Before you even see them, you hear them.
The weight room dominants for whom a rep does not count unless it is accompanied by a mirror-rattling barbaric yawp. A glottal utterance from the depths of their souls that signals to all that they aren’t just serious about their routine; they have come to this gym with the sole intention of getting shredded or dying in the effort. Each grunt and groan is an unspoken “Do you even lift, bro?” challenge, issued into the atmosphere like a pheromone designed to repel the non-committed and the wimpy.
But, might they have a point?
Does Grunting During Exercise Have Benefits?
Tennis great Martina Navratilova viewed grunting as unnecessary and merely a psychological tactic, a notion supported by a 2018 study. However, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published a study in 2014 that measured the impact of grunting on the velocity of a tennis player’s serve, and found that grunting did, in fact, improve speed by nearly 5 percent.
Meanwhile, researchers at the Drexel University Health Sciences Program tested the theory beyond tennis, centering their study on handgrip strength. Some subjects squeezed and grunted, others just squeezed. According to their results, “vocalized exhalation increased average static handgrip force by 25% compared to passive breathing and by 11% compared to forced exhalation.”
Martial arts have long held to the concept of the “kiap” — which is a grunt or loud yell that accompanies an attack — as both a means of strengthening a blow and distracting and/or psyching out an opponent. A 2012 study published in The Journal of Applied Sport Psychology even found effects similar to the Drexel study, with participants seeing a 5 to 8 percent increase in grip strength while bellowing “kiap” specifically.
So Why Is Gym Grunting an Issue?
In 2006, a New York state man was kicked out of a Planet Fitness solely for grunting. This incident, coupled with the gym’s tongue-in-cheek “lunk alarm” TV ad campaign, reinforced the idea that grunting is just grandstanding, used primarily to shame the restrained into rethinking their workout intensity.
As more research like the studies cited above increasingly lend credence to the idea that some kind of vocal exhalation can have a noticeable effect on overall performance, the issue may be simply a matter of volume and general etiquette. There isn’t yet any evidence to support the notion that a grunt has to be loud to be effective.
In fact, some experts equate a grunt and a forceful (though mostly quiet) exhalation of air; the two have the same impact, regardless of volume. Anything louder than a hard sigh is probably a sign that you aren’t doing it for a bump in performance — you’re doing it for the attention.