We’ve all had something like this happen.
You drop something on the floor. Something small, insignificant.
Like a pen.
So you bend down to pick it up and as you return to upright, a primal, monosyllabic utterance slips out of your mouth.
Now, picking up something heavy like a tractor tire, well, yeah, you would expect a bit of grunting.
But a pen?
What’s going on?
When I was teaching at the University of Oklahoma, I was asked this very thing by one of my colleagues, Dr. David Garrison.
“Say, I’ve been meaning to ask you. Why is it that as we get older we seem to grunt more? You know, like when you just do something simple. Get something off the floor or bend over to tie your shoes? What is that? It seems like I grunt a lot these days,” asked Dr. Garrison.
Dave Garrison is a distinguished professor of physical therapy at the University of Oklahoma College of Allied Health. With nearly thirty years of scientific research under his belt, he has honed an uncanny ability to ask simple, penetrating questions.
I gave Dr. Garrison my best intuitive guess based on a reasonable interpretation of mechanics and physiology. The reason we grunt when we do something physical is because the act of grunting braces the trunk or stiffens it making a firm base for the legs and arms. This occurs from something called a Valsalva Maneuver named after the Italian anatomist Antonio Valsalva who was the first to describe it in the 18th century. When you exert yourself at or above your physical limit, as in lifting something heavy, you will reflexively close the vocal folds of the larynx in an attempt to seal off the respiratory tract. By doing so, you give yourself a slightly enhanced degree of trunk stability and therefore slightly increased leg and arm strength.
Grunting makes you stronger for a brief period of time.
Clenching your teeth when you squeeze something or lift something has a similar effect by increasing hand strength.
You often hear loud grunts in competitions like the Strongman. No wonder. I would be grunting too flipping 400 pound tires, towing a 6,700 pound truck or carrying an 800 pound car. But what about when find yourself involuntarily grunting when rising from a chair? Why are you grunting? It’s because your body thinks you are flipping a 400 pound tire. The task is challenging you near the upper end of your physical limit. In most cases, grunting during routine daily tasks means you are almost too weak for the task; barely able to get out of the chair or car.
If you grunt when you stand up or bend over, this is a warning light. It is time to get yourself in better shape. Take the time to visit your physician and get a routine physical exam. If your physician gives you the green light, get yourself to someone who can help you get on the right path. Tell them you grunt and you want to only grunt when you are lifting something truly heavy. You might get a quizzical look at first (not many people arrive complaining of grunting) but as you explain your objectives, I think he or she will get the idea.
The body has a number of these odd warning signs: grunting, stiffness, aching, clicking to name a few. Unfortunately, many of us fail to respond to the first signals only to discover much later we have a lot of work to do.
If you grunt, take heed. The time is now. Your body will thank you for it and so will the people who hear you. Grunt no more.