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In the 2018 movie Upgrade, the quadriplegic protagonist gets a cybernetic neck implant that reconnects his spine and returns his control of his limbs. However, this implant also appears to give him near-superhuman strength (such as lifting another character by the throat with one hand, pushing himself into a backflip, etc). Some of this is probably just film logic, but is it possible that if a computer gained complete nervous control of the human body, it could measurably increase their strength (without modifying any other part of the body)?

I was thinking it could force the body to produce more adrenaline or push muscles harder than a human brain would allow, but I don’t know if either of those is realistic.

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    $\begingroup$ It's much more likely to give the subject severe muscle, tendon and ligament injuries. $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2022 at 12:49
  • $\begingroup$ I'll note that lifting someone up by throat is generally impossible from a balance standpoint, not just a strength standpoint. $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2022 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ What makes you think that might be possible? Strength comes solely from muscles while the spinal cord exists solely to transmit message. Messing with the cord might perhaps overwork a muscle but is that what you meant? $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2022 at 20:28

7 Answers 7

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It's known that, under special circumstances, people can produce unexpected amount of force, like the classical example of the father lifting alone an entire heavy cupboard when his kid is trapped below it.

Therefore an external controller simply ignoring limits could surely push harder. However, that might come at a price.

Once I was with my then girlfriend in my car, and it got stuck in some mud in a somewhat remote location: she didn't know how to drive yet and, since I could not push the car and give gas/steer at the same time, she started to panic that we would stay there. This kicked in and she was able to push on her own the car while I was at the wheel. But then in the following days she had severe muscle pain at arms and legs, because of the large effort she had pulled out.

Wrapping up, those limits are not there for a caprice of our brain, but are meant to safeguard our own body. Constantly ignoring those limits it's like keeping driving a car while some red light in the dashboard is lit: sooner or later the engine will crash.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd guess that she wasn't an athlete. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Mar 27, 2022 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ You can literally rip the muscles from your bones. Because that is not a very useful feature your brain limits your 'power draw'. In case of 'brain thinks your going to die', it prefers damaged muscle over death, so it unlocks it. $\endgroup$
    – Martijn
    Mar 28, 2022 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild Maybe she was only used to pushing boulders and got thrown off by the car. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Mar 28, 2022 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ That extraordinary power also comes with extraordinary damage to the muscles, tissues, and possibly bones. Our body doesn't do it normally because it can be extremely damaging, and generally we don't want that unless the alternative is much worse. When people are electrocuted, for example, it's not uncommon for them to break their own collarbone, which takes much of the stress of every muscle in the upper body going to full power at the same time. $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Mar 28, 2022 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ this answer is good, you could perhaps mention that depending on the degree of modification to the nerves of the individual, there is considerable opportunity to finesse the interaction of muscle/tendon/bone to maximize force that the human body naturally does but not to the extent that it could be done with a newer operating system $\endgroup$
    – user2754
    Mar 29, 2022 at 12:01
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Yes and no.

Muscle strength is limited by three variables :

  • The strength of the bone carrying the force, this is related to the thickness of the bone
  • The strength of the tendons connecting muscle to the bone. This is limited by the area of connection, which trades off strength for range of motion
  • The strength of the muscle.

Modern human performance at the Olympic or record-setting levels is already encroaching on the limits of the tendons and underlying bones.

So, superhuman? Not without some remodeling of the rest of the body.

However, it might be possible to “train” muscle strength (within the “human” range) using this technology. Your hero/villain could be surprisingly fit for his or her lifestyle.

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    $\begingroup$ I think that the last point about training is worth noting. This technology could exercise the patients muscles even when they were doing something else (within the limits of a good exercise regimen, of course). $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2022 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ Along these same lines, it could also be responsible for razing muscle tissue temperatures basically doing what warm-up exorcises do prior to exertion to prevent injury. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 28, 2022 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ "exorcises" worth a story at least :) $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2022 at 20:53
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Not really.

