Whether you favor pop, rock, classical or hip-hop, the right music can make all the difference when powering through a tough workout. But if you haven’t found the right beats to boost your motivation, the solution may be as simple as switching your song selection. Learn the science behind how music affects your mind and body to find the tunes that fit best with your training.
Music does not moderate what you feel, but how you feel it. It makes the exercise experience more pleasurable.
Costas Karageorghis, author of "Inside Sport Psychology"
How the Right Music Boosts Your Workout
Your first step in reaping the benefits of music’s motivational magic is to actually understand how music helps you through your workout.
"Music does not moderate what you feel, but how you feel it," said Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., an associate professor of sport psychology at Brunel University. "It makes the exercise experience more pleasurable."
Music also makes it easier to ignore the distractions around you and your level of fatigue, allowing you to focus on the task at hand — a process called disassociation. During disassociation, your mind tends to focus on an unrelated stimulus — in this case the music — rather than focusing on the energy exerted to complete the workout.
Music also alters arousal levels, meaning you can use it as a stimulant before working out, according to one of Karageorghis' studies published in The Sport Journal. His research shows that when the intensity of a song increases, it stimulates the brain and psychs up the nervous system.
"Music goes through the brain first — which controls how your body reacts to the sounds," said Alex Doman, author of "Healing at the Speed of Sound." "It controls our movement, regulates heart rate and breathing patterns."
This synchronization leads to a better workout. A study published in The Sport Journal shows that runners who synced their pace to an upbeat song experienced a 15-percent improvement in their endurance compared to those who had no music.
But if the music you're listening to doesn’t fit the context of that exercise, your performance can actually decrease, Doman says. "The brain has a certain expectation of what is going to happen," he says. "Thus, if something different arises, it’s harder to recover."
Choosing the Right Rhythms
So how do you know you’re working out to the right music? More than the artist, the rhythm, the underlying message of the song or the genre, the thing that affects your workout the most is the tempo.
"Tempo is critical because it steadies your heart rate with the movement," Karageorghis says.
The average standing heart rate is anywhere between 60 to 100 beats per minute, but as you work out, your heart rate increases. When you’re looking to find appropriate music for a workout, the beats per minute should correlate with the intensity of the workout you plan.
When doing low-intensity exercises such as walking, yoga, a warm-up/cool-down routine or jogging, listen to music that falls in the BPM range of 90 to 115. A lighter workout pairs best with slower tempo music.
“Your brain waves are modifying your breath, pulse and movements to mimic the rhythm of the song. Therefore slower tempos seem to slow body movements,” Doman says.
When it comes to selecting your low-intensity workout songs, the best genres are those with a slower tempo, such as alternative, soft rock, indie rock or ambient music.
As you move from low to moderate intensity, your heart rate increases, so it’s crucial to switch up your music selection. For these exercises, such as weightlifting, group exercise classes and cardio machines, seek out songs that are 115 to 135 BPM.
Karageorghis says activities that are naturally repetitive — such as weight training or cardio machine workouts — pair well with music that has a repetitive rhythm. So choose artists that typically compose songs with a repetitive tempo, such as AC/DC, the Black Eyed Peas or maybe even some Pink Floyd.
For high-intensity exercises — cycling, running, intense cardio routines, heavy lifting — you'll want music with a BPM of 135 or higher to really get your blood pumping.
Faster tempos increase body rhythms, so as the exercise becomes more challenging, the quicker tempos will help you stay focused, Doman says. And as your music gets more intense, the rise in the BPM will help the body experience disassociation. So when putting together your selection, shoot for hard rock, techno or more upbeat pop music.
And although tastes vary from person to person, Karageorghis says that in his research, he found that women respond best to pop music while men tend to respond best to rock or rap.
"At the end of the day, everyone is going to have their own preferences when it comes to music selection — which is OK," says Doman. "But once you find that correct tempo that complements your routine, your workout will feel much more efficient."