The topic of grunting in sports is divisive, to say the least. Back in the 90s, nine-time Grand Slam winner Monica Seles made headlines for more than just her tennis playing, as she became the first of a generation of grunters – prompting complaints from her opponents and spectators alike.
More recently, former world number one tennis player Maria Sharapova has been recorded as grunting at 101 decibels – as loud as a police siren – while weightlifters often release animalistic sounds when lifting.
Irritating as some people may find it, athletes aren’t just doing it to annoy you. Studies suggest that, compared to making no noise, the act of grunting might be associated with an increase in force.
Why do people grunt in the gym?
“When you hear people grunting in the gym, they’re often not doing it for the sake of it,” explains personal trainer at The Warrior Method, Eliza Flynn. “There’s a reason behind it and a name for it: Valsalva technique. The grunting is often the sound which is made after a gym-goer holds their breath briefly for a particularly strenuous move.”
And it does seem to coincide with a release of tension, as weights are set down, for example, or a ball is returned across the net.
“When performing weightlifting exercises, the grunting noise you hear is essentially just an exhale,” explains David Wiener, training and nutrition specialist at fitness and lifestyle coaching app Freeletics.
“Similarly, in sports such as tennis, you will hear the tennis players grunt every time they hit the ball. This exhale is essential, because a lot of people tend to hold their breath while exercising, and it’s extremely important to keep on breathing, otherwise you could risk your blood pressure rising, causing injury and, in some cases, passing out.”
It’s known as the Valsalva technique
“This breath holding is known as Valsalva,” says Flynn. “It occurs when we close the glottis (the part of the larynx consisting of the vocal cords and the opening between them) and try to forcefully exhale.”
Think about how your throat feels when you cough, or when you’re straining on the toilet, and you’ll feel the Valsalva technique. But what does it actually do?
“Valsalva increases pressure internally and can help provide an increase in core stability and strength,” explains Flynn. “It’s a common technique in powerlifting, but you’ll often hear people using this technique in gyms, particularly during a weights exercise that requires a big forceful movement such as a barbell press or squat.”
It’s well known in yoga
And the benefits of this technique aren’t limited to strenuous activities. “The closure of the glottis at the back of the throat is one of the best ways to control exhalation,” says yoga teacher Maria Jones. “Making this controlled exhalation audible can in fact extend the duration of the exhalation. In yoga, we call this the ocean breath, or Ujjayi breathing, and it’s useful for helping to engage the abdominal muscles.”
Does grunting actually make you stronger?
The science seems to suggest that making a forceful, audible exhale does in fact result in a more powerful output. “Grunting can definitely help you eke out an additional spurt of power,” agrees Flynn. “And you can argue that it can help you lift heavier and therefore over time improve strength.”
“There has been research into the fact making loud grunts can trigger your ‘inner animal’, which recruits more muscle fibres as you lift, and therefore move more weight,” explains Wiener. “In some cases, grunting has been found to help you lift 10kg more than normal. Furthermore, grunting could improve stability in your core, which results in you getting stronger.”
Studies show that grunters do, in fact, hit harder balls in tennis and exert a more forceful kick in martial arts, so if more force is your goal, it might be worth a try. Furthermore, research reveals that vocalised exhalation increases average static handgrip force by 25% – handy when weightlifting.
While the reasons behind this need further research, the current thinking is that grunting triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, priming us for action and prompting more forceful muscle contractions.
But grunting isn’t always positive
There are drawbacks, however. “The Valsalva manoeuvre isn’t for everyone,” warns Flynn. “It essentially increases blood pressure momentarily, which can cause fainting or other problems. A better technique is to exhale as you undertake the effort part of the move, which helps regulate the pressure internally.”
It can be a sign of overload
“If someone is grunting really loudly in the gym, it might mean they are doing too much or lifting too heavy,” says Wiener. “Everyone is different when it comes to weightlifting, and grunting in the gym will always be controversial. Ultimately, focusing on your breathing, form and rest is the best way to improve your strength and the amount you can lift. This is how you will get stronger.”
It can distract an opponent
“A grunt should never be so loud that it affects other people and throws them off their game,” advises Wiener. While this may be an advantage in martial arts or combative sports, for the standard gym-goer, you probably don’t want to be antagonising your workout mates.
So, while grunting might be worth a try, go easy.