Hysteric strength is a fallacy whose origin lies in people moving objects that seem heavy, but which have a construction that assists the lifter, such as cars and tractors with flexible tyres and/or suspension, which assists raising part of the object far enough to release a trapped person, who is pinned by a force less than that of the full mass of the object. Things like air-inflated tires, suspension springs or the shape of the object mean that a relatively small application of force alters the dynamic balance of forces enough to allow movement of part of the object over a relatively large distance, but it is by no means possible for the same person to lift a rigid, flat-sided body of approximately the same dimensions and mass.

Humans are capable of exerting the full force of their muscles at any time, optimal muscle length permitting. There is little or no 'reserve' where pain prevents maximal exertion, and the body reshapes itself to prevent injury as strength increases due to exercise, thickening bones and tendons.

Muscles are not capable of exerting their maximum force throughout the entire range of the motion of the limbs to which they are attached. The microstructure of the actin and myosin filaments is such that muscles work best at around 50% flexure of the limb, when the muscle is half-way between its full extension and full contraction. More extended than that, and fewer of the actin and myosin filaments can engage with each other, and as the muscle contracts more, some of the filaments reach the end of their range of movement and can no longer add to the exertion of the muscle as a whole. There is an instinctive urge to place the limbs in a position allowing maximum exertion when anticipating a need for maximum exertion. This is the reason why in preparation for action in a situation of flight or fight, a creature will crouch, partially flexing its limbs.

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    $\begingroup$ This is not quite true. While it is true that no removal of limits will allow a normal person to lift a car, there is still a significant tempering of strength under normal circumstances. If an untrained person starts going to the gym this is a significant portion of "newbie gains". My deadlift doubled in six months, but my muscles are pretty much the same size as they were. The difference is that my CNS learned how to get closer to the limit. $\endgroup$
    – Turksarama
    Mar 28, 2022 at 5:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Turksarama I'm afraid you're doubly wrong there. That "tempering of strength" has nothing to do with your CNS, nor to do with the mere size of your muscles. Some of your "newbie gains" on any sport comes from learning correct technique. The other part is that muscles adapting to active use (especially if you were previously fairly sedentary) can be fairly quick, and bulking-up is a phenomenon which only relates to a particular use of muscles and certainly won't have any visible effect within 6 months. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Mar 28, 2022 at 9:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Turksarama ... Where "tempering of strength" definitely does apply is in endurance and contact sports, where you do learn to "play through the pain". That's very much a thing; and it's something people can do unconsciously when escaping danger, because that's what happens when adrenaline kicks in. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Mar 28, 2022 at 9:05
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There's a lot of mythinformation (no, that's not a mistake) around the question of hysteric strength, but not all of what you're asking relates to it.

Human bodies posses significantly more strength than we are capable of using directly, for a variety of reasons. For instance, electric shocks to muscles can break bones, snap tendons and rip muscle fibers quite badly, something we normally can't achieve by will alone. To be fair much of this is because of abrupt overstimulation of the muscles: direct electrical stimulation can convulse muscles in ways that plain old nerve impulses can't.

But there's another aspect to the feats displayed in Upgrade: coordination. The idea seems to be that the control chip was able to fire muscles in ways that would have taken years of acrobatic training for a normal person to achieve. With appropriate programming and control over all of the muscles you could in principle do all sorts of otherwise amazing things. That doesn't give you the ability to ignore the limits of your muscles, but most people would be surprised at how little actual muscle it takes to do a back flip. Most of it is in the technique and flexibility, and it might be a little painful if you haven't spent the time on flex training. But hey, at least you don't have to actually feel the pain since the chip can filter it out.

To get actual enhanced strength would take a bit of work however. It would have to infiltrate the entire nervous system to optimize signalling - both latency and signal strength - and you'll need some reinforcement of the muscles (including their anchor points) and tendons if you want to do a lot more with the same muscle mass. This goes well beyond what Upgrade claimed the chip would do. Just bridging broken spinal nerves isn't going to do anything for actual strength.

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Not overnight, no. Others went into the reasons already.

