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The strongest man in the world

The New Yorker profiles Brian Shaw, a competitor in Strongest Man competitions, and indirectly convinces me Strongest (Wo)Man should be an Olympic event.

Strength like Shaw’s is hard to explain. Yes, he has big muscles, and strength tends to vary in proportion to muscle mass. But exceptions are easy to find. Pound for pound, the strongest girl in the world may be Naomi Kutin, a ten-year-old from Fair Lawn, New Jersey, who weighs only ninety-nine pounds but can squat and deadlift more than twice that much. John Brzenk, perhaps the greatest arm wrestler of all time, is famous for pinning opponents twice his size — his nickname is the Giant Crusher. And I remember, as a boy, being a little puzzled by the fact that the best weight lifter in the world — Vasily Alexeyev, a Russian, who broke eighty world records and won gold medals at the Munich and the Montreal Olympics—looked like the neighborhood plumber. Shaggy shoulders, flaccid arms, pendulous gut: what made him so strong?

“Power is strength divided by time,” John Ivy, a physiologist at the University of Texas, told me. “The person that can generate the force the fastest will be the most powerful.” This depends in part on what you were born with: the best weight lifters have muscles with far more fast-twitch fibres, which provide explosive strength, than slow-twitch fibres, which provide endurance. How and where those muscles are attached also matters: the longer the lever, the stronger the limb. But the biggest variable is what’s known as “recruitment”: how many fibres can you activate at once? A muscle is like a slave galley, with countless rowers pulling separately toward the same goal. Synchronizing that effort requires years of training and the right “neural hookup,” Ivy said. Those who master it can lift far above their weight. Max Sick, a great early-nineteenth-century German strongman, had such complete muscle control that he could make the various groups twitch in time to music. He was only five feet four and a hundred and forty-five pounds, yet he could take a man forty pounds heavier, press him in the air sixteen times with one hand, and hold a mug of beer in the other without spilling it.

I also liked this part. “The best female lifters can toss the equivalent of two very large men above their heads in a single motion. It’s the closest that humans come to being superheroes, and these women acted accordingly.”