Are you Stronger than a Gorilla?

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Just how strong can a gorilla be? After watching the latest iteration of King Kong over the weekend, the answer seems obvious. They’re very strong. As in smash anything in their way strong.

Not the most scientific of answers but hey, it works for me.

Luckily not everyone is as lazy as my good self. Indeed, some have gone to some interesting lengths to scientifically provide an answer. Today’s post, focuses on a 1920s study, which may have contributed to some common misconceptions about our primal relatives.

And before you protest about the nature of this post, the experiment (Spoiler Alert!), contains weightlifting. Both human and primate.

The Great Scientific Question…Why should I care?

According to John Bauman, the scientist responsible for the study in question, no one had bothered to actually examine the strength of chimpanzees. Instead, estimations had been made based on the monkey’s stature. Or in his own words

All anatomists place reliance upon the relative development of the various muscle attach- ment ridges and pits on the bones as a trustworthy indication of the strength of the owner.

Beginning in 1923, Bauman claimed that although every expert in the fields of biology, veterinary medicine and the various other related disciplines, agreed that apes were stronger than humans. None, however had ever attempted to prove it. Something Bauman would rectify.

How does a Gorilla Lift?

Bauman’s intention presented a very obvious and immediate problem. How exactly does one test a Gorilla’s strength? After all, despite the size of modern day bodybuilders and powerlifters, we have yet to see a true Gorilla squat, bench and deadlift for reps. Although I’m open to contradiction on that point (Would anyone be surprised if Eddie Hall’s inhuman strength was due to primate blood?).

In any case, Bauman believed he had found a rather clever solution using a dynamometer and a rather crudely designed machine resembling a seated row. Though Bauman’s observation articlepublished in 1926 failed to include a diagram of said machine, Glen Finch was kind enough to do so in 1943.

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So How Exactly did this device work?

Returning to Finch’s retelling, which admittedly I found to be the more interesting account, we learn that

Each subject was tested with a modified “method of limits” technique. Pre-liminarily, the subjects were accustomed to the apparatus through several days with increasingly greater resistances to their pulls, each subject being allowed to recover the incentive (a small piece of fruit) with each completed pull (a com- pleted pull consisted of pulling in the rope a distance of 9 to 12 inches). Test trials were given in two days’ sessions, the first day with normal prior food- deprivation (each subject was tested in the morning before a major feeding), the second day with 24 hours prior food-deprivation

Tests were conducted as follows: With one small piece of banana as incentive, the subject was given the rope and allowed to pull against the maximal resistance that he had previously overcome. When the incentive was recovered, the rope was withdrawn, one 10 pound weight was added to the load, another piece of banana was provided as incentive, the subject was given the rope and allowed to pull.

If the subject failed to move the system in one minute, an additional piece of fruit (apple, orange, or banana) was added to the incentive and so on with further additions of fruit each minute until ten minutes had elapsed, at which time the test was terminated and the subject’s max as recorded as the resistance which he had overcome (as judged by a movement of the incentive of at least 3 inches). It might be noted that the became comparatively very great before a trial was recorded as a failure.

At this point I’d like to point out the fact that these Chimps were effectively lifting weights to eat more of their favourite food. A tactic that has led me to spoon mouthfuls of peanut butter straight from the jar on many an occasion!

What were the results?

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So how did our furry friends do? After all, food is the best motivator!

While some Chimpanzees refused to take part in the experiment, the undoubted stars of the show were Suzette, a former circus performer and her father Boma. From a relaxed state, Suzette was credited with pulling 905 pounds and over 1260 pounds once agitated. An ape you evidently don’t want to mess with.

Not to be outdone, Suzette’s father Boma registered one-hand pulls of 847 pounds with his right hand and 640 pounds with his left.

As detailed by Bauman in his original Bauman 1923, a third primate, named Dempsey pulled over 120 pounds as a child. Bless.

How did the Humans do?

How then did all of the above compare with humans?

Then acting as college professor in South Dakota, Bauman used his university contacts to assemble a group of men he believed to be comparable in strength…. Football players.

But not any football players would do. They were a

college football team who had been working hard on the farm before coming to college that fall and were therefore well develop and in good condition.

Good old fashioned American muscle am I right?

Sadly for all of humankind, these ‘husky farm lads’ as Bauman labelled them failed to live up to expectations.

It is remarkable that only two out of five of these husky farm lads could approximate one fourth of Boma’s pull, the position being fully as handy for man as for ape.

A full table of their lifts is available below

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What were the conclusions?

Taking all of the data together, Bauman came to the conclusion that apes such as Suzette and Bauman were four times stronger than the average human. For those amongst us comfortable with bizarre math, here’s a treat:

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What was of all of this impact?

Remarkably Bauman’s conclusions, based largely on anecdotal evidence and an intricate system of measurement resembling nothing found in the wild, nevertheless had considerable academic and public purchase.

