Starting Strength Weekly Report

August 21, 2017

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starting strength seminar attendees coaching each other

Starting Strength Seminar attendees Ryan Burnell and George Ramsay coach each other at CrossFit Ballwin in St. Louis. “When one teaches, two learn.” –Robert Heinlein [photo courtesy of Nick Delgadillo]

chen e 195 kg squat
Chen E squatting 195 kg at Hygieia Strength & Conditioning’s 2nd Barbells & BBQ Strengthlifting Meet. [photo courtesy of Shaun Pang]

Best of the Week

Hysterical Strength

I'm curious about your understanding of "Hysterical Strength." My understanding is that there have been several reported cases in which otherwise untrained and allegedly weak parents in great distress lift tremendous loads off their injured children (usually involving something extremely heavy like a car).

My first assumption is the physics of the situation may make these reported "lifts" appear much larger than they are in fact. For example, maybe the data on "successful" feats of hysterical strength is biased by instances of people lifting the light end of a car up, whereas all the parents that tried to lift the engine block side get ignored. After all, it’s not exactly noteworthy if someone doesn't lift a car off an accident victim.

Assuming you believe that hysterical strength DOES in fact exist, how does the concept fit into your understanding of strength development?

It seems that by definition, the people performing acts of "hysterical strength" have not been adapted to the loads they are lifting via a manipulation of the stress → recovery →  adaptation cycle. But if their bodies are not adapted to lift the loads they lift, how do they do it? What is going on at the motor unit level? How does a "hysterical strength signal" innervate muscle fibers to such a degree that feats of strength can be performed well beyond what someone would do in a non-hysterical situation. Is this somehow related to the performance boosting effects of smelling salts or the use of other stimulants?

Maybe the broadest form of the question would be, physiologically speaking, how does stimulant use increase strength?


This is the explanation I've heard, and if I'm wrong someone please call me out.

Most people can only tense a small portion of their muscle fibers at once. If they could contract more muscle fibers, they'd be stronger. When you lift weights your body adapts by improving your motor efficiency (amongst other things). When you see a small guy lifting huge weights, he's literally better at contracting his muscles than an untrained person.

Your body actually has a system in place to prevent you from maximally tensing a muscle, called the autogenic inhibition reflex. It's because if you maximally tense a muscle, you're likely to break something. Some things can affect the autogenic inhibition reflex and allow you to tense more muscle fibers, without training. Electrocution is one. Inmates in the electric chair sometimes break bones from their muscles tensing so hard. Drugs are another way. A cop I know once mentioned a teenage girl on PCP breaking a pair of Smith and Wesson handcuffs. If I remember right it took 350 lbs of force to break them.

An adrenaline rush likely does the same thing: allows you to produce a harder muscle contraction by messing with your inhibitor reflex.

Mark Rippetoe

There are so many things in this post that are complete bullshit that there needs to be an award of some kind. Maybe a T-shirt that says My Bullshit Inhibition Reflex Has Malfunctioned.


For what it’s worth, I truly thought when I wrote this question that there would have been well-documented cases of hysterical strength. I have heard stories of people lifting cars off injured children for my entire life.

LOOK FOR THE EVIDENCE. You will see, as I did, that they don't exist. Which, if you grasp the basics of the Stress, Recovery, Adaptation cycle, is actually comforting. There's not an exception to be explained because there is no video evidence of an exception EVER.

Tim K

Maybe part of the confusion is that "lifting a 3000 lb car" from one side, enough for a child to crawl/be dragged out from under it, as it teeters on an uneven surface, might be mechanically more akin to a 400 lb rack pull with an 8 inch range of motion... i.e. much less amazing than uneducated bystanders would be inclined to believe.

Best of the Forum

Range of motion allowed to decrease as barbell shrugs get heavier?

I've been curious for a further explanation as to the reason(s) behind this. My question stems from the fact that all the major lifts in our training (and even accessory work like chin ups) do not allow for smaller/shorter Range of Motion, simply because the weight gets heavier.

For example: How can/does a 405 shrug with, say, a 0.5–1 inch ROM produce value compared to a "deeper" shrug at 225 with a 2.5–3 inch ROM?

Also, at what point is the ROM so small for barbell shrugs that you're technically not actually doing a shrug of any worth?

Mark Rippetoe

Interesting question. It has to do with the nature of the ROM in the exercise. In a squat, the ROM of the motion is defined by the hips and knees. If by the ROM of a shrug you mean the elevation of the AC joint, your criterion is quite different. This is why shrugs are not considered a major exercise. They are useful for the deadlift for a couple of reasons.

  1. The short ROM eventually becomes so short that it's actually isometric as the weight gets up above the deadlift 1RM. Since the role of the traps in the deadlift is isometric anyway, this is fine because it overloads the trap function.
  2. Since the shrug starts above the knees to permit the heavier weight, it acts as an overload for the hip extensors and the erectors too.

Many record deadlifts have been performed without this overload, so heavy shrugs are optional. But they do make your traps grow, and the overload is useful for the reduction in perceived "heaviness" during a big pull. A 405 shrug is not "heavy," and 225 is not a shrug weight for a male lifter.

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