Anyone who has frequented a gym for any length of time has probably encountered “that person” – a grunter, whose loud guttural noises sound like an animal either in pain or getting it on. For many gym-goers this is an annoying disruption, but is there any evidence that it actually helps weightlifters perform better? Well, the answer is a bit of yes and a bit of no.
Loud grunting seems to be one of the most annoying things people experience at the gym. It is so contentious that some grunters have been banned from their gyms in some places, and others have been attacked by fellow exercisers.
A casual search on Twitter and other social media sites is enough to confirm that the behavior attracts both vitriolic anger from its detractors and insistent defenses from its practitioners. Some people consider their loud grunts as a mark of pride, demonstrating their commitment to their physical fitness and helping them enhance their workouts, while others see it as a way to assert “dominance” in the gym space.
So is there any science to add weight to this debate? Well, grunting is a normal behavior. When we exert ourselves, whether it’s while lifting heavy weights at the gym or performing other intense actions, we naturally exhale. In fact, in many sportspeople are told to avoid holding their breath when they exercise or risk passing out. Sometimes, the aggressive exhalation will come out as a grunt.
Fair enough, breathing correctly is an important component for many sports and there’s all sorts of advice online to help you think about it. But there is also evidence to show that a more purposeful grunt can have benefits too.
In 2014, Chris Rodolico and Sinclair Smith, researchers at Drexel University Health Sciences Program, experimented with 30 people who they asked to squeeze a handgrip as hard as they could. The handgrip recorded the force they exerted as they did so. The squeezers could perform the task in one of three ways – they could just squeeze as normal, they could exhale as they squeezed, or they could squeeze and make some sort of vocal noise (they were free to choose what that noise was). In most instances, the participants who made noise opted for a grunt (though some screamed or shouted).
The results showed that squeezing while exhaling increased the performance force, but they found that participants could exert an additional 10 percent of force when yelling or grunting.
This experiment is often cited in defense of gym grunters, and it is not alone in its findings. Research performed in the 1960s also found that participants could exert 12 percent more force during an isometric forearm flexor task when shouting. In another study, grip strength increased for karate practitioners, regardless of their level, when they grunted (called a kiai). More recent work has also suggested that the noise can have benefits beyond enhancing strength in competitive sports – it can also be a great way to distract and intimidate an opponent.
Exhaling while lifting is also good for your core stability, which can make you stronger when performing specific actions.
So does this mean that loud grunting at the gym is acceptable? Well it depends on the context and what’s deemed “appropriate” in each gym. The behavior is likely more acceptable in a dedicated specialist gym filled with serious weightlifters or a CrossFit club where primal utterings have more social currency, but it is less appropriate in a public general fitness gym. Moreover, just because sharp exhalations have benefits for lifting performance does not mean you have to be obnoxiously loud.
As this advice from Men’s Health makes clear “you can harness your animal power without the ruckus. Just close your lips, press your tongue into the roof of your mouth, and breathe deeply through your nose as you lift.”