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, associate professor of sport psychology at Brunel University and author of "Inside Sport Psychology"
The Mechanism Behind The Music
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 who has written numerous studies about the correlation between music and exercise. “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 music has a large effect on emotional and physiological arousal; therefore when the intensity of a song increases, it stimulates the brain by psyching up the nervous system.
But what actually happens when the tunes reach your eardrums? Basically there is synchronization between the rhythm and human movement.
“Music goes through the brain first -- which controls how your body reacts to the sounds,” said Alex Doman, who studies the brain and is the author of 'Healing at the Speed of Sound.' “It controls our movement, regulates heart rate and breathing patterns. This results in an entrainment effect on the body, causing our workouts to correlate with the external influence.”
One of the main benefits of synchronization is its association with lower relative oxygen uptake. For example, findings of a study published in "The Sport Journal" show that runners who synced their pace to an upbeat song experienced a 15 percent improvement in their endurance compared with those who had no music.
But if the music you are listening to doesn’t fit the context of that exercise, your performance can actually decrease, Doman said.
“It’s a disruption of expectation for the brain,” says Doman. “The brain has a certain expectation of what is going to happen. Thus, if something different arises, it’s harder to recover.”
So how do you know you’re working out to the right music? It all boils down to the tempo.
Choosing The Right Rhythms
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 said.
The average standing heart rate sits 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 light workout correlates best with music when the tempo is slow -- thus making entrainment easier.
“With entrainment, 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 said.
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 and ambient music.
As you move from low to moderate intensity, your heart rate becomes elevated, 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 to correlate with your 115 to 135 BPM.
Karageorghis notes that activities that are naturally repetitive -- such as weight training or cardio machine workouts -- pair well with music that has a repetitive rhythm. If you plan on doing a repetitive exercise, choosing artists that typically compose songs with a repetitive tempo will be most effective, such as AC/DC, the Black Eyed Peas and 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 said. 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 said 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,” said Doman. “But once you find that correct tempo that complements your routine, your workout will feel much more efficient.”