However, consider a patient whose body works out intensely during sleep. The machine just does the exercises while the brain sleeps. A computer could, in principle, know and monitor the limits of the body and tailor the exercise to these limits better than an athlete-and-coach-team setup, as to work out more intensely without ever causing an injury. Over time, the body would acquire barely superhuman strength, as in, a little bit stronger than the strongest olympic athletes.

So no tearing through steel, but "lifting another character by the throat with one hand, pushing himself into a backflip, etc" sound very plausible, because it is plausible for olympic athletes.

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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, but no - the (oversimplified) way that exercise increases strength is that the exercise damages the muscles and then the body repairs them and makes them a bit stronger, mostly while the body is asleep. Take away from the sleep cycle the ability to regrow the muscles and the person will get progressively weaker, not stronger. $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2022 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ Obviously a cybernetic muscle trainer should take that into account, and not train your muscles all night every night to the max. But it could train certain muscle groups, and then give them sufficient rest to regenerate, maybe training other groups of muscles during that time. Or giving all muscles rest for some nights. Whatever works best. $\endgroup$
    – JanKanis
    Mar 29, 2022 at 21:28
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Yes it could increase the strength,by a lot to be true. I have once made an experimental exosuit on such a principle, so making one faster and stronger by overwriting their musclestrength using electricity. that thing worked, but only for specific movements since the emg sensors would not work due to the high voltage, so a old interface with pre programmed moves and simple methods of activating them was needed.

But be careful, while such a thing works, it will also damage the persons muscles exponentially, so it should only be used in extreme schenario's, just like adrenaline does, it can be done for very short amounts of time and up to a specific unknown and variable extend before the muscles damage to badly, or the person dies.

So how does this translate to the cybernetic spinal cord? the cybernetic spinal cord might do one of the following things:

  1. it increases the voltage and current in ones muscles compared to what it would normally be.
  2. it can be hacked more easily to bypass what the body would normally force itself as a limit. this is very realistic since such a system likely would just listen to one specific section of the brain, most likely the conscious side, while the real limiting normally happens more in the subconscious side.
  3. it can make them more efficient or fast, if the brain is faster muscles can correct and control themselves faster, in reality this can severely increase ones actual strength and efficiency. and normal efficiency which can also be gained in other way like coordination and/or focus will also make one many times more efficient. if a normal person is capable of largely ignoring pain, has atleast a little strength, and has a high efficiency then they can do seemingly impossible things. most "strong" people now have a deficiency close to 0, look at people getting their strength from practical use or proper training like parcour, or people like bruce lee. the moves you mention would certainly be possible like that, when you look to things bruce lee could do without having that much muscle, just by having great control and being able to ignore pain somewhat, and what parcour people can do, than if you get in somewhere in between, so not even close to any of both's peaks then the moves from the movies are perfectly possible, you just have to find someone like bruce who like the freedom of movement, and/or the show a lot since it is just a showy way of attacking someone, not the most efficient but showy.
  4. it doesn't feel pain, or not all pain, or it doesn't send back the pain as well, perhaps it has a maximum amount of pain it can send back, so when the user reaches that it can bypass all the limiting as far as it wants. this would most likely happen due to things like adrenaline, but a trained person might be able to do so without. as a mater of fact there are people in real life who can bypass their bodies limits on bare willpower, often they use some form of excitement/will to replace adrenaline which allows them to go far beyond their bodies limit for quite long in many very small pulses. I know about someone who is does and did so in real life, the things that such people make happen would often sound ridiculous when you where not there to see it for yourself. yet often such people stay quite hidden because often they don't learn to train, and even when being better in something than others many prof teams do not want them, if they notice you are capable of doing it and are doing it, than many of them will not want you in their team, or even want to get rid of you, only if you get famous before they notice will they allow you to stay there. but in general it is seen as a great risk in multiple ways, since such a person often barely has technique so will often look wacky, or just bad in such a thing, they often lose feeling and expression of emotion which makes the sport look bad due to it seeming like someone beats the others by far without breaking a sweat. in fact that is actually true, and that leads to the last point of danger, many of them get physically cold when doing so, their body won't regulate itself properly and will behave it kind of like a body which is half dead, in some cases this can lead to things like the senses dropping(things like becoming temporarily blind, deaf, etc. such people however often don't really notice it themselves in those moments because they only care about what they want), so it is statistically seen very dangerous to the body. most people capable of doing such things are so from young on, almost no one learns it later in life, so most of their bodies can handle much more impact, they often use very short extreme impact forces to make the movements rather than long movements,however sometimes also longer movements with much force. but on a average person who's body is not used to it one such movement already has a large chance of seriously damaging the body. and even such a person can do so quite easily due to operating quite far beyond what the body should be able to do. often they also lose emotion and feeling partly when doing such things a lot which often might make them seem like monsters. but this is also their greatest weakness, many of them eventually seriously injure their body at multiple points, just like someone might do in extreme adrenaline schenario's, but such people don't do so during exercise, or while using their things, they instead often do so when doing nothing, or nothing serious like writing or typing. their body might eventually at random moments not be able to limit itself properly anymore, and so in some moments where it is supposed to be completely relaxed a very small muscle movement instead might be amplified so much that it can seriously injure them, things like ripping a muscle(partly) would normally only happen to people under severe load, to such people such a thing can happen when doing nothing and they might suddenly notice that muscle hurting a lot when trying to use it. such people however often just continue to do things, since they often just care about what they want, and some muscle pain often is not the end of them, soon they will again do such things, and when injured their might even rely on overwriting their body to do normal things.

