This can take many forms some of which are bizarre others of which have some actual scientific basis.
Some favourites might be:
That lucky pair of socks, that certain Celine Dion song (what??!), a firm slap on the buttocks, looking at a picture of Her Majesty The Queen, leaping up and down like a Masai warrior, taking in a huge a whiff of smelling salts, a glance up at your great grannny in heaven, or clenching your fists with rage and closing your eyes to picture George W Bush.
These tools and techniques all have an effect on your body via the nervous system. Every emotional response in the human body will have a physical response to some degree. The human body will employ more muscle fibres or secrete a hormone depending on the what you do.
The central nervous system (CNS) and autonomic nervous system (ANS) can be harnessed to make people do extraordinary things.
For example you’ll see many world class Olympic lifters go through exactly the same routine or preparation before lifting their weight. In Powerlifting this is even more obvious and there are plenty of “psyche up” videos on YouTube some of which are very entertaining. Here is the deadlift World Record holder Benedikt Magnusson lifting stupid weights. You’ll see his psyche up routine is pretty effective to lift 940lbs (426kgs) and make it look easy. Personally, I rather sympathise with the guy behind him who isn’t too happy about all that chalk on the floor.
There have been studies showing the effects of psyching up on strength based movements like this, and it is well documented through anecdotal evidence and stories of people who have harnessed the fight or flight instinct which produces Epinephrine (adrenaline) that makes your heart beat faster, pumping more blood into muscles getting you ready for action. Epinephrine is the hormone that gives you that rush, the adrenaline rush.
The human nervous systems normally limit the number of muscle fibres we use for any given task so we don’t damage them. But in cases of superhuman strength this auto cut-off system is overidden by your emotions, sometimes giving enabling them to perform the impossible with an overwhelming urge to do the right thing. It’s called Hysterical Strength.
Some of the best examples of this are documented in newspaper articles that you read about and they’re usually associated with a heroic rescue of some kind.
The most common anecdotal examples are of mothers lifting automobiles to rescue their children, and when people are in life and death situations.
In 1982, in Lawrenceville, Georgia, Tony Cavallo was repairing a 1964 Chevrolet Impala automobile from underneath. The vehicle was propped up with jacks, but it fell. Cavallo’s mother, Mrs. Angela Cavallo, lifted the car high enough and long enough for two neighbours to replace the jacks and pull Tony from beneath the car.
In 2006, in Ivujivik, Canada, Lydia Angiyou, 41, fought a polar bear long enough for hunters to arrive, and saved her 7-year-old son, and two other children.
In 2006, in Tucson, Arizona, Tom Boyle watched as a Chevrolet Camaro hit 18-year-old Kyle Holtrust. The car pinned Holtrust, still alive, underneath. Boyle lifted the Camaro off the teenager, while the driver of the car pulled the teen to safety.
In 2009, in Ottawa, Kansas, 5 ft 7 in (1.70 m), 185 lb (84 kg) Nick Harris lifted a Mercury sedan to help a 6-year-old girl pinned beneath.
In 2011, in Tampa, Florida, 6 ft 3 in (1.91 m), 295 lb (134 kg) college football player Danous Estenor lifted a 3,500 lb (1,600 kg) car off of a man who had been caught underneath. The man was a tow truck driver who had been pinned under the rear tire of a 1990 Cadillac Seville, which had lurched forward as he worked underneath it. The man suffered only minor injuries.
In 2012, in Glen Allen, Virginia, 22-year-old Lauren Kornacki rescued her father, Alec Kornacki, after the jack used to prop up his BMW slipped, pinning him under it. Lauren lifted the car, then performed CPR on her father and saved his life.
In 2013, in Oregon, teenage daughters, Hanna (age 16) & Haylee (age 14) lifted a tractor to save their dad pinned underneath.
Now luckily we’re not faced with these situations on a daily basis but there are some good tips that I’ve always given athletes which help get them ready for whatever they have coming up;
Take 3 deep breaths with your eyes closed and shut out everything around you. This is useful when you’re doing a CrossFit workout that involves a cardio-respiratory challenging activity (eg. a lot of burpees) immediately followed by a high skill, weightlifting movement (eg. snatches). Typically if you’re not in control, you’ll screw up the lift and have to go again. Wasted energy, so by going slower, smoother and calmer you’ll make less mistakes and as a result end up with a better time.
Stamp your feet a few times. Ok it might look like a scene from Riverdance but it fires up your CNS and ANS producing more adrenaline which will help you lift a nice PR.
Repeat your “YES” word. This is a secret word that everyone has – ok it might not be a secret because you might end up shouting it out, but it’s a word you’ll repeat as a mantra in your head to keep you going or convince yourself that you will accomplish the task in hand. A good example of the “YES” word in action is Ronnie Coleman and his “lightweight!” screaming. No secret word there Ronnie. Thanks. Lightweight my arse.
Of course there are plenty of other techniques and tools. For example, I’ve used smelling salts to help fire up athletes successfully. Smelling salts have been used for thousands of years.
Probably the best way to fire yourself up for action is in a group or team setting and there is no better full-on psych-up than the Kiwi Haka.
Now go and get a new PR…