T Nation

GTO Inhibition and Super Strength

Chad Waterbury recently stated (and I’ve heard it said elsewhere):

“You can only recruit your entire muscle fiber pool if you’re in a life-or-death situation.”

I remember reading Hatfield’s explanation for this in his book “Power: A Scientific Approach” years ago. He mentioned that scientists weren’t completely sure as to what gave certain people such incredible strength in the face of perilous circumstances. The leading hypothesis was:

“Somehow, the golgi tendon organ’s inhibitory message was prevented from ever completing its loop back to the muscle. Somewhere, there’s a built-in scrambler operating outside the realm of immediate or voluntary functioning. Panic brought it to the surface.”

Is this still the leading hypothesis? Has anything else been uncovered? What, specifically, caused the scrambling and can it be controlled to any extent, perhaps with hypnosis, meditation, or other brain methods?

Hatfield also goes on to describe some “deinhibition training” methods consisting of ballistic lifts not unlike oscillatory isometrics and reactive movements. His rationale, however, is that:

“Carefully controlled application of jerky movements against your tendons will make them respond by growing thicker. If your tendon is thicker, its tensile strength is increased. If its tensile strength is greater, it’ll take more tension to set off the inhibitory signal.”

Is there any validity to that statement (especially the last portion)?

Pavel also wrote about disinhibition training in “Power to the People.” Basically, it was isometric exercise and a “feed-forward tension” technique that involved maximally tensing your muscles to lift a relatively light weight (almost faking as if it were remarkably heavy). This was supposed to condition the nervous system and GTO to not pull the plug prematurely upon encountering difficult resistance. Does anyone have any experience utilizing this technique?

As a sidenote, I’d be curious as to whether or not individuals have severely injured themselves in these life-or-death situations. When the GTO’s message is lost, have people torn muscles at insertion points or just generally wrecked their bodies without these safety boundaries? How come this super-strength doesn’t happen for everyone?

I’ve been fascinated by this topic ever since I watched the Incredible Hulk as a young boy. In that series premiere, Banner was unable to summon this strength and so lost his woman in a car fire. That was the impetus for him to study this phenomenon. I’m somewhat surprised more hasn’t been written about these events.

It seems they’re proof of an enormous resource of untapped potential. If only we could find a way to cultivate it with more consistency…and without the prerequisite of hellish drama.


I can’t give you studies or proof of anything, but i’ve heard of one or two cases with people using higher than normal strenght. one time the person ended up tearing a tendon, the other person was fine.

I think it also has something to do with the rapid rise in adreneline. I believe its understood much more than what you described and may help to buy an anatomy book or something.

I’ve also seen some research to the contrary. This article suggests that the GTO effect is, in fact, over-rated:

"The golgi tendon organ is no where near as powerful an inhibitor of muscle activation as many in the fitness industry believe (see Crago et al., 1975). In fact it merely has the effect of slightly inhibiting the firing rates of some units in order that smooth increases in force can be produced when another unit is recruited…

In the strength training literature, the inhibitory influence of the Golgi tendon organ is frequently cited as a possible limiting factor to voluntary muscle activation (see for example; Determining factors of strength, (1985). National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal, 7(1): 10-23 and 7(2): 10-17). However, this view is inconsistent with a number of experimental observations. Firstly, there is evidence that type Ib afferents deliver only weak autogenic inhibition (Crago et al., 1975).

Secondly, Ib afferents of limb extensor muscles deliver, in certain movement contexts, an excitatory influence to both the muscle that they innervate and that muscle’s synergists (Pratt et al., 1995). Furthermore, during maximal voluntary contractions of the human tibialis anterior and hand muscles, afferents of muscular origin deliver a net excitation to homonymous motoneurones (Gandevia et al., 1990; Macefield et al., 1993).

This is most clearly demonstrated by the 30 to 40% decline in the maximum motoneurone firing rate that occurs when the motor nerves are blocked, distal to the recording site, by anaesthetic (Gandevia et al., 1990; Macefield et al., 1993). These findings suggest that, during brief contractions, the excitatory influence of type Ia and II afferents from muscle spindles greatly exceeds any possible inhibitory effect of type Ib afferents from Golgi tendon organs.

These observations also clearly indicate that afferent fibres from muscle spindles provide a significant proportion of the excitatory drive to the motoneurone pool during maximal voluntary contractions."


i havn’t seen any recent studies going against the GTO theories. i’d assume it is still one of the leading ideas behind inhibition.

if you havn’t read verkoshansky’s super methods, he says some interesting things. these are paraphrased in my notes:

innate potential of the human organism:

  • reserves employed in reactive movements (15%)
  • physoiological reserves employed under conditions of elevated motor activity (20%)
  • special reserves mobilized only under conditions of muscle performance of great intensity or long duration (35%)
    ^^ inhibited by the CNS
  • innate defended reserves mobilized only in extreme, life threatening situations (30%)
    ^^ inhibited by the CNS

these reserves not accessible regardless of the intensity of the volutional effort without special long term training.

the cns mechanism controlling the mobilization of the contractile function of muscles of gymnists gradually is perfected during many years of training - making it possible to realize the motor potential fully (including the special reserves) in a volitional effort).

the application of special reserves with traditional methods of SPP, through strength of will impulse, becomes increasingly difficult and involves major time & energy by the athlete.

so verkoshansky’s idea is to teach the body to tap into the 30% of defended reserves:

“consequently it is necessary to create the training conditions that will force the body to mobilize the hidden (concealed) functional reserves and to form central nervous system mechanisms for their application, ie to make them accessible for mobilization from strength of will impulse”

im pretty sure they found out percentages for reserves by doping many athletes. im sure some athletes became seriously injured during these studies. he’s made claims about these injuries before.

i guess you can look at strongman athletes and formulate some views. i mean, there are plenty of complete tendon tears involved in that sport. obviously the “strength of will of impulse” of the athletes is overcoming any GTO inhibitory responses (if they are kicking in).

so something from supermethods is the idea that goes hand in hand with decreasing inhibition, is increasing maximal excitation of the body, such as with mental preparation (visualization/meditation), highly specialized forms of training (shock and stimulation methods).


Thanks. I’ll be certain to check the Verkhoshansky book out. It’s called “Super Methods,” or is it known by another title? Does the text go into more specific detail as to the mental preparation and “training conditions” involved in decreasing inhibition, or does it merely note that it’s possible?



that text doesn’t go into much detail on the mental preparation.

it’s somewhat general, but it goes over increasing excitation via shock/stim methods.