In elementary school, my younger brother and I observed a couple of juvenile miscrenats trying to sneak a smoke. When they noticed us, they sprinted in our direction and one of them held me down, nervously asking me what I had seen and threatening me with harm if we told anyone. I laid there and meekly took it all until I looked to my side and noticed the other youthful tobacco connoisseur had my scared sibling pinned on the grass.
This provided a surge of energy and determination that caused me, a somewhat wussy 5th grader with average strength, to fling aside the 6th grader who was holding me, then doing likewise to his same-aged cohort. I was now the one doing the pinning down, and my firm grasp kept both assailants immobilized until my brother safely fled.
While there was no lifesaving involved in this case, there have long been tales of heroes rescuing a disaster victim by temporarily acquiring superhuman strength. This power affords them the ability to do much than control a pair of grade school hooligans. These stories’ central figures are said to have summoned the means to lift objects as massive as a car or boulder.
One of the more well-known instances of the putative phenomenon was when the helicopter used in Magnum, P.I. crashed and pinned the pilot under shallow water. A quick-acting onlooker lifted the 2,000-pound helicopter and allowed the pilot to survive.
Occasionally, the courageous crusader is asked to repeat the feat and is unable to do so, sometimes being unable to even budge the object. This lends credence in the mind of some that a temporary super power enabled the hero to do it the first time.
The usual explanation centers on a surge of adrenalin. It’s true that an adrenalin rush leads to physically-measurable changes. As it is pumped into the bloodstream, airways relax, metabolism increases, and muscles experience glycolysis, which readies them for action. Additionally, endorphins are released, peripheral vision is reduced, reflexes sharpen, and reaction times improve.
But while all this may make one capable of doing something that he or she normally couldn’t, does this extend all the way to being able to literally lift a ton? For that answer, we can look to the work of biomechanist Vladimir Zatsiorsky. He uses different strength categories to describe someone’s lifting potential. The primary ones are Absolute and Maximal.
Absolute refers to the theoretical maximum that a person’s muscles, fibers, tendons, and bones would allow them to lift. This is what physiology shows would be theoretically possible, but people actually fall short of being able to reach the full amount.
Meanwhile, Maximal strength is the most that could be lifted using conscious effort, such as in construction work or a weightlifting session. This usually caps out at about 67 percent of the person’s Absolute ability. Beyond that, tissues would fail, no matter how strong the desire to lift more or how much adrenalin had been released.
There is a third, seldom-seen category that rests between these Absolute and Maximial. It can be attained when one is in a competitive mode, such as in the Olympics, especially if being cheered by frenzied onlookers. Zatsiorsky has detected some world-class athletes reaching as high as 92 percent of their body’s Absolute strength during the most intense competitions. That this could happen in such a venue makes sense, as no situation is more pressurized. Unless, perhaps, there’s a life in your vicelike hands.
Such as in a case cited by Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning. He relates an anecdote where a car ran over an Arizona bicyclist in 2006 and trapped the victim to the pavement. On the scene was powerlifter Tom Boyle, who had previously demonstrated the ability to deadlift 700 pounds. Impressive stuff. But the car weighed a ton and a half, and as the story goes, our muscular rescuer managed to get its front wheels off the ground. But since the vehicle’s weight was much more than Boyle’s Absolute lift, his body would have hit structural failure well before summoning the ability to raise the vehicle.
This supposed ability cannot be tested. There is no way to replicate the exact original conditions and there are obvious ethical constraints to intentionally placing someone beneath a pinned car or helicopter. In the Arizona, Magnum P.I., and similar cases, leverage or buoyancy likely came into play and substantially lessened the amount of weight lifted. Another possible mitigating factor, Dunning noted, is that lifting many cars a few inches leaves most of the vehicle’s weight still supported by suspension springs.
So to be clear, these stories are not being fabricated by the hero, victim, or onlookers. In life-and-death situations, details are going to be fuzzy and mis-remembered. 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 such incidents are captured on video and can be paused and rewound, extenuating circumstances can be noticed, which a terrified witness would have missed at the time. For example, during the helicopter incident, the rescuer did not lift the rotorcraft as was reported; rather, he rocked it as it was lying on its side against a sloped and uneven riverbank. While the act was heroic, it did not require the superhuman effort attributed to it.
Physical changes that take place during an emergency situation may lead a person to exceed their usual abilities, but only by a known, limited increment. The hero won’t acquire the ability to impersonate Christopher Reeve. Hitting 80 percent of one’s Absolute strength or subduing a pair of Marlboro-packing bullies seems to be the limit.