Perhaps the oddest cause célèbre I've encountered in some time is that of Albert Argibay, a New York state corrections officer who was recently expelled from his gym for the unpardonable sin of grunting while he did squats with a 500-pound barbell on his shoulders.
The Planet Fitness chain regularly expels members from its 120 locations for grunting and dropping weights. The logic is that these behaviors -- common among serious weight lifters or "muscleheads" -- intimidate average gym goers.
Also taboo is "judging," because Planet Fitness bills itself as a "judgment free zone." But, incredibly, the gym has one of the most judgmental practices imaginable. If someone drops weights or conspicuously grunts, the manager sounds the "lunk alarm," an ear-splitting siren with flashing blue lights. The offending member is scolded publicly while the non-lunks look on, deafened but doubtlessly grateful to be spared the judgment implicit in a grunt, a sound that basically results from the rapid expulsion of breath.
I've belonged to gyms for an excess of 25 years. My mother enrolled me in one when I was barely 6. In all that time, I've never encountered anything like a "lunk alarm," a literal taboo against grunting. In fact, I was taught to expel the breath noisily during heavy lifting. I worked briefly as a personal trainer in my 20s, and taught this same technique.
A friend notes that there is "genuine grunting" and "grunting for show." I worked out for many years at the long-ago demolished downtown YMCA. The club's weight room had a wooden floor and you were considered a geek if you didn't do so many repetitions that you had to drop the weights. It became a matter of pride to see how big a dent you could make in the floor. Grunting, to the point of screaming, was considered de rigueur.
That club was mainly patronized by gigantic African-American bodybuilders. In fact, it was the first place I ever heard rap music, as it was not unusual for someone to bring a tape player into the weight room with him.
During an especially dark period of my life in Houston, I made money by ghost-writing muscle magazine articles for competitive bodybuilders. That meant hanging out with them and listening to them scream during steroid-fueled workouts. It wasn't much different from the way men psych themselves up for any other contact sport. But I do remember finding it hard not to laugh, watching a roomful of orange-dyed men in spandex addressing the weight they were about to lift as if it were an enemy to be defeated.
In the popular fitness-oriented clubs of today, you rarely see this kind of behavior. If you do, it means the person is making enough noise to momentarily drown out the incessant, repetitive disco music played at clubs such as the Ansley LA Fitness.
In fact, there is a guy there who annoys the hell out of me with his "show grunting" and weight throwing. He's got to be in his 60s. He counts every rep aloud, at high volume, grunting and finally dropping the weight. Then he struts around the weight bench admiring himself in the mirror. The only "lunk alarm" is provided by people who roll their eyes hard enough to rattle their brains.
Planet Fitness' decision to humiliate and punish grunters strikes many as odd because there are so many other gym behaviors more deserving of regulation.
There are the people who sit on machines while chatting on cell phones, for example. Between those and the people wired to iPods, it's practically impossible to communicate without resorting to American Sign Language.
There are fashion victims who cause gasps far louder than the average grunt. Planet Fitness outlaws jeans and do-rags. But what about tight shorts with a lace-up front? What about spandex? And should men be allowed to undress in the locker room if they are wearing thong underwear? I think not.
What about personal trainers who plainly give clients terrible, even harmful instruction and then stare around the room (or in the mirror) while the client does the exercise, instead of remaining attentive to their form? Ban them.
And what about people like me, who drag books around the gym and linger too long on the machines, finishing a paragraph before doing the next set? Gyms should ban anything more substantial than People magazine.
As in any other communal situation, everyone does something that annoys someone else in the gym. But Planet Fitness' policy demonstrates the extent to which our society will still go to demand conformity. Personal humiliation is considered more proper than tolerance of the nonconforming.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology