I have been building a 'magic' system in a fantasy setting and have a number of ways a human can gain power. Most of these are limited to who can access them by royal bloodline, being god's chosen, intense study, rare ability or immoral choices.

However I have another method where a human can essentially train physically and improve until they can perform superhuman feats, leap buildings, throw boulders etc.

This option would be open to every human so now I need a plausible reason why every human isn't a walking juggernaut and also why people would choose the alternative methods of gaining power.

In short, why would someone choose to not gain these powers, and why would someone choose alternative methods of magic when this option is available?

Edits for clarification:

Once power is gained, it will not decay outside exceptional circumstances so maintaining strength isn't much effort. The time and effort required is exponential as it increases but starts quite easily. Examples from the setting - Character A is a town guard, who deals with petty criminals who sometimes have their own powers. Due to his job and arms practice, by age 27 he has specialized in speed and can maintain a flat out sprint for around 2 minutes and cover a mile. - Character B is a warlord, in his late 50s, has served in multiple wars and trains every day since his teens. His body has adapted to split each of his arms into two at will, and then wield a conventional 2 handedsword in all 4 at once. His specialization is muscle mass and strength, but he isn't much faster than a fit human.

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    $\begingroup$ Two clarifying questions: is this physical training like a ratchet? That is to say, once you reach a certain level of prowess, can you slip back from that level if you let up on the training? And, ancillary to that, how much training (hours per day) would reasonably be required to reach those levels of fitness? $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 23:23
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    $\begingroup$ Based on your edit... I'm wondering why you think you need non-superhumans at all? Why isn't it a valid option to say "everyone takes advantage of the free and easy way to get ahead?" $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 23:37
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    $\begingroup$ the fact that people are too lazy to go do those things? $\endgroup$
    – dalearn
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 1:25
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    $\begingroup$ How do you train yourself to split your arms in two? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 5:55
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    $\begingroup$ If you will look at the real world you will see that top humans in powerlifting have strengths which is ~3x - 5x than an amateur and maybe 6x - 10x of the average human. The strength is not unlimited but way higher than average. I am pretty sure that top MMA fighter can kill like 10 avg people simultaneously if they will have courage to fight as a group and way more because probably they would be too afraid. So do not underestimate people's lazyness and their willingness to think that all world should change and accept them for who they are. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 5:56

13 Answers 13


Consider why you personally cannot run a 10 minute mile, or lift 200 lbs 10 times, do a backflip and land on your feet. Or why you are not expert with the bow and arrow. Or expert at throwing darts. Why can't you play bass guitar? Why didn't you learn to speak Kazakh? None of that is magic. I do not know you, but I suspect any of those things are within your power now. There is nothing stopping you.

Answer: you were busy doing other things. Like going to school, earning a living, raising a family. All that stuff is a lot of work and for what? If you have nothing you particularly want to shoot with an arrow and nobody around who understands Kazakh, why spend the time to earn those skills? Your example guys are guards and soldiers who can use those fighting powers but what if I grow vegetables and raise chickens?

Now: it would be very, very cool if I could train and get superpowers that were useful in my job of raising chickens, or tailoring tight pants, or singing songs for people at bars. People would actually do that. And it would be fun inventing superpowers that had not been previously seen on DragonBall Z.

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    $\begingroup$ Or just plain laziness. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ 10-minute mile isn't actually that fast; I'd say drop it to 5 or 6. $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Kevin: That's the point, I think. A 10 minute mile ought to be within reach of anyone with working legs, but there are plenty of people who can't do one. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 5:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix "The target for a mile should be 4mins though" No, because a four-minute mile is something that many people would be incapable of even with substantial training. The question asks, essentially, why people wouldn't have superpowers if getting superpowers required only modest effort; the point of Will's examples is that they are things that most people in the real world could achieve with only modest effort, but don't bother to. Comparing with something so special they made a film about it woudln't work. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ In other words, “If humans could fly, we would consider it exercise and never do it.” $\endgroup$
    – KRyan
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 18:01

Make it hard or undesirable.

If I could give you the ability to lift a boulder, and all you had to do was train 24/7 for 20 years, would you do it? What if you didn't have all that many boulders to lift 20 years from now? Don't you just want to sit down and answer questions on WorldBuilding.SE instead of spending your life training?

We don't live forever. We often forget this, but it's important in times like these.

Also, not everything is about power. Power can't buy you love.

Really, all you need to do is create a system where people actually have to expend something they care about (like time/effort) in order to gain capabilities, and then start balancing.

Consider options like:

  • Building power by training is slower than gaining the power by other means
  • Power gained by training erodes slowly. The more you trained your power, the more you have to keep training to keep your power
  • Power isn't all it cracked up to be, especially if you can ask your resident god-chosen to open the pickle jar for you
  • Not everybody want superhuman powers. There's an entire sub-genre of literature covering the extra responsibilities that come with such power. Not everyone wants those.
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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, the asker edited the question ten minutes after you posted in a way that largely invalidates this answer. :-( (In particular, training-based skills don't deteriorate once you've obtained them, so you'd have plenty of time to write on Stack Exchange because you wouldn't need more training to maintain your abilities.) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ "Power can't buy you love." Pfft, love is overrated. $\endgroup$
    – Pharap
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 11:16
  • $\begingroup$ "the extra responsibilities that come with such power." You can choose to not be a superhero or a supervillain and just pretend to be a normal person, having superpowers doesn't make you automatically have to step in and save people. $\endgroup$
    – Pharap
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 11:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Pharap No, you don't have to step in and save people, but if, in a moment of anger, a back-hand slap could flatten 10 people, you have to (learn to) take extra care not to lose your temper -- "don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry." $\endgroup$
    – TripeHound
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 11:33

EDIT: I put the Resources/Extra Food another question of yours but thought it fit here as well.

Resources/Extra Food

You can also take a page from Novas in the Aberrant game. They are meta-humans that can often do incredible things--one of the side effects of being "super" is that you need much, much more food than an ordinary human to live. In the Aberrant setting, which is set in modern times, this wasn't a big deal or even stressed that much, but in a more Fantasy/Medieval setting, an elite needing 2-5x as much food will be a much bigger deal. This means that it will limit the poor a bit as far as becoming elite. So, if a Guard in a city, for instance, is determined to become elite, he might live in a poor neighborhood with no amenities, just so he can supply himself with the food he will need, because he could not afford rent otherwise.


Time and experience. Others, like Will have covered that. There's also--


You have to go in a certain direction. Certain jobs, I'm sure, will be more likely to make you go meta-humanish. If you put yourself in harm's way, you still might die even if you are good at certain things.

The people who do train might be elite guards or something, who will also have to face down other elites, but you don't have to deal with all of that, if you just keep your head down. You want your kids to survive, you teach them not to go meta.

Social Pariahs

Being an adventurer-type can lead to some people being "murder hobos." Ordinary folks know they won't be able to handle it.

Ordinary people may indeed cringe when they see meta folks come into their town, as it generally means a whole LOT of property damage.

They don't want to anger them, but at the same time, they really don't want to be welcoming. They might pay metas to solve problems other metas have caused them, but they would really love to never see another one again. They may be bad-mouthed a bunch more than you would think.

Community members might be accepted, but any meta strangers would be met with suspicion.

Not Needed

So, if you want to be a farmer, you just do the same thing every day, and you don't train harder and harder each day. Why bother? Or if you're a watch maker, or a stock broker or..or...or. A rich man can hire meta-body guards.


In your world there is a terrible distraction readily available.

In the early years of the internet people talked about how humanity would improve because they would have the ability to learn anything by themselves with all the information a click away. Instead people spend all day on social networks.

People prefer to have fun instead of working. They will only strive to be good enough to fulfill their obligations. More than that is against our instinct to spend as little energy as possible.

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    $\begingroup$ Hah, true. Maybe instead of training themselves to jump over a building, people are busy learning the latest fad of weird (and useless) tricks. Think bottle flips or doing tricks with a fidget spinner. :) $\endgroup$
    – Llewellyn
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 17:14

The learning process is not well-known.

I think something interesting you can also think about is how develop skills today. Through experience over time we've discovered that:

  • Most people learn best by doing as opposed to watching or reading.
  • Practice makes permanent as opposed to perfect.
  • Practice in smaller parts as opposed to practicing the entire motion (i.e. for piano, practice right hand then left hand and then together)
  • etc.

Evidently, this is also very closely related to the issue of not having enough time, but more over a generational perspective. The idea is if the global society that you were building was very old, they would have found better and better ways to develop the body (i.e. like the recent rise of the low carb, high protein, high fat diets). But maybe, for one reason or another, perhaps due to some bad science, a belief(s) in religion, some mutation in the human genes, etc. makes it such that the learning process is not well-known and/or developed.

So in your world, there could be many people like the guard. They're faster than the average human in our world and that would actually be "normal." (Consider all the running public education has you do. Or at least I had to do..) The guard would just be "normally" faster than the "normal" human (or you could make them slower and donut eating...). But for people to figure out how to develop 4 arms, that requires a very specialized learning process, one that perhaps is even a secret to the general public, maybe like some secret MMA today. Because of that, people resort to other forms of magic.

So I guess to anwer your question: People wouldn't be able to gain these powers because they don't know how to learn it. Therefore, they resort to other more well-known forms of magic.


The techniques used to train could be really painful ?

When you build your muscles, you destroy them and repair them to make them grow.

So you would need a really strong motivation/mind to bear the pain to get such strenght.

And obviously the more powerful you are, the more painful it beacomes to become stronger.

  • $\begingroup$ "Like some people break their fingers in order to strengthen them" No. Just... no. That doesn't work. You damage your muscles to make them grow, but you don't destroy them. You don't rip your muscles in half - you just break comparatively few muscle fibres. (The rest of the answer is fine. Just the second paragraph is wrong.) $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 12:03
  • $\begingroup$ Eh.. After a bit of research, it seems that I was wrong, don't really know from where I got this idea, thanks for clearing that up ! $\endgroup$
    – Desepto
    Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ Your edit seems to have been reverted within the grace period. I don't know why it would've done that. $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 8:05
  • $\begingroup$ I went ahead and cut the breaking fingers bit from Desepto's post, per his clarification that he was wrong. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 18:26

Maybe some people get better results for their effort. It might be genetics/bloodline or it might be through expensive supplements that they can take. It could be for both reasons. Those with good bloodlines and who were rich would have much higher levels than ordinary folk.

This is common in Chinese novels like you find on Wuxia World.


Another alternative could be that you only can gain from training if you have actual legitimate motivation, as opposed to will. You see that as a plot device in some anime sometimes I believe. Since we're already altering how the brain\physics work to make this world possible, this doesn't seem too much of a leap.

Thus the life stories of your guard and your warlock could quite reasonably naturally motivate their interest in these skills, but you wouldn't have a million guys going around doing these trainings just for power purposes (we'll say a person isn't able to find the same motivation\brain chemistry by doing it for power as one being motivated out of honest interest\love\necessity).

Is that really all that different than the real world once again? Some are brainy people from their youth, others grow a passion for physical activities, etc. It's just honest realty you're more likely to find a kid one considered gifted in elementary is now skillful in engineering skills... and the all pro linebacker probably was pretty physically active even as a young child. But certain life progressions can get most anyone into these types of skills, and other drives like love or survival can be enough to get many learning new things. So be it in this world. There's still a bit of predisposition, but at the same time, anyone truly can.

If you wish, you could still perhaps even allow some development by simple resolve... just make it unpleasant and difficult to get into it enough. So a few dedicated people can will themselves to new interest paths (perhaps guided by pulls of power, greed, perfectionism, altruististic, etc style purposes). But most just aren't driven enough to get past the hump, just as it is in our world with things we don't find ourselves very good/interested/needful at.


Let's assume for the moment that physics, biology and chemistry are not all down the pub getting smashed on dwarven sprits, even if they might be a bit distracted in your world.

When humans train in physical tasks they build muscles that work well for those tasks - white muscle for speed, red muscle for strength and endurance. The more muscle you have the better you perform at tasks that use those muscles... at least until the muscles themselves start getting in the way.

Besides the strength and speed you get from those muscles you also get a whole bunch of other effects:

  1. Increased energy usage

Everything you do, including breathing, now takes more energy. That energy has to come from somewhere so you eat a lot more than you used to. This means more time spent eating and more money spent on buying food... or more time hunting your next meal, depending on the setting.

  1. Extra Heat

The bigger your muscles and the harder they work the more heat your body generates. Human bodies are very delicate about their internal temperature so your body needs to get rid of that heat somehow. Mostly this involves increasing the blood flow to the skin and then sweating to cool the skin down. As you increase in mass your volume increases faster than your surface area, so eventually you're going to hit a breaking point where your skin area isn't high enough to provide enough cooling to balance your muscles. Either you stop before you hit that point or your move to a glacier to continue your training.

  1. More Waste Products

Every time you flex a muscle the body uses ATP, glucose, etc. to make the cells contract. The waste products need to be moved out of there pretty quickly or you will get to enjoy all the fun effects of things like lactic acid buildup. Your body's ability to deal with those metabolites tends to increase as your improve your fitness, but the waste products still need to be filtered out of your blood and eventually out of your body entirely. And we haven't even started talking about the effects of all that extra food...

  1. Bone Strength

Human bones are fairly strong, and they do tend to get stronger as you bulk up. But there are limits there too (unless you remove them) and it's possible to build muscle strength faster than bone strength. In human body builders today you still hear the occasional story about someone who bulked too fast and broke a bone during a lift. Admittedly there are probably some contributing factors like steroid abuse going on there, but it happens.

