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Those gym grunts have a purpose

December 11, 2006|Janet Cromley | Times Staff Writer

It was the grunt heard around the world.

When Albert Argibay, a 40-year-old corrections officer, emitted a loud Uuuunh! while lifting weights at Planet Fitness, the gym's manager asked him to quiet down. He didn't take kindly to the request, and eventually was booted from the Wappingers Falls, N.Y., fitness center.

He then upped the ante, appearing on a local radio station defending his God-given right to grunt.

Bloggers went crazy. Some suggested that gyms have gone too far, adopting overly stringent anti-grunting policies. Although most gyms don't go as far as Planet Fitness -- which has its official no-grunt policy posted in giant signs on the wall -- many gently discourage it. They say that loud grunting is unnecessary, turns off other members and, in some cases, is just hot-dogging.

Even Gold's Gym in Venice, a weight-lifter haven and presumably ground zero for heavy grunting, frowns on the practice.

But many fitness experts, some of them grunters themselves, believe the well-placed grunt has a legitimate purpose.

Grunting can provide an emotional boost to the athlete in many ways, exercise physiologists say. A properly timed grunt can help a person stay focused and prepare for an explosive effort. It can also help counter the performance-flubbing effects of nervousness.

Although not exactly a raging debate, it's certainly on the minds of both gym owners and their patrons. In one corner sit the confirmed grunters who believe that anti-grunt police are cheating them of an inalienable right to vocalize. In the other are managers trying to maintain a pleasant environment for members -- many of whom would rather not listen to loud grunting nor contemplate its attendant associations.

"When you think about grunting, you tend to think about King Kong, moving furniture and sex," says Belisa Vranich, sports psychologist for Gold's Gym. Women in particular aren't big fans, she adds. "Most will say that grunting is disgusting."

To properly examine the topic, some basic grunt science is in order. Even though grunting during effort is perceived by many as a primitive -- even monkey-like -- behavior, it is also a distinctly human phenomenon, says Michael J. Owren, an acoustic primatologist (some might call him a gruntologist) at Georgia State University.

But there are differences. Even though monkeys and apes grunt plenty, researchers believe they do it as an involuntary response to an emotion, Owren says. In short, you will never see a monkey fake a grunt.

Humans, however, have a unique ability to simulate or exaggerate this sound strictly for effect. In fact, Owren surmises that humans who produce exaggerated effort grunts do so to signal great exertion and, hence, great power. "One can readily imagine that in a fitness and weight-lifting circumstance that it's being used as a kind of dominance signal," he says.

A good grunt begins with what's known as the Valsalva maneuver -- taking a deep breath and holding it, thus closing the glottis, the space between the vocal chords. This causes an increase in pressure within the chest cavity which, in turn, stabilizes the abdominal and chest cavities during heavy lifting. This part of the sequence is quiet.

A grunt occurs when the lifter exerts pressure, and air bursts through the glottis. It might occur before the most extreme exertion or alternatively at the end of exertion, when the lifter exhales the air he or she has just held against the closed glottis.

Most researchers think that grunting on exertion -- the so-called "effort grunt" -- doesn't confer much of a physiological advantage. Some have scientifically examined the issue. A 1999 study by researchers at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, found that among 31 men ages 17 to 35, grunting while performing a dead lift did not increase maximal force production, a.k.a. lifting ability.

But exercise physiologists do think that grunting prior to an explosive act can help an athlete mentally prepare for the exertion of force. For some athletes, in fact, the grunt is part of a ritual, says Charlie Brown, a sports psychologist in Charlotte, N.C., who is sympathetic to grunters and is an occasional grunter himself.

"It is part of total concentration," he says. When the athlete is completely focused on the exertion, there is a loss of self-consciousness, and total immersion in the moment. "It really is a matter of giving oneself over to the process," he says.

Brown makes the grunt sound almost Zen-like.

Any sport that requires explosive bursts of near 100% exertion will have its share of grunters: Weight lifters don't have the corner on this noise. Football linemen are big grunters. And as elite players Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova showed the world, tennis pros can let rip with an enormous variety of grunts (and yips and yelps) on the court.

There's no consensus on whether it helps or not, but Brown suspects that grunting may prime the player for the stroke.

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