The Ergogenic Effect of 'F*ck', 'Sh*t' & Co: Swearing Boosts Physical Power (+5%, Wingate) & Muscular Strength (Grip)

In case you wondered why 'that guy' at the gym, today, kept swearing despite the critical glances of the rest of the gym members? Well, he has probably read the SuppVersity article at hand before everyone else and decided to put performance before decency, bro ;-)
It may sound odd and unlikely, but eventually the hypothesis Richard Stephens and colleagues came up with is logical: "Given the links between swearing, sympathetic activation and the subsequent release of epinephrine and nor-epinephrine, [it is possible that] swearing can affect physical performance via similar changes in organismic milieu" (Stephens 2017).

The corresponding paper that has been published recently and ahead of print in Psychology of Sport and Exercise examines two scenarios where this might be expected. In Experiment #1 a well-known high-intensity 30s anaerobic cycling power challenge known as the Wingate Anaerobic Power Test (WAnT) was applied (Bar-Or, 1987) while in Experiment #2 an isometric hand-grip strength task was performed.
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As the authors point out, the experiments were designed to examine how swearing affected strength, power, and cardiovascular and autonomic function in men and women. In both experiments it was hypothesized (i) that muscular performance would be improved by swearing; and (ii) that there would be increased sympathetic activation due to swearing.

With only 29 adults (aged 18–25 years | mean age 21.0 years, SD 1.84), including 18 females, in the final analysis of the more relevant data from the Wingate Power Test, the study wasn't exactly a large-scale investigation and failed to comply to the precalculated minimum required sample size of N = 32 that would provide 90% power in comparisons across the swearing and non-swearing conditions (in each condition the subjects had to swear/use "placebo" words 10 times). With a de facto analytic power of 87%, the results are yet still "comfortably above the 80% minimum power recommended by Cohen (1988)" (Stephens 2017).

Participants were instructed not to shout, but to use a strong and clear voice, and to pedal from a seated position “in the saddle” during the Wingate test in experiment 1. Furthermore, all participants were blinded to the load added to the cycle to eliminate motivation bias.
"Two designs were applied. First, a repeated measures design was applied in which scores in the swearing and non-swearing conditions were compared using paired samples t-tests. The dependent variables were WAnT peak power, WAnT time to peak power, WAnT average power, WAnT power drop, perceived exertion, heart rate, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure and time domain and frequency domain measures of heart rate variability. Second, a 2 × 2 mixed design was applied with the within-subjects factor swearing (swearing vs. non-swearing) and the between-subjects factor condition order (swearing first vs. non-swearing first) for the dependent variables WAnT peak power, WAnT average power and WAnT power drop. This was to assess possible carryover effects arising from the repeated measures design" (Stephens 2017).
The Wingate trials (WAnT) were repeated twice separated by a 20-min rest period. During the rest period, participants rated their perceived exertion of the previous bout. Heart rate was assessed continuously and peak heart rate during each WAnT was determined 5 s after the highest power output was achieved in accordance with previous work.

The scientists recorded significant performance improvements in both the Wingate and the strength test when they compared the swearing to the 'placebo' condition.

More specifically, a significantly greater peak power and average power were exerted during the WAnT when participants repeated a swear word during the 30 s challenge. However, this was traded off against a larger degree of power drop, a measure of fatigue, in the swearing condition.
Figure 1: Effects of swearing on power output during the Wingate test (Stephens 2017).
The increase in fatigue is likely to occur due to insufficient metabolic energy toward the end of the test and indicates that participants were not able to generate more overall energy in the swearing condition - after all, swearing won't protect you from the well-studied fatiguing effect of rapid glycolytic metabolism, lactate accumulation and loss of type I fiber contribution during the Wingate test.

What it appears to do, however, is to increase your physical strength... well, at least for 42 participants (81% of the sample) of the subjects in experiment 2 that was the case.
Figure 2: Means (SDs) for grip force, perceived exertion score, perceived pain score during the grip test (Stephens 2017).
As Stephens et al. point out, "[t]his was a greater proportion than would be expected by chance, chi-square = 19.692, p < 0.001" - in the absence of differences in perceived pain, heart rate or z transformed skin conductance response, by the way.

The mechanism that's behind this effect is yet not what the scientists thought it would be: it's not the effect of swearing on the central nervous system.

In contrast to the authors' first hypothesis, which predicted performance increases in both the Wingate and handgrip strength test, the authors' second hypothesis that there would be increased sympathetic activation due to swearing, was not supported.
Figure 3: None of the classic cardiovascular markers of CNS activity differed between conditions (Stephens 2017).
Despite the improved physical performance the cardiovascular and autonomic function variables did not differ in the swearing and non-swearing conditions... or it was, as the scientists argue "overshadowed by the high level of physiological arousal brought about by the WAnT" (Stephens 2017) - after all, the WAnT produced significant increases in heart rate (77 bpm–183 bpm; baseline to peak, respectively) and systolic blood pressure (112 mmHg–154 mmHg; baseline to peak, respectively) regardless of the condition presented; and I don't agree that the observed age-effect on heart-rate during a Wingate test which Goulopoulou et al. (2006) observed in a previous study with a similar sample size make this kind of “overshadowing” effect "possible but unlikely" (Stephens 2017).

I have to admit, though, that the alternative explanations Stephens et al. propose have their appeal, as well: reduced pain perception - distraction of attention away from a painful stimulus is known to reduce pain perception via descending pain inhibitory pathways (Edwards, Campbell, Jamison, & Weich, 2009) - it is possible that reduced pain perception due to swearing-induced distraction underlies the improved performance on the WAnT task by making it more tolerable to pedal hard against the resistance on the WAnT.

The only problem here is that a pain reduction was not observed in the 2nd experiment that assessed the maximal handgrip strength. And, in the absence of changes in heart rate or skin conductance compared with non-swearing, experiment 2 didn't provide the sought for evidence of increased sympathetic activation with swearing, either.
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Bottom line: As Stephens et al. point out, their latest study with its two unrelated experiments provides "reasonable evidence that swearing aloud can bring about increased physical performance" (Stephens 2017). What it does not do, however, is explain where these performance increases come from.

As the scientists argue in the discussion of the results, any "[i]ncreased muscular performance may alternatively have occurred due to a generalized disinhibition brought about by swearing" (Stephens 2017) and/or increases in motor unit drive, which was unfortunately not measured in the study at hand because it was not initially suspected to be involved in the expected ergogenic effects of swearing.

Alternatively, Stephens et al. speculate, that there may be something special to the sound and articulation of swearing that is less common in non-swear words, for example, plosiveness (i.e. a speech sound produced by complete closure of the oral passage and subsequent release accompanied by a burst of air).

Now, swearwords are obviously not the only plosive words. Accordingly, an important limitation of the study at hand is that the scientists, in focussing on one particular kind of emotional language, "cannot rule out the possibility that other kinds of emotionally provocative language might also have similar effects, via similar mechanisms" (Stephens 2017) - corresponding research assessing effects of emotionally valenced non-swear words on physical performance is thus warranted - not just to keep it decent at your local gym, by the way ;-) | Comment!
  • Goulopoulou, Styliani, et al. "Heart rate variability during recovery from a Wingate test in adolescent males." Medicine and science in sports and exercise 38.5 (2006): 875-881.
  • Inbar, Omri, and O. D. E. D. Bar-Or. "Anaerobic characteristics in male children and adolescents." Med Sci Sports Exerc 18.3 (1986): 264-9.
  • Stephens, Richard, David K. Spierer, and Emmanuel Katehis. "Effect of swearing on strength and power performance." Psychology of Sport and Exercise (2017).
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