Over the last couple months, I have returned to the gym after nearly 2 months away. I have been healing from a hysterectomy, and it is time to get back into my pre-surgical routines. In addition to being “newly back,” I am also trying out a new gym. I had problems with the culture of my last gym, and we moved a couple weeks prior to my hysterectomy, so I had an easy excuse to break things off and try some place new.
The new gym is mostly unmonitored, so the ownership uses a board to communicate policies, recent equipment repairs and such. And, somewhat surprisingly to me, the members seem to feel free to add their own two cents.
The board recently stated the reminder from the male gym owner, “Fellow Men, Please be aware of the energetic physical space we take up. For example, grunts are for homes, not gyms.”
What followed were comments from the community, including, “PATRIARCHY = men get to take up more space than other genders. . . stop ignoring power dynamics,” alongside requests that someone stop erasing the word “men” and changing it to “human,” and a note from the gym owner that “if you dislike the word ‘man’ you are likely the reason it was written in the first place.”
And all this back and forth leaves me wondering, IS grunting contributing to the patriarchy?
There are definitely guys who take up more “energetic physical space” than I would like them to do. These men grunt, growl or yelp with every repetition, from the first set to the last. Often, they are also whipping from one exercise to the next in a manner that feels frenetic to me. My totally judgmental opinion of these guys is that they are deeply insecure, and they are making up for their lack of confidence as a lifter by supplementing their strength with vocalizations and momentum (swinging a dumbbell up rather than doing a strict lift, for example).
On the other hand, I, too, sometimes grunt during a difficult session! Especially now, as I’m taking extra care to ensure that I’m not holding my breath while I’m lifting (and thus increasing the internal downward pressure in my abdomen and pelvic floor), I intentionally expel air during the toughest part of the movement. Sometimes, that just means I make a “puf” sound. But sometimes it’s more!
When I’m lifting heavily, there can be something wonderful and freeing about pushing out a breath during a hard lift. Think about the incredible, strong and powerful movements of Bruce Lee and all his accompanying vocalizations! The man’s movements were a work of art, and he used his breathing to help power them. Now, I’m no Bruce Lee, but I feel like I tap into something powerful nonetheless when I let out an involuntary “whoff” as I stand strong in a lift. It makes the lift less arduous. I feel stronger and more capable. I feel more prepared to do it again for another rep.
Am I buying into patriarchy by making these noises? Am I somehow collaborating or contributing to the oppression of others by “conforming” to men’s norms in this way? No, I don’t think so.
Grunting and other vocalizations while lifting is, technically, something I can control, but only as much as we can control how we sneeze. Yes, I can hold in my breath, cover my nose, and try to make a “cute” sneeze that seems more feminine. Or, I can relax, exhale, and let it out loud and proud. Either way, I’m going to sneeze. Likewise, to some extent, grunting is unavoidable. I have some control over the volume and nature of it, but sometimes, as I’m straining all the way up, tension riding up into my neck and shoulders, I’m releasing air through tightened vocal cords to fuel that final contraction, and “UGHHH.” The noise is part of the effort.
The possibly insecure men whose noises annoy me are grunting because they are often lifting too much for them to control properly. They can control their vocalizations most readily by being realistic about their current fitness level and starting with more appropriate weights for their present strength. I don’t think they’re being patriarchal, they’re just being human. My advice to them isn’t “never grunt at the gym,” it’s to be mindful of how your lifting impacts others (and maybe get a trainer to help you set realistic goals).
I don’t deny that there is more pressure for women to be quiet, out of the way, and more conscientious of how their behaviors may impact others. I feel that pressure, too, as I set up my lifts off to one side, out of the line of sight of folks who might need the mirror, the dumbbell rack or some mat space. And as such, men likely give less thought to how their noises may make some people uncomfortable, or may intrude upon their gym experiences. I have no problem with reminding people to be thoughtful of others’ needs and to remember that those needs are diverse and varied. But I can’t help but wonder, if there were more women who lifted, would there be more understanding of the occasional need to grunt?
Feel free to leave me a comment below and let me know what YOU think!
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found occasionally grunting, and often picking up heavy things, and putting them back down again in Portland, OR.