No Grunting, They Told Him, and He Was at Gym
WAPPINGERS FALLS, N.Y., Nov. 13 — Albert Argibay, a bodybuilder and a state correction officer, was at a Planet Fitness gym with 500 pounds of weight on his shoulders one afternoon this month when the club manager walked over and told him it was time to leave. Mr. Argibay, the manager explained, had violated one of the club’s most sacred and strictly enforced rules: He was grunting.
“I said to her, ‘I’m not grunting, I’m breathing heavy,’ ” recalled Mr. Argibay, 40, an energetic man with the hulking appearance of a pro linebacker. “I guess she didn’t like the fact that I challenged her, because she said to me, ‘Meet me up front; I’m canceling your membership.’ ”
He continued lifting, but soon was surrounded by town police officers, who told him to drop the weight slowly and pack his bag, then escorted him from the gym. Now Mr. Argibay is considering suing the club, claiming the notoriety the incident earned him in this cozy 5,000-person town 75 miles north of Manhattan is tantamount to defamation. Mr. Argibay said he has endured ridicule from colleagues who call him and make grunting noises, and he fears that inmates will lose respect for him.
Grunting, rude as it may be, has been commonplace in gyms for as long as weights have been lifted. At most health clubs, grunts elicit little more than annoyed looks or sighs of irritation. But at Planet Fitness, a national chain with 120 locations, it is a matter not only of etiquette, but also of club policy: one too many offending noises can get a membership revoked in the time it takes to do a sit-up. Nationwide, the chain expels roughly two members a month for various reasons, most commonly grunting and dropping weights.
The no-grunt policy is one of several eyebrow-raising rules — no bandannas, no jeans, no banging weights — that managers say are intended to make their target clientele of novice exercisers feel comfortable.
The manager who confronted Mr. Argibay, Carol Palazzolo, said without hesitation that people who feel the need to grunt should take their sweat elsewhere, though she said Mr. Argibay was expelled largely because he became hostile when she confronted him, a claim he disputes.
“He immediately created an intimidating atmosphere not only for me but for the guests around me,” Ms. Palazzolo said. “He got very offensive and very loud, so I walked away and I called the police department.”
Planet Fitness bills itself as “The Judgment Free Zone.” But in the weeks since Mr. Argibay was booted, a number of members have accused the gym of judging with extreme prejudice, saying the club humiliates members whose physiques are too chiseled and who take their workouts too seriously. And the incident has raised other imponderable questions.
How does one distinguish between a grunt and a very deep breath? Must a grunt be “characteristic of a hog,” as one dictionary defines it? And what if there are no patrons around to take offense? What would happen if Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova, known for their noisy exertion on the tennis court, showed up wanting to work out?
At Planet Fitness gyms, grunters and other rule-breakers are treated to an ear-rattling siren with flashing blue lights and a public scolding. The “lunk alarm,” as the club calls it, is so jarring it can bring the entire floor to a standstill. (A lunk is defined, on a poster, as “one who grunts, drops weights, or judges.”)
Tim Gunther, a 6-foot, 200-pound firefighter in Poughkeepsie, said he and his colleagues were frequently harassed for “making noises that can’t be avoided” and compared the alarm to a nuclear war siren. “The first time I heard that thing it scared the heck out of me,” he said. “I thought there was a fire, and I’m a fireman. Without exaggeration, I’ve seen them set that thing off on people just for breathing too loud.”
At most gyms, etiquette battles are over loud cellphone conversations, the failure to wipe down machines after use, or standing too close to the treadmill while waiting for a runner to finish. “Telling someone they can’t grunt seems a little rigid,” said Sonny Kim, the general manager of the New York Health and Racquet Club’s branch on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. “I’m assuming most people who have worked out have grunted. I have as well; it’s about physical exertion.”
“I’ve never seen any gym that micromanages their customers like that,” said Bernhard Schroeder, a spokesman for IDEA Health and Fitness Association, a trade group. “If they see someone talking, are they going to tell that person they’re disturbing other patrons? It’s wild.”
Grunting can be a nuisance to anyone within earshot, sure, but does it serve any physiological purpose?
Dennis G. O’Connell, a professor of physical therapy at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Tex., has conducted studies on the effects of grunting. He found that weight lifters produce between 2 and 5 percent more force when they grunt, in part because the deep breathing grunting entails can help stabilize the spine.
“I’m not so sure it’s wise to tell people not to grunt,” Professor O’Connell said.
Rosemary Lavery, a spokeswoman for the Boston-based International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, said she could only assume Planet Fitness was trying to discourage bodybuilders and others who are diligent about working out. Ms. Lavery cited statistics showing that baby boomers who exercise once or twice a week represent the fastest-growing segment of health club members. Many clubs are seeking ways to appeal to those groups, she said, but a ban on guttural noises is not the path most have taken.
“I don’t think that at a health club the expectation of quietness is realistic,” Ms. Lavery said.
In an age where the Internet can make even the smallest feud public, perhaps it was inevitable that Mr. Argibay’s plight would become a cause célèbre for grunters everywhere. His lawyer, Jason Stern, a former competitive bodybuilder, created boycottplanetfitness.com, a Web site that includes a list titled “Top Ten Reasons to Join Planet Witless.” Among the entries: “Library just too noisy of a place for reading books.”
[He also placed a video of a local television news segment about the controversy on YouTube.com.]
Hundreds of e-mail messages have poured into Mr. Stern’s Web site. Most are supportive, he said, but not all. “Occasionally, I do get an e-mail from someone who says this is a good thing,” Mr. Stern said. “They write in and say, ‘You know, this gym is for people like me who are used to getting sand kicked in our face, and we’re tired of it.’ ”