Within academia, Bauman’s conclusions were largely accepted until the early 1940s, when Finch’s investigations dispelled the ‘four times as strong idea’. Incidentally, Finch found that in a pulling exercise male chimps and adults were roughly of the same strength. Although once bodyweight was taken in to account, the chimps came out as marginally stronger.

In the public realm, blogs and newspapers still regularly make the claim that monkeys are four times stronger than humans, despite the criticism Bauman’s study has suffered over the years.  Furthermore within Hollywood and Television, monkeys are often depicted as having strength far outweighing man. King Kong and the Planet of the Apes being two relatively recent examples.

Luckily however I have devised an idea to settle this question once and for all. Pit Eddie Hall, Brian Shaw and Žydrūnas Savickas, the three most recent World’s Strongest Men against the strongest primates we can find in a series of pulling, pushing and throwing movements.

Who cares if its not scientific… the viewing alone would be worth it!

As always… Happy Lifting!

12 comments

  1. While those men… “Eddie Hall, Brian Shaw and Žydrūnas Savickas, the three most recent World’s Strongest Men” might be able to beat a chimpanzee in lifting, a fully grown adult gorilla would destroy any of the three. And probably even if their lifts were added together… from what I can find on the internet the gorilla appears to have the strength of 8-20 men, although these are only estimates.

    1. I would love to see a lifting contest between them wouldn’t you?

      Something that I’m working on at the moment is trying to find these studies estimating Gorilla’s strength versus humans. Bauman’s chimpanzee 4-1 test has endured for several decades. Do you know of any other studies off hand by chance?

      Personally while I think Bauman’s study was a little silly, the ingenuity of it was admirable. Maybe world’s strongest men could add some animals eh?

  2. Just saw this again now. The scientific evidence between strength and gorillas seems scanty at best although the anecdotal evidence is plentiful and includes such instances of gorillas playfully twisting heavy truck tires into figures of eight (so as to speak) and casually bending two inch thick steel bars. SeaWorld lists the upper body strength as about equal to six men (but does not explain how they got it).

    Revisiting the chimpanzee debate for a moment…I would not regard Finch’s paper as the definite word on the subject or even as debunking Bauman’s research.

    Finch made the assumption that starving the chimpanzees for 24 hours would ensure that they pulled at maximum strength. But the results do not really bear this out.
    Two of the eight didn’t pull at all after being starved, three pulled more, two pulled less, and one the same.

    And both Bauman’s and Finch’s test populations were very small…making the studies less of a test that applies to the general chimpanzee population and more to a handful of individuals.

    That said I do believe that 5 times is a gross exaggeration but I don’t see them being the same either. If that were correct then surely some of those football players would have come a LOT closer to Boma or Suzette’s lifts…flawed as it may have been.

    1. Funnily I was only chatting about this with someone the other day – they too were of the opinion that the men used in the study were not representative in terms of strength or weight – hence the exaggeration.

      It’d be interesting to see some modern work done on this area – even just for curiosity sake. Sadly I don’t think it’ll happen

  3. Some modern work was done: Bozek et al 2014 arranged a similar setup to estimate pulling strength of humans, chimpanzees and macaques, and found the non-human primates to be twice as strong for their weight. (doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001871)
    However, according to O’Neill et al 2017, “a critical review of available data suggests that chimpanzee mass-specific muscular performance is a more modest 1.5 times greater than humans on average”. (doi:10.1073/pnas.1619071114)
    Bearing in mind that Ray Williams, Hafthor and Magnus Samuelsson are definitely gorilla-sized (150-200kg body weight) and can easily be considered to have the strength of three or four men, by O’Neill’s estimate a gorilla may actually have five or six times average human strength. So while I don’t expect them to total 2 tons, I’d still like to see those gorilla powerlifts.

  4. I myself had a one-handed Dynamometer pull of 825 lbs (check my youtube video under the name brentlion), which is similar to the male Chimp in Bauman’s study. Its easy to get a high number of a Dynamometer.

      1. Really? That’s awesome. Do athletes still use special shoes for arm wrestling? I’ve seen Dennis Roger’s high top shoes before – a fascinating bit of equipment

  5. I saw that you were looking for some other studies on Chimp strength. Here is one from Glenn Finch (saved it to my imgur):

    https://i.imgur.com/QzFw5Ud.jpg

    https://i.imgur.com/WU4wS1u.jpg

    https://i.imgur.com/tOjvoHb.jpg

    https://i.imgur.com/Z19kPA9.jpg

    Here is another even more recent study, which you can find on google, in pdf format:

    https://i.imgur.com/W8DAZqi.png

    (only the last Chimp was an adult)
    https://i.imgur.com/qU1MSAy.png?1

    Strength of the humans in the same study:

    https://i.imgur.com/8Wdcgsj.jpg

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