  1. Sheer Mass

Ever meet a really big body builder? You know, 6'5" and built like a human-shaped bulldog? Ever wonder how much they weigh in at? It's not unusual for an average height human bodybuilder to reach as high as 270lb, and some of the taller ones can get up around 300. Ronnie Coleman weighed in at about 297 lb at his peak. That's about twice the weight of the average slim guy.

Now imagine 300 lb pushing down on an area the size of your foot. OK, maybe bigger than your foot, but think it through. You'd tend to find the weak points in any floor you walked on by the simple expedient of falling through them. And when you run the impact force is much higher.

  1. Size.

I had a friend who did competition body building, and when he bulked for competition he had trouble with normal doors. He had to turn sideways to get through an average house door. He had trouble finding a vehicle that he fit in properly without modification. Dude was big.

  1. Health

With great size comes great... well, joint pain for one thing. Extra stress on the heart - which I presume isn't a problem here because it's just another muscle - and other organs. Hormone imbalances from the excess musculature. Intestinal problems from the massively different diet. Damaged cartilage, tendons, nerve sheaths... there's a lot that goes wrong for big, big guys. And that's just the stuff the natural body builders suffer from. Wait 'til you see just how screwed up the chemistry is inside a 'roid head. That stuff is crazy.

Actually there's more, but I think that'll do for now. Most of it comes down to one thing: the Cube-Square law.

If you want some more ideas I suggest an online series called DeathWorlders. One of the ongoing themes is using alien pharmacology to train human soldiers to absolutely absurd size, strength, speed, etc. One of the main characters "Warhorse" is frequently compared to The Hulk in size... and he's still growing.


I have been building a 'magic' system in a fantasy setting and have a number of ways a human can gain power. Most of these are limited to who can access them by royal bloodline, being god's chosen, intense study, rare ability or immoral choices.

However I have another method where a human can essentially train physically and improve until they can perform superhuman feats, leap buildings, throw boulders etc.

This option would be open to every human so now I need a plausible reason why every human isn't a walking juggernaut and also why people would choose the alternative methods of gaining power.

Well, intense study seems to be much the same as physical training, only granting -presumably- mental powers, or esoteric knowledge of reality bending rituals and such, rather than para-physical prowess. Work hard, earn power, profit. But just because anybody can, doesn't mean everybody does. Hard work is hard, even if it might eventually give you superpowers.

Instead, indeed, why not choose to be of royal blood? Why not choose to be chosen by god? Why not choose to have rare ability? Uhm... These three of the alternate methods don't seem to be entirely electives. People don't choose them.

"Immoral choices" on the other consideration, does seem to be the option for people who seek more power than they are given without putting in the effort.

So then the options are:

(0) take it easy and don't get magic powers,

(1) be bestowed great power by birth or divine favour,

(2) study or work long and hard to gain some power, or

(3) villainy.


how about the need for food and money? how about the need to actually work for the betterment of the society? or how about earning money for the family and even taking care of the family?

and to fit your story, if you want the ones in magic want to keep their power, you have two options: 1: a branch of the government that tracks anyone who gets too strong. there could be a limit to how strong you can legally get, and anyone who passes that limit can be killed on sight.

2: The magicians could have magic specifically to handle these types of super humans, who have super power, but are weak to magic.

as per option 2, one would prefer magic to physical power as only by spending time to understand the power of magic, can you gain resistance to magic. and the world could have dangers that no amount of strength or agility could handle- but are weak to the weakest of magicians.

Also, these dangers could have a death aura that would kill anything that comes within their range and does not have any resistance to magic.


I'd also like to add another component to the other answers - unless you altered it, the training and power of a parent is not passed on to children - Everyone starts from scratch, and so there is no passive power increase over time and generations. Yes there are propensities for skills, but those aren't always pursued, don't always come to fruition, and (in RPG terms) are just a high base stat roll with a limit (translated to real life).




(At least in principle)

So today, more than ever, if you want to learn anything, do anything, there are probably really good instructions on the internet. In a first-world country, you most likely have the time to train.

But it's really profitable for Facebook, or Hollywood, etc, for you to not learn any cool skills, but instead be looking at a screen all day. They've engineered the poop out of this—how to stimulate your brain, giving you enough dopamine that everything else seems dull and too much effort.

So maybe in a world of magic, having computers/social media might not work, but the concept of "I could but I can't be bothered, because X" is there.

E.g. say there's a common drug-esque thing, like coffee, alcohol, smoking, kava, etc. It's socially accepted, and everyone does it as a way to relax. Train for hours every day? Even if it makes you the hulk, it just doesn't seem worth it. Only the monks in the mountains do that kind of stuff.


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