Anyone who’s ever cussed – so that’s everyone over the age of about 10 – knows there are few things in life more satisfying than swearing. But new research has discovered that it does more than just release tension or vent anger. Swearing can make you stronger.
What the f*$£? Can this really be true?
In the study, subjects who were given a 30-second cycling challenge increased their peak power by an average of 24 watts when they unleashed profanities. In a separate grip test, cursing increased strength by the equivalent of 2.1kg.
‘There are benefits from swearing,’ says Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele University who conducted the study. Each subject was asked to choose a swear word dear to them – one they might use if they banged their head, say – and also picked a neutral word that they might use to describe a table. Wooden, for example.
‘We asked them to repeat the word throughout each test,’ says Stephens. ‘They don’t scream and shout it. They repeat it in an even tone.’ This, folks, is controlled swearing.
Are you sure? Can swearing really be controlled?
One key finding from the research is that people’s heart rates remained constant whether they were cursing or talking carpentry, which Stephens believes is evidence that swearing doesn’t simply trigger the infamous fight or flight response. ‘Quite why swearing has these effects on strength and pain tolerance remains to be discovered,’ he says. ‘We’re not telling people something they don’t already know, but we’re verifying it in a systematic and objective way. I think people instinctively reach for swear words when they hurt themselves and when they’re looking for an extra boost in performance.’
Why is that? Why don’t we just say ‘fiddlesticks’ or ‘bananas’?
‘If the situation has boundaries and swearing isn’t allowed, people don’t swear,’ top sports psychologist Professor Andy Lane tells RISING. ‘There’s a cultural connotation. MPs don’t swear in the Houses of Parliament, for instance, but if you work on a building site and don’t swear you might be seen as odd. If you play football you’ll probably swear at your teammates to convey a level of importance or at the opposition to show off your aggression. And controlled aggression is important here.’
‘Swearing says, “This is serious to me” and if you tell people you’re taking something seriously you’ve got to do quite well at it’
If that’s the case, wouldn’t just shouting ‘Wooooorgghh!’ like a bad nu-metal band work just as well?
‘Swearing gives the aggression a focus. It says, “This is serious to me. I’m taking this seriously.” And if you tell people you’re taking something seriously you’ve got to do quite well at it, whether it’s cycling or lifting a weight,’ says Lane.
‘Swearing also says you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing that you’ve forgotten the social norms, and that it might be inappropriate. You’re ‘buffering’ pain, which brings us back to the memory of banging your head, and by breaking social rules you’re also telling people you might be really upset. Swearing has a function to say that all is not well – again, this is serious, whereas “fiddlesticks” could be a joke.’
In sporting terms the aim is to raise arousal, which is necessary for explosive performance. Arousal stimulates the heart, quickens the metabolism and increases blood glucose concentration so your muscles can access energy quickly and you’re ready for action. ‘Shouting “Wooooorgghh!” will raise arousal but it may not have the same effect as cursing – unless you condition yourself so it does,’ Lane adds.
Is that what martial artists do when they shout? Is that about increasing arousal to unlock extra power?
Apparently not: ‘A martial artist’s mental preparation is on a focused calm rather than high arousal,’ says Lane. ‘Plus swearing isn’t looked on kindly in martial arts so for cultural reasons those who practise them have conditioned themselves to respond to a controlled shout, rather than curse.’
‘In sporting terms the aim is to raise arousal, which is necessary for explosive performance’
What about carrying on cursing until someone tells us off for being naughty?
‘You could do, but if you’re in a situation where you shouldn’t swear, would that hurt performance?’ ponders Lane. ‘I don’t think it would if you could find another way of increasing arousal. If you’re aware of your arousal system you can train it to work for you.’
So what else can we do?
Fortunately, there are other techniques if you’re in a no-swear zone: ‘Self-talk can help you perform better without you having to swear,’ says Lane. ‘It’s like giving visualisation a voice. Or you can listen to motivating music, which can precondition you to think you really are the champion. Yet swearing is effective, if you can get away with it. Swearing is expressive, and anger is a powerful emotion. You’re choosing to be angry and on the verge of being out of control – and it works.’ So f*$£ing use it!
WHAT NEXT? Try adding some subtle cursing to your exercise regime, whether you’re lifting weights in the gym or cycling up a big hill. You probably won’t be able to record small changes in strength and power, but you may notice a difference when you’re lifting a big weight or nearing a summit. And even if you don’t notice any physical difference, you’ll feel a hell of a lot better for it.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.