Elusive OMSS The Definitive Medical Explanation

In Opinion by Nadim LalaniLeave a Comment

After having seen several cases I thought that this was important enough to share. [Can’t believe that this hasn’t been published in a major journal]. Below I describe the pathophysiology and teleology and then finish up with two cases from recent memory.


“did you see grandpa pick up that keg of beer?”
…”Yeah he has sick old man strength”

Ever heard of an Old Timer displaying an inordinate amount of strength for a man his size/age? [e.g. … opening the jam jar that you couldn’t … or loosening that lug-nut on your tire (that you couldn’t) …]. These superhuman feats are what we call Old Man Strength Syndrome [OMSS].

The Urban Dictionary [link] provides the following definitions:

“crazy, insane strength you gain when become an old man”

“usually acquired at the age of 40”

“…can be used to lift copious amounts of lumber, furniture beat your sons at arm wrestling”

Anecdotally I have found that OMSS usually begins later in life and includes a symptom complex of ‘wiry’ upper body strength, out-of-the-box problem-solving that usually includes the use of  only bare hands. Old timers displaying OMSS also more often than not show imperviousness to harsh environments and seem to share the same oral traditions that begin with the saying “back in my day …” [This is a fascinating cross-cultural phenomenon]

Pathophysiology and teleological purpose to OMSS:

Like many conditions, we are only beginning to understand the physiology.  There are several competing hypotheses and they may not be mutually exclusive.

“Harsh Times” Hypothesis:

Simply put … the older you are, the harsher the environment of your formative years appears to have been. How this conveys super-human strength is poorly understood however. There may be some correlation to functional strength required to walk long distances to school [uphill both ways].

We know for certain that if the person is a war veteran – this alone is a strong predictor of OMSS. Authors B & K MCKay illustrate [link to article] that the functional fitness expected of WW2 GI’s became a lost art until recently when it was discovered that modern day soldiers cannot pass the historical fitness tests. This is leading to an overhaul of modern fitness test to  a more “cross-fit” type test.

“Basically, Grandpa was doing Cross-Fit before it was cool” [ArtofManliness. com]

Hybrid Strength Hypothesis:

Author M Westerdal [link] explains the difference between  “…being gym strong versus real-life strong”. He uses the case report of himself [a high-school football star] and his father [who never worked out a day in his life, but did a lot of manual labor] and describes a day when they had to remove heavy rocks from their yard. Westerdal’s father displayed OMSS by effortlessly lifting the rocks!

“This Old Man basically kicked my A** with Real World Strength!” [http://leehayward.com]

Westerdal goes onto explain that years manual labor, building things around the house and having to fix things himself built Hybrid Type III Muscle in his dad. This muscle allows one to perform extraordinary feats time and time again! This is in stark contrast to “gym-strength” – which builds Type I and II muscle by individually isolating muscles.

The movie Rocky IV highlights the superiority of real-world strength versus gym strength – if you haven’t seen it you should.

Mind over Muscle Hypothesis:

Basically Old Geezers believe that they can. Author JD Johannes explains that this self-belief allows geezers to  harness their Maximal force [link]. Combined with years of refined use this mental fortitude results in OMSS.

Teleology of OMSS:

The authors of The Manstitute.com suggest that OMSS allows men to get manlier with age and serves the purpose of raising male progeny. There also appears to be a positive feedback mechanism:

“Your Old Man Strength begins to kick in from the moment you start teaching your son to be a man. The manlier you make your son, the manlier you become. This is the benefit you get from showing a brand new man the ropes.”

Case Review:

Case 1

Perhaps the most famous display of OMSS ever was that displayed by Mr. Miyagi from the blockbuster hits Karate Kid 1 and 2 . Check out this scene from KK1 where he single-handedly takes down some bullies [Link]

Case 2

Bob Barker might look like someone you could take in a fight, but make no mistake! You could end up like this victim who underestimated the powers of OMSS [Link]

 Putting Knowledge into Practice:

1) You may want to validate the existence of OMSS by challenging one of your elders to an arm wrestle. I advise caution as you will certainly lose and trying to up the ante may result in a whuppin’

2) Old geezers demand respect. Give it to them – they’ve earned it through harsh times.

3) If you’re male, you too may cultivate OMSS in yourself by performing tasks that require real-life strength.

from http://artofmanliness.com/

from http://artofmanliness.com/


Nadim is an emergency physician at the South Health Campus in Calgary, Alberta. He is passionate about online learning and recently made a transition into human performance coaching. He is currently working on introducing the coaching model into medical education.