Here’s a cool bodyhack to remember next time you’re embroiled in battle against a jar lid that refuses to budge: use your go-to expletive. This trick was recently uncovered by Keele University psychologists whose experiments suggest that swearing might make people stronger—at least for tasks requiring short and intense bursts of power.
This mildly unsurprising revelation was recently disclosed by psychologist Richard Stephens at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference. In limited experiments involving stationary bicycles and a grip test, he showed that curse words confer a kind of performance enhancement during short burst physical tasks when compared to the use of neutral words. Stephens isn’t entirely sure why swearing does this, pointing to the need for further studies.
In the first of two experiments, Stephens’ team recruited 29 students who averaged 21 years of age. The participants completed a test of anaerobic power where they were told to peddle as furiously as possible for 30 seconds on a stationary bicycle. For the tests, the students were told to choose a swear word, such as something they might say when banging their head. This single expletive would serve as their mantra for the duration of the experiment. Importantly, the participants were asked to repeat the word in a calm, even tone while performing the task, instead of shouting or screaming the expletive. For the neutral word, the students were told to choose something they might say when describing a table (e.g. brown, rectangular, wooden, etc.). Tests showed that the students performed slightly better on this bicycle task when using the expletive, increasing their power by 24 watts on average.
In the second experiment, 52 participants who averaged 19 years of age were asked to perform a 10-second isometric grip test. Like the first test, the students were told to pick a curse word and a neutral word. In these experiments, swearing increased grip strength by 4.63 pounds (2.1 kg), which is quite significant.
Previous research conducted by the same researchers showed that swearing makes people more tolerant to pain, a result attributed the stimulation of the body’s sympathetic nervous system—the same system that triggers our so-called fight-or-flight response. When we’re in danger, our heart beats faster (which increases blood flow to the muscles), and our brains release a cocktail of hormones known colloquially as an adrenaline rush (some of these chemicals include norepinephrine and epinephrine).
These physiological changes were observed in participants during the swearing and pain tolerance study—but here’s the thing: these changes were not observed during the new strength experiments. That came as a complete surprise to the researchers.
“[W]hen we measured heart rate and some other things you would expect to be affected if the sympathetic nervous system was responsible for this increase in strength, we did not find significant changes,” said Stephens in a press statement. “So quite why it is that swearing has these effects on strength and pain tolerance remains to be discovered. We have yet to understand the power of swearing fully.”
It’s important to note that this is just one short-term study performed only on a limited number of young people, which would benefit from replication. In future experiments, it would be good to see a larger assortment of tests, and across a wider age group. In the meantime, feel free to use this newfound advice for the next time you grab that jar of pickles.