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The Sound of Science: Grunting and the Disgruntled

Grunting has become a phenomenon. From over-exuberant tennis matches to power-cleaning hulks in the weight-room, the sounds of physical exertion have attracted a noteworthy amount of buzz. Whether the first was Andre Agassi or Monica Seles, it is rare to watch tennis pros nowadays without also experiencing a sonic volley of effort. After all, these athletes are pummeling balls at each other; the speeds and angles are awe-inspiring. From the Olympics to the gym around the corner, weight-lifting athletes test the extremities of their muscles' power. These grunts and yells sometimes make it seem as though lifting those giant weights is more pain than gain. Consequently we began to wonder what purpose, physically and functionally, does the grunt serve? Many scientific studies have been conducted to analyze the physical benefit of grunting, or releasing an exhale with forced sound. While many of the studies focus on the distracting nature of the sounds as a competitive strategy, many others approached the concept biomechanically. According to Professor Alison McConnell, author of Breathe Strong, Perform Better, the inhalation before a weight-bearing or force-propeling action serves as a protection of sorts, "holding air in the lungs helps to provide the stability required for injury-free and forceful movements of the trunk." The stabilizing power of that breath quiets the inhibitory neurons in the lungs, ribs, and back that could block necessary movement and ultimately render trauma to stilted or held musculature (

McConnell addresses the grunt from a tennis-based perspective and focuses on the grunt's function in the tennis ball-racquet-force relationship, but her reasoning is physiologically grounded. She says, "Simply exhaling as soon as the player has hit the ball will dissipate the stability and control in their core, this can throw them off-balance and break that all-important rhythm" but a "forceful exhalation using the larynx, or voice-box, [maintains] stability in the core." Interestingly, McConnell also notes that sound is not necessary for correct execution, but helps tremendously with control when learning how to use breath to stabilize one's core in tennis.

So what about the non-tennis grunt? Grunting has also been a large part of weight-lifting culture, and recently has evoked many a spat between grunters and the disgruntled. The most famous news story is about a man named Albert Arbigay, who was thrown out of a Planet Fitness gym (touted as a "Judgement-Free Zone") after having grunted while lifting over 500 pounds. It is Planet Fitness law to prohibit loud grunting, and grunting at all potentially triggers the 'lunk alarm,' where a blue light flashes in the gym alerting the offender of their sonic crime, a lunk defined by Planet Fitness as someone who "grunts, drops weights, or judges." Many of those who have been involved in situations like Arbigay's say that these grunts are noises that cannot be avoided and are crucial to the physical work they choose to practice. In such weight-bearing circumstances perhaps it is important to wonder what potential injuries could occur if said grunts were contained.

Human physiology seems to be at the crux of the concept. A 175 pound person lifting 35 pound dumbbells is not going to make the same noise while physically exerting a lift as a 250 pound person who pushes 500 plus pounds. Further, if you simply change the variable, the exercise, even the same person would exert their body, and their voice box, differently. It is clear that paying attention to breath is important, and whether it manifests as a grunt or not.

Here at Studio 26 this study of breath and body has piqued our interest. We're interested in all kinds of breathing, whether it is during a Pilates session, personal training regime, yoga practice, or restorative body work. It's true that there are many ways in which to breathe, but what methods improve the function of some work and inhibit others? Stay tuned for more Studio 26 blog entries about breath and its many modalities.