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Experts Sound Off on Workout Grunting

Some gym members object, but these noises may boost fitness

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 24 (HealthDay News) -- Jane Ross, a 42-year-old Boston area gym buff, is honest about it: When exercising, she sometimes grunts.

"I think it's part of going to a gym -- I grunt during a workout, and I think that most people do," said the mom and former personal trainer. "When you are exerting yourself, it's a release."

But not everyone is so accepting of those loud fitness club exhalations.

Late last year, Albert Argibay, a Wappinger Falls, N.Y., bodybuilder and state correction officer, was escorted by police out of the Planet Fitness gym he was a member of, after another member complained to management of his loud grunting during weightlifting.

Planet Fitness, a national chain, has a solid "no-grunting" policy in place and Argibay's noisemaking -- along with a resulting verbal tussle with management -- cost him his membership, The New York Times reported.

The story spawned headlines and much debate, with the grunt-prone lined up on one side and annoyed non-grunters on the other. The former say grunting boosts their workouts, while the latter claim it's just so much hot air.

Each side has its advocates.

Dennis O'Connell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and professor and chairman of physical therapy at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. He has led two studies assessing grunting's ability to maximize exercise output.

During the research, O'Connell had a variety of people lift a heavy dead weight and pull that weight upward until they straightened their bodies into an upright position. Participants were told to either grunt or stay quiet during the lift.

"Very experienced lifters that normally grunted when they lifted did have about a 1 percent improvement with grunting," O'Connell said.

That pattern was repeated with the other lifters who grunted, he added. "A group of college football players -- they, of course, also lifted weights fairly regularly -- showed a 2 percent improvement. And the untrained group -- graduate students in physical therapy -- had about a 5 percent increase," he said.

When these improvements were spread across the total group, they did not reach statistical significance, O'Connell noted, so there's no firm conclusion that grunting will always boost a gym-goer's performance.

"But, for some people, there was actually a small percentage increase when they grunted, in terms of the force produced," O'Connell said. For that reason, "I wouldn't be trying to tell people not to grunt," he said.

Just how these loud vocalizations might improve force output remains unclear. O'Connell said studies done elsewhere have suggested one theory -- that grunting quiets inhibitory nerves cells in the spinal cord. Those cells would normally impede the ability of muscles to contract and generate force, he said.

But other experts aren't sure any of that holds water.

"As far as anything going on physiologically [with grunting], I'm not aware of any data or studies that have revealed that," said Larry Birnbaum, an exercise physiologist based in Duluth, Minn.

"The only thing I can think of is that it's a psychological thing," he said. "But psychology is very important in sports in general -- if you think you can, it raises the possibility that you can."

Belisa Vranich, a sports psychologist for Gold's Gym Fitness in New York City, believes that for the average workout fan, grunting is probably unnecessary.

"Some people grunt to give others the impression that [the grunters] are doing a lot of work. It's just like flexing and strutting, trying to attract attention," she told the Orange County Register. "The other reason is a more physical one -- they're not breathing properly. In order to grunt, they have to hold their breath and exhale forcefully."

O'Connell said there might be a means of ending fitness-club feuds linked to grunting.

"I think that [gym goers] might look at deep breathing in and out without necessarily the vocalization," he said. Instead of that loud burst of sound, "they may try and practice giving a little less 'auditory stimulation' for the rest of us," O'Connell advised.

But Ross believes people should lighten up and accept the occasional grunt as part of the gym experience.

"I'm kind of in my own world when I'm at the gym, and I think most people are like that," she said. "So, between songs or if your iPod breaks, you're sometimes aware that people are grunting. And that's just the deal."

More information

Find out how you can maintain a good exercise regimen at the American Academy of Family Physicians.

SOURCES: Jane Ross, Wakefield, Mass; Larry Birnbaum, Ph.D., exercise physiologist, Duluth, Minn.; Dennis O'Connell, PT, Ph.D., CSCS, professor and Shelton-Lacewell Endowed Chair, department of physical therapy, Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas; Belisa Vranich, Psy.D., sports psychologist for Gold's Gym Fitness, New York City

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