How Strong Are You?

Have you ever heard of the amazing stories where someone is pinned underneath a car and an average person somehow musters up the strength and picks the car off the pinned person? How is it possible that an average human can lift a 2,000lb car under severe distress yet there are no strength competitions involving cars? Even at the gym they would struggle to lift 1/4 of that amount.

Let’s define strength.

Most sports performance coaches will define strength:

The maximal force you can apply against a load.

What does this mean?

Load is the weight and maximal force is the concentric contraction (the shortening of the muscle) we do to lift the load/weight at least one time.

Now that we understand some terms, lets understand something else. When we are involved in a true strength training program, trying to lift a heavy load at least once but more than 5x, we are training our Central Nervous System (CNS). To understand this concept, Paval Tsatsouline will explain. Pavel is a fitness instructor who has introduced training techniques from the former Soviet Union to US Navy SEALs, Marines and Army Special Forces, and is credited with introducing kettle bell training to the US. Pavel explains:

Don't judge a book by its cover. Don't judge a man’s strength by the size of his biceps. Things are not often what they appear to be. When it is said that a muscle’s strength is proportional to its cross-section, that statement must be qualified: everything else being equal. ‘Everything else’ is largely the level of activation of the muscles by the nervous system or neurological efficiency. It is estimated than an average person can contract only 20-30% of his muscles when trying his hardest. Even a top lifter uses no more than 50% of his impressive muscles!

Your muscles are already capable of lifting a car. They just do not know it yet.

To appreciate your true strength potential, ponder the fact that when a person is electrocuted-by lightning, or the Fed- his muscles tear, his tendons rip off their attachments, even bones break. From the first and last time, his muscles were fully activated by electricity.

This is why, when someone is in danger, a average human will do amazing feats such as lifting a car off of someone else. Their muscles were always capable of doing this feat but the nervous system needs the stimulation in order to do it. Instead of electrocution, fear was the factor that helped out the trapped individual.

Adam Hadhazy, freelance science writer in astronomy, physics and biology, broke down what scientists know about this type of superhuman strength, also known as “hysterical strength.”:

The fear response works like this: When we’re faced with danger, our bodies run through a series of rapid-fire changes to make us stronger than usual. Fear stimulates production of the stress hormone cortisol, which increases blood pressure and blood sugar, giving you a burst of energy. It activates the adrenal glands, which fill the blood with adrenaline and noradrenaline, two hormones that increase heart rate and breathing, sending more blood to the muscles and helping them to contract more easily. Adrenaline also decreases sensitivity to pain, helping us to focus on the threat at hand with minimal distraction.

While fear got the person motivated to lift the car, their muscles still needed to be strong enough to lift such a load. Fortunately for most adults, we already have that ability. Just lack the motivation (fear) or electrical stimulation.

How do I develop CNS stimulation to become stronger?

When designing a program focused on building strength, besides heavy load, the critical component is your recovery between sets. Lets say, you are doing 8 sets of 3-5 reps on the bench press. Instead of 30 seconds to a minute of recovery (the time it takes for your muscles recover from the previous set), you will need a minimum of 2 minutes recovery. As you progress into your maximal lifts (lifting close to your 1 rep max), your may need more time to recover. It is not uncommon for someone performing true strength training to need between 5 and 10 minutes to recover between sets. It takes that long in order for your CNS to recover.

If you do not give your CNS the appropriate time to recover, strength gains are hard to come by. For this reason, powerlifters will train with fewer reps and more load than bodybuilders. If your CNS is too fatigued, you will feel overextended and/or over-trained.

How do you know if your CNS is over-trained?

If you perform a hard leg day on Monday and shoulders on Tuesday and find your weights are below normal, your CNS is over-trained and needs more time to recover between sets.

What are you to do?

Understand that your muscles are stronger than you give them credit for. Your nervous system just needs a little stimulation or motivation. When performing heavy lifts, make sure you give yourself enough recovery between sets. Pay attention to how you perform the next day. This will indicate if you are over-training or not. Challenge yourself to increased strength goals. Remember, no matter how much you think you can lift, you CAN lift a car. Your muscles just don't know it.

For information on 1on1 Personal Training or Nutrition Coaching, feel free to contact me at


Steven Zahn

ACE Certified Personal Trainer

NASM Certified Personal Trainer

Pre and Post Partum Certified

Dragondoor Publications: HKC Russian Kettlebell Certified