Working out near Kevin is a great way to learn colorful new phrases. You see, Kevin is a gym cusser. After his set, and sometimes during, you'll hear him swearing up a storm.
You can tell he's not doing it for attention, and you'll never hear him drop an F-bomb in casual conversation. But when he's lost in the pain-fog of a serious set, he'd make a sailor blush. Kevin is also one of the biggest guys in the gym. And maybe the swearing has something to do with it.
Several studies have shown that swearing increases pain tolerance. In one super-fun experiment, 67 subjects were asked to see how long they could keep their hands immersed in freezing cold water. Some of them were told to cuss and others were told to repeat neutral words like "spaghetti!" or "transmission fluid!"
The foul-mouthed subjects were able to keep their hands submerged 40 seconds longer (twice as long) than the subjects who repeated the non-cuss words. Researchers concluded, "Swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing."
In the gym, the most pain-inducing lifting techniques happen to be bodybuilding or hypertrophy related. Imagine doing a set of dumbbell bench presses until failure, then reducing the weight for a drop set, then finishing off with partials. If you don't at least have the urge to cuss, you're probably not doing it right.
Increased pain tolerance, or being able to endure that pain longer, means increased time under tension, one of the key factors of muscle growth. So can we assume that selective swearing used to bang out a few more reps or hold a weighted stretch would increase muscle growth? Yeah, pretty much.
We think this has to do with the fight-or-flight response set off by using "taboo" words. Cussing triggers emotional and physical effects that help us get through a painful experience, be it stubbing a toe on the damn coffee table or pushing out another round of ascending-set leg presses. Swearing also seems to nullify the link between fear of pain and pain perception.
Psychologist Richard Stephens warns that swearing must be used strategically for this to work. If you can't order a salad without cussing, then you've made yourself immune to the positive effects of a good curse. You've lost your emotional attachment to the words, pottymouth.
It also doesn't work if you're a "catastophizing" male. Catastrophizing is when you believe something is far worse than it really is. Like if you're five minutes late for work and you panic, imagining that you'll get fired, lose your house, turn to drugs, and go to prison where you'll get shanked by your cellmate/boyfriend. All that runs through your head in 10 seconds.
For whatever reason, catastrophizing men just don't get the analgesic effects from cussing. For everyone else, it can be damn helpful.
- Stephens R et al. Swearing as a response to pain. Neuroreport. 2009 Aug 5;20(12):1056-60.