At the Bally Total Fitness where I worked in suburban Detroit, we had a serious bodybuilder dude named Paul who would yell really loudly whenever he was lifting weights and make an equal amount of noise whenever he finished a set and dropped his dumbbells on the ground. It was, without a doubt, distracting, as well as unnerving for the people who complained to me about it.
In fairness to Paul, though, lifting weights — particularly heavy weights — isn’t easy, requiring a tremendous amount of exertion that’s been known to cause involuntary, uncontrollable guttural sounds that are anything but performative. In that way, they’re merely another fiber in the proverbial every fiber of your being attempting to move a significant amount of weight with your chest/shoulders/back.
Is there any sort of performance benefit to grunting, groaning, screaming or yelling while you lift weights?
As shocking as it may seem, several studies suggest that loud vocalizations during weight training are far more than superfluous.
For instance, researchers at Drexel University conducted a 2014 study in which they had 30 participants squeeze a handgrip over and over again, varying between holding their breath and squeezing, exhaling while squeezing and grunting while squeezing. “[What] we found was that there was actually an additional 10 percent increase in force when yelling,” researcher Chris Rodolico told PBS. “So, comparatively speaking, the exhalation was more than the passive, and the screaming was more than both. And I’m speaking significantly more.”
That’s all well and good for grip strength, but how well does that logic apply to other areas of physical exertion? Apparently the overlap is too conspicuous to be coincidental. A second study conducted in 2014 evaluated the effects of grunting on the velocities of tennis balls when they are struck. This was a rather logical study to design, as tennis players have long been noted for their distracting yells, screams and grunts while in the course of lobbing shots at one another. The results demonstrated that clamorous serve and forehand velocities increased nearly 5 percent compared to non-clamorous ones, with major increases in the isometric forces in both movements, and in general engagement throughout all of the involved muscles.
I’m gobsmacked. I never thought grunts could be productive in a physical or athletic context. I swore they were just annoying.
Oh, they certainly are. And there’s evidence supporting that, too.
A 2018 study conducted at the University of Hawaii simultaneously analyzed the force of kicks emitted by grunting and non-grunting individuals, along with the degree to which onlookers were able to accurately and reliably react to the kick as it was being inflicted. Not only were the grunt-accompanied kicks delivered with 9 percent greater force on average, but observers of the kicks responded 15 percent slower to them. In other words, the blows struck with the accompaniment of sound weren’t only far more likely to land, but were also inclined to administer far greater damage.
In a fitness context, this has no direct application unless you train while sparring in a boxing ring. However, it does underscore the fact that grunts have a real effect on the concentration levels of others, so you’re not atypical if you find yourself distracted as people are barking out nonsensical sounds during training reps.
This is why, to me at least, it wouldn’t hurt to apply some time, place and manner restrictions to when you choose to groan loudly in the gym. Shouting out utterances during every rep of your sets is probably overdoing it, as you should weigh the added value of that grunt-fueled rep against the distraction you’re creating for the folks lined up on treadmills 15 feet away from you. I’m sure they’d much rather focus on whatever is playing in their headphones as opposed to being forced to listen along while you non-syllabically narrate your own workout.