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Why Don’t Some People Know Their Own Strength?

It’s all about something called ‘proprioception’ — or rather, lack thereof

You know that guy — that one friend of yours who doesn’t quite seem to grasp just how strong he is. Whether it’s a finger-bruising handshake or an enthusiastic hug that almost puts you through the ceiling fan, he just doesn’t seem to understand his own strength the way most people do.

Then there’s that other guy — the one who thinks he’s a beast, no matter how many lost arm wrestling matches or defiantly unopened pickle jars have told him different. These men seem to be two sides to the same coin: One’s a destructive oaf and the other’s a risible weakling, but both share the trait of having no clue how strong they actually are. So what’s going on with them?

“It’s simply awareness,” says sports kinesiologist Amanda Campbell, of Bend Like Bamboo. “Strength isn’t only physical but also mental. What you actually believe about yourself can either align or not align with what you want.”

For the most part, people tend to believe they’re a little less capable of what they can achieve. Sports psychologist Bhrett McCabe explains that people tend to box themselves in to protect themselves from getting hurt, so they don’t ever realize their full potential unless they push themselves to their limits, or perhaps enter into a stressful situation where they need to make use of their fight-or-flight reactions. That boost of adrenaline might give someone the strength to — to quote the cliche — lift a car off a baby, but it can also give you a glimpse of what you’re more capable of generally.

In the case of the overly strong guy who doesn’t quite seem to be able to control it, though, his perception may be particularly out-of-whack for a couple of different reasons. Coordination is a big one, but Campbell says it can also reflect someone’s confidence or lack thereof, so social anxieties may play a factor in their destructiveness. Then again, maybe it reflects a simple lack of training — genetics have made this guy strong, but he may not actually know how best to utilize that strength or be aware that he even has it.

“I always ask my clients if they’ve played sports previously,” says Solomon Macys, head coach and gym owner of Ballistic Strength Nanaimo. “There’s a lot to be gained about how to use your body by learning different sports,” he continues, citing examples like hand-eye coordination and ground reaction force, which oftentimes adults can lack if they skipped sports as a kid.

It can sometimes also be related to the company a person keeps. Strongmen and power gut owners, who are regularly lifting hundreds of pounds at a time, may not be able to dial it down so easily when they’re playing touch football. Macys notes that “it’s very easy for the average guy to overstep his boundaries” with a woman in particular, due to both the fact that guys generally have more body mass, and tend to be more physical in the way that they communicate, which can lead to playing too rough.

As for that guy who thinks he’s the Hulk when in reality, he’s Bruce Banner (at best), well, that’s probably just ego. Sadly for them, if they feel like they have something to prove, they may not quite have an understanding of their limitations, thus they hurt themselves in the process. “It may be wishful thinking, or it may be impatience,” says Macys, adding that he sometimes see guys who try to accomplish all of their strength goals in their first trip to the gym and are (literally) sorely disappointed afterwards.

Age is also a factor — if a guy hasn’t played, say, softball in a decade, and he suddenly jumps into a game, he will likely realize pretty quickly that he isn’t quite the man he once was. “We lose a lot of strength in adulthood,” says Macys. “Oftentimes lifestyle changes stick us behind a desk, and once you hit that third decade, your connective tissue and protein turnover tend to take a downward turn.” This will tend to slow you down and weaken you, especially if you haven’t been training or keeping fit.

“We’re not all physically and mentally the same and that can be tough for some guys to realize,” says McCabe. Instead of trying to prove themselves, McCabe believes, “Some people simply lack in certain areas, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” He adds that by fixating on what they don’t have, one can take what they do have for granted, or never figure it out at all. “We all have our own superpowers — the biggest skill in life is figuring out what they are.”

But what if the strong guy doesn’t want to be pulling doorknobs off doors anymore? Or the weak guy is tired of pulling a muscle every time he rearranges the furniture? Is there anything they can do to become more aware of their bodies? According to physical therapist Andrew DeLeon, the answer lies in something called “proprioception,” which, as he explains, is being aware of one’s own body and which parts of the body are being engaged or utilized. “There’s a lot of visualization that goes into it,” DeLeon explains, giving the example of doing a squat. “Make sure not only to engage your core, but also your glutes and your quads, while also being sure your knees don’t cave in. It’s about ‘seeing’ these muscles as you engage them.”

To become truly body aware, DeLeon recommends getting a strength trainer, as they will either teach the strong guy how to be aware of his actions and strength, or they’ll push the weaker guy to know his limitations without hurting himself (and perhaps, over time, that guy may actually achieve the strength he thinks he has).

So basically, like just about everything else, the core problem seems to be a lack of mindfulness. If only you knew that before your friend put that hole in your wall.