The taurus scarab, a species of dung beetle, is the world's strongest creature, according to a study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. That's what the UK-based scientists determined when they discovered that the insect can pull 1,141 times its bodyweight, which is akin to the average American woman hoisting 189,634 pounds. Consider Chen Wei-Ling, a 35-year-old Taiwanese lifter, the human version of the taurus scarab.
The 103-pound Wei-Ling recently squatted 462 pounds. Although that's nowhere near the 95 tons she'd have to lift to be dung beetle-strong, her squat is more than 4.5-times her bodyweight—enough to break a world record and certify her one of the strongest humans alive.
"It's a freak occurrence," says Jason Hartman, a strength and conditioning coach contracted by EXOS to work with US Special Forces soldiers and former strength and conditioning coach for the US Olympic Team. To understand why, consider what exercise physiologists call "relative strength." "Relative strength is the amount of strength you can produce relative to your bodyweight," Hartman says. It's different than "absolute strength," which looks at weight regardless the size of the person who's lifting it.
The heaviest female squat ever recorded is 854 pounds, making Wei-Ling's load look dismal in terms of absolute numbers. But the lifter who put up that big squat weighed 247 pounds, making her lift equivalent to just 3.46 times her bodyweight.
"For the Olympians I work with, a two to two-and-a-half times bodyweight squat is usually the most I see," Hartman says. "(Wei-Ling) is essentially doubling up the numbers of some of the world's top Olympians." Even The Mountain squats just 1.9 times his bodyweight.
Generally, relative strength benefits lifters who are shorter, lighter, and leaner, says Dean Somerset, an exercise physiologist in Canada and certified strength and conditioning coach. "The more muscle a person can pack onto a compact frame, the better chance they have of lifting heavier weights."
Wei-Ling is just 4 foot 10-inches tall, and after analyzing her build and figures in other lifts, Somerset guesses that her femurs are relatively shorter while her torso is longer, factors that shorten the distance you need to move the bar to squat. Somerset guesses Wei-Ling must move the bar anywhere from 14 to 18 inches to complete the lift. The bar would have to travel much farther if she were taller, requiring more strength to move the same weight.
Hartman also hypothesizes that smaller lifters may benefit from how the human nervous system responds to heavy loads. "The nervous system may not see the smaller absolute weights lifted by the smaller athletes as a threat," he says. "So it allows the lifter to keep making improvements in strength that it may not let a larger athlete make."
Somerset also points to data from the NHANES and World Health Organization, which shows that Asian ethnicities tend to have lower body mass densities per kilogram, but relatively higher strength and lower body fat at the same body densities. "That means at the same weight class and height, comparing different ethnicities gives Asian populations a muscle and strength advantage compared to Caucasian or African American lifters," Somerset says.
Science aside, it takes a hell of a lot of heart, determination, and thousands of grueling hours spent under the bar to do what she did, Somerset says. "There's no measurement that can predict that."
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UPDATE (5/24/17): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Wei-Ling was Korean. She is Taiwanese.