Who doesn’t want to become stronger and more defined? Being strong can make life easier but you have to earn those muscles. You do that by working with weights or resistance bands. Strength training is important at any age but it’s even more essential as you grow older. The reason? You begin to lose muscle mass beginning at the ripe, old age of 30. By the time you reach late middle-age, the peak of your life, you’ve lost a significant amount of strength and muscle tissue. Unless you correct this, you become sarcopenic and are at higher risk for health problems like type 2 diabetes. Plus, you’re not as functional as you could be. Strength training helps you offset sarcopenia and be your absolute best and most functional self.
How Strong Are You?
If you strength train, you probably have a pretty good idea of how strong you are, or at least how strong you THINK you are. You assume that how much you can lift for a single rep (your one-rep max) is an accurate measure of how much strength you possess. However, you’re stronger than that. It seems that we don’t tap into our full strength capabilities under normal circumstances. You’ve probably heard stories of people who displayed incredible amounts of strength during a crisis situation. How about a 150-pound person lifting a car off a child trapped underneath? Certainly, that strength comes from something more profound than you can measure with a one-rep max test.
So, how do you explain strength feats like this? It seems that we have a strength reserve that we don’t normally galvanize. Two researchers, Aztsiorsky and Kraemer, have explored this phenomenon and described two types of strength – absolute strength and maximum strength. Absolute strength is the maximum force that your muscles, tendons, and ligaments can sustain under controlled lifting conditions. It’s more of a theoretical since most of us never tap into our full capabilities when lifting.
In contrast, maximum strength is the force you’re capable of generating when you’re working your hardest under routine training conditions. According to Kraemer and Aztsiorsky, your maximal strength is around two-thirds of your absolute strength. So, even when you think you’re pushing yourself as hard as you can during a strength workout, you’re not displaying the maximal amount of strength you’re capable of. Even if you think you’ve “maxed out,” you still have strength reserves that you’re not tapping into. Powerlifters come pretty close to expressing their absolute strength while a bodybuilder rarely does.
The Psychological Aspects of Strength Expression
Strength expression has a psychological component as well. Researchers conducted an experiment to illustrate this. First, they measured the arm strength of healthy, young men. Then they assessed their arm strength under varying conditions. These conditions included:
· While the participant was under the influence of stimulants and alcohol
· When the participant screamed as their strength was measured
· After the participant heard a loud noise
· While the participant was under hypnosis
All of these conditions and situations boosted strength above what the individuals displayed under normal conditions. The one that boosted strength the most was hypnosis. How can you explain this? It seems that our nervous system is typically in a state of mild inhibition. One reason is to reduce the risk of injury. Remember, your body tries to protect your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and you against damage. One way it protects against muscle and tendon injury is through the action of muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs, two types of proprioceptors.
Proprioceptors, Inhibition, and Strength
Golgi tendon organs lie at the junction of muscle and tendon. These proprioceptors sense changes in muscle tension. If they detect a big change in muscle tension, either due to contraction of the muscle or passive stretch, they fire. This sends a message to the brain and the brain, in turn, sends a signal for the muscle to relax. In this way, it helps you avoid injury when you’re trying to lift too much weight or generate a force that you’re not capable of producing without injury.
Muscle spindles, located in the belly of muscles, are sensitive to muscle stretch. If you stretch a muscle too far, the muscle spindle activates and sends a message to your brain. The brain, in response, tells the stretched muscle to contract. At the same time, the antagonist muscle relaxes to keep the muscle from being further stretched. If a muscle stretches too far, it can be injured.
What does this have to do with displays of extreme strength? During a time of crisis when you need to display superhuman strength, you override this inhibition and the muscle can contract with greater force. Plus, in a time of danger or extreme stress, your body releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that prepare your body for action. Under the direction of these hormones, your heart rate increases, you mobilize energy stores, and oxygen and glucose go coursing through your blood vessels to muscles. These factors give your muscles the best shot at over-performing.
Another factor is the psychological aspect of a situation where a lot is at stake. If there’s an emergency and you have to generate a great amount of force to save a life, you’re not focused on your own discomfort, like you might be when you’re trying to eke out one more rep of a deadlift or another push-up. You’re not analyzing the situation but reacting.
Do You Have Hidden Strength You Can Actually Tap Into?
Does it really take an emergency situation to tap into your inner strength? If you strength train consistently, after a while, your proprioceptors, the Golgi tendon organs and muscle spindles, relax a bit and you don’t have the same degree of inhibition. This means you’re better able to tap into strength reserves than you were before. You could move closer toward your absolute strength potential. Still, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever achieve that degree of force generation during a routine training session. You don’t have the other factors, like extreme fear and a giant pulse of adrenaline to give you an advantage. Still, it’s nice to know that you’re stronger than you think you are. It’s nice to have it but, hopefully, you’ll never have an urgent situation where you have to tap into it.
Psychology Today. “Superhero Science: Tapping Into Our Super-Strength with Adrenaline”
ExRx.net. “Golgi Tendon Organs”
Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. McArdle, Katch, and Katch
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