese or repairing that papercut. The question still remains: Could a person
in distress lift up a car? Science says probably…not. But that doesn’t mean we can’t tap into…
less than super but still awesome strength. Researchers who study biomechanics believe
that what we think we can do–what they call our maximal strength–is not the same as the
force our muscles can theoretically apply–our absolute strength. They estimate that an average person only
uses around 60 percent of their absolute power when lifting weights, and even a trained weightlifter
probably only reaches 80 percent when training. But, when under the stress of a competition
or say an attack from a supervillain, with the help of the “fight of flight” team
of chemicals, that weightlifter could far exceed 80 percent, moving maximal strength
into the 90s. So, can someone who normally bench presses
100 pounds lift the entirety of a 3,000 pound car? No. But they might be able to lift a corner, or
shove the car in a certain direction, tapping into their absolute strength and saving the
day. Sometimes, to be a superhero, you might only
need to lift that extra 40 pounds. Have you ever had a crazy super-strength experience? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll see
you next week.

9 Replies to “Is Superhero Strength Real?”

  1. Although cortisol is important during fight-or-flight, low levels of cortisol over long periods of time–which would be the case for someone dealing with chronic stress from say, work or a volatile home life–is really bad for your brain.

  2. This was worded in a confusing way. You said a woman cannot hurl a car and it's a myth. Later you mentioned people lifting cars as an example and then set out to explain it. Yes, there's a difference between hurling and lifting, but it's just confusing the way you worded it. Could a woman lift a car to save a baby or not? Could have been much more clear.

  3. Kinda missing a short notice on the negative side effects. For a short moment, tapping into that power is great – but the stress on the muscles and the blocking of temporarily non essential body functions can be dangerous both in physically non-threatening situations (like stress at work with reducing higher brain functions) as well as if continuing for prolonged periods of time.

  4. well but there are artificial muscles soon who are stronger than biological muscles I guess, so then superhero strength can be real, it just consumes a lot of energy

  5. 0:34 People need to stop referring to this response in this way. It's the Triple F Response: Fight, Flight, or Freeze.

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