Dropping the F Bomb
In their 2009 study, Dr. Richard Stephens and his team figured out something that pretty much everybody except a few nuns who are always within earshot of the Pope already knew – that saying a swear word when you drop a lug wrench on your baby toe helps to lessen the pain.
He drew this conclusion when he noted that study participants who swore could hold their hands in ice water twice as long as they could when they said "neutral" words that describe things around a house. In other words, yelling the F word helped mitigate pain more than yelling "dust ruffle!" (We can only hope there's room on his mantle for a Nobel Prize.)
Stephen's latest study, however, is a little bit more interesting, at least to weight lifters. He found that swearing during exercise increases both power and strength.
The researchers did two studies, one on power and one on strength. In the first, they recruited 29 adults to participate in the Wingate test, which is an anaerobic exercise test performed on a cycle ergometer. The second study had 52 participants and they were tested on an isometric handgrip test.
In both studies and in multiple trials, participants were instructed to use a strong and clear voice to first utter "neutral" words, followed by subsequent trials where they repeatedly dropped the literal mother of all F bombs, "mother*%$#*r."
The foul-mouthed group saw a 2.8% increase in power during the Wingate test and an 8.2% increase in the hand-grip test.
The scientists weren't sure why this happened. They had assumed, because of their study on swearing and pain, that cussing stimulates the body's sympathetic nervous system, which is the system that makes your heart pound and your palms all sweaty when you're in danger.
However, they didn't find any significant changes to the sympathetic nervous system during the current study on power and strength, causing them to conclude: "So quite why it is that swearing has these effects on strength and pain tolerance remains to be discovered."
It seems that it might be worthwhile to unload a few F bombs during heavy or challenging sets, but there's a possible f-ing fly in the ointment, at least to those who swear all the damn time.
Stephens conducted another study in 2011 that was a follow-up to his one on profanity and pain. It found that people who swore routinely showed less of a pain tolerance effect. In other words, if you speak "Army Creole" where every other word would singe the downy hair off a church girl's perspiring upper lip, it's not going to be as effective in relieving pain.
Ipso facto, those who swear regularly in everyday life might not experience any significant gains in power or strength.
One other thing worth knowing, particularly if you work out at a Planet Fitness where any normal masculine behavior is verboten: Stephens found that swearing worked best when swear words were spoken in a "steady and clear" voice, as opposed to shouting.
So if you swear during a lift and everyone in the gym stops to look at you, mouths agape, you're probably doing it too loudly.
- Stephens R, Atkins J, Kingston A. "Swearing as a response to pain." Neuroreport. 2009 Aug 5;20(12):1056-60.
- Stephens R, Umland C. "Swearing as a response to pain-effect of daily swearing frequency." J Pain. 2011 Dec;12(12):1274-81.
- Richard Stephens, David K.Spierer, Emmanuel Katehis. "Effect of swearing on strength and power performance." Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Volume 35, March 2018, pages 111-117.