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I'm trying to find a reasonable medical explanation for a normal-looking human having around 10x the strength of the general population, defined for the sake of easily-measurable goals as the amount of weight one could move at a gym. For example, the average untrained man can lift a barbell from waist-level to chin ("upright row") carrying about 50 pounds. I'd like my character to be able to do the same with about 500 pounds, the equivalent of being able to lift one or two adults on each arm.

I think 10x is reasonably conservative (not aiming for Superman or anything like that), as strength training can increase weight lifted by around 3x on most exercises, and by more in many exercises. Basically, the goal is someone who is strong enough for most reasonable purposes, where there aren't many practically useful feats of strength that are beyond someone living a fairly average life that aren't achievable by my character.

I have a very strong background in science and medicine, and I'm looking for fairly technical, here are some of my thoughts so far:

  • Anything beyond around 10x and the physical robustness of the human body becomes a problem. I wonder if there are simple changes that can be made to improve the ability of the spine to carry weight. Perhaps swapping out the hydroxyapetite used in bone with a mineral with higher yield strength, though I'm not sure if bones fail before joints
  • Bigger muscles isn't a solution, because I'm not looking for someone who looks like a body builder. Should look fit like a male model, but not bulky. Otherwise something like mutations in the MSTN gene for less effective myostatin would be promising
  • Is there an animal with muscle that's more efficient than ours that we could copy?
  • Heat management is an issue, as is delivery of oxygen and glucose. Powerful muscles produce a lot of metabolic heat, so there may need to be more vascularization close to the surface of the skin to more efficiently reject heat. Oxygen means potentially more surface area in the lungs, which would also help with eliminating CO2. Glucose means eating more, and potentially a speed up of glycogenolysis to liberate glucose more quickly
  • This is starting to seem like a few big changes might be necessary to accommodate anything beyond short, occasional bursts of strength. Perhaps I should focus this question on short, occasional bursts, lest we end up having to re-engineer humans entirely

EDIT: Added some more thoughts to the section above

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    $\begingroup$ Two points to help set expectations. (a) "Gene Editing" is today's way of saying "magic happens here." We've only just scratched the surface of genetic engineering and while we can do some uber-cool things today, there's no near-future path that would justify super-strength. (b) A LOT more than muscles must change to handle 10X strength. Tendons, ligaments, bones, the circulatory system, digestion... this isn't at all a small thing if you're looking to rationally explain it - which is why comic books don't explain it. $\endgroup$ Jun 27 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH Added some more comments above to that effect $\endgroup$ Jun 28 at 1:48
  • $\begingroup$ Some things are limited by physics. The chemical reaction between actin and myosin which is responsible for muscle contractions can only be taken so far. From there, you start having to change body patterns. What about taking the chimpanzee approach? They have different muscle insertion points, sacrificing range for raw strength. Is that kind of thing fair game? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Jun 28 at 1:59
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon That would probably produce a visibly very different human. What I'm imagining is a person who is macroscopically as close to typical as possible, but has any number of microscopic advantages granting our super strength $\endgroup$ Jun 28 at 3:37
  • $\begingroup$ There are several different allotypes (correct word?) in humans that present as increased strength. One in particular is the "double muscle" gene, but that tends to make them look like bodybuilders, even when they don't work out like bodybuilders. Most of the others will also tend to make the human look exceptional as well, and aren't good candidates. I don't think the science is there for this purpose. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Jun 28 at 13:41
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Its really tricky to out-wit evolution. By using gene editing, we're using evolution's playbook: DNA and proteins. That can be quite a challenge. For example, we can't just make muscle fibers stronger. They're pretty well optimized already. The muscle fibers used from everything from grasshoppers to humans to elephants to cheetahs are more or less the same. There's some difference, but not that much.

Any person with a large amount of strength will have a large amount of muscle. However, we could consider a person who uses their strength more often. Perhaps your genetic editors could target the Golgi Tendon Organs. They are designed to provide feedback as to how close a tendon is to tearing. Our brain typically stops innervating a muscle if the Golgi organs indicate that its at its limit.

However, there are known exceptions. We can ignore the effects of this stimulus. This is what is done in great acts of strength such as a mother lifting a car to save her infants. Of course, our body takes great damage during this time. We can look to the saga of Eddie Hall in his search for the 500kg dead lift. He talks of going to a very dark place, psychologically, during the lift. He had a hypnotherapist work with him to imagine his children's lives are at stake, not just a barbell lift (and if you listen to his voice talking about it... it still bothers him).

This has interesting potential. If we can limit the tearing, we might be able to help with superhuman healing. Healing is an interesting trick for gene editors because it seems rather achievable. The reason we don't heal like crazy is the energy cost of it. Evolutionarially, it wasn't wise to waste that kind of energy for H. sapiens, but there's lots of examples of animals healing in ways we can only dream of. There's salamanders that can regenerate entire limbs.

This is probably the easiest way to get your superhuman strength without visibly changing the human. Have them use their strength in a range that causes damage to them, but heal it faster.

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