Most people's strength and speed is limited by pain and relaxation of the mind(a average person get's up to around 1/5 the speed of what a decently fast persons brain speed can be, many people get a lot faster in the brain when in stress or adrenaline). by removing the pain and relaxation you can become very strong because the removal of pain makes you strong, the increase of speed makes you much more efficient, and fast(impact force is amplified by speed, this impact force does not only apply to hitting things but also to starting a movement) for the efficiency you can look to a bodybuilder and a old time farmer the body builder has huge muscles but won't really be strong due to a lack of control in them and a lack in speed in using them. a old time farmer might barely have muscle but they can be superhuman strong because they are so efficient with it(and they often have had to endure more pain, stressful (high speed(like falling, having something falling, animals, etc.)) situations which also makes them stronger and faster for the amount of muscle they have. some old time farmers can (almost)litteraly do such things like in the movies, a local oldtime farmer here was called the oak because he could turn his body into oak, that was just by tensening his muscles he could make himself so hard that even the strongest people where incapable of moving him, many such people also could stiffener their finger to be able to pierce right through hard things, later this became a famous movie stunt in karate things, but in reality around here some untrained farmers could do so due to the sheer efficiency they had in the control of their body, and due to the increased reaction speed and relative strength due to things like being exposed to painful situations more.

know that if we combine these things where it might overide the voltage and current, increase frequency of the brain(this automatically often gets triggered due to the higher voltage and/or traumatic or dangerous events like a fight accident/adrealine), higher efficiency and coordination, lower pain, or no pain, being able to override pain/or bypas the pain based muscle limiters, and the person daring to do things and learn/try moves. then by combining these things you could actually go far beyond the moves you described, and such things could be considered easy/very much possible. but they are just not the most efficient in a fight, so someone capable might be less likely to use it, unless they just think it is cool and want to do it. to be able to do such things to the full extend you have to think like a kid, or more feel actually since a kid often judges more in feeling than thinking(here feeling is just what feels cool, or what one wants or doesn't want) since such movies are more common now, someone who gets back to such a level is more likely to do it because it is in their mind. however due to society such a person is much less likely to be without any weird things like such a spine or specific events.

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Yes.

Although the implants could not actually increase the strength of the person, in theory the person could do a lot more because many limits would be removed.

Apparently people can find the strength to lift cars, so with any issues with fear/fatigue gone, this person could do seemingly superhuman feats.

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