When it comes to workouts, there's nothing more boring than a workout class without music or a long run filled with nothing more than the sound of your own labored breathing. For many, a solid workout playlist is a non-negotiable whether they're banging out deadlifts in the gym or hitting a trail for a 5K.
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Music and exercise go together like peanut butter and jelly. Good thing there's also quite a bit of research that supports the benefits of syncing the tempo of your music (beats per minute or BPM) to your exercise.
Benefits of Listening to Music While You Work Out
Here's something you likely know already: Music can be an incredibly powerful workout motivator, especially on the days when you just don't feel like hitting the gym. But you may not have known it can enhance your exercise performance.
First off, listening to music during exercise can help increase the length of your workout, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. After a group of 127 people were assigned to exercise either with or without music, the 67 individuals that worked out with tunes spent significantly more time on the treadmill.
Your playlist can also help you work more efficiently, according to a 2012 study in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. After cyclists listened to music of varying tempos (123, 130 and 137 beats per minute), researchers found that higher tempo music resulted in improved oxygen consumption. The subjects' exercise was more efficient when performed in sync with music.
Plus, using music during your run or strength-training session can boost your mood and distract you from exercise-induced pain or fatigue (think: your burning lungs or fatigued hamstrings), according to the American Council on Exercise. Playing music during sprint interval training enhanced both mood and performance, which ultimately can lead to more frequent exercising, according to a November 2019 study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise.
Using BPM to Structure Your Workout Playlist
So now that you know you can use a song's beats per minute to guide you through your workout, it's time to build the perfect workout playlist for each of your workouts. Apps like Spotify and RockMyRun let you either choose songs based on BPM or build BPM-based playlists.
For your warm-up, choose songs that have a lower BPM (80 BPM), according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Make sure they're songs that perk up your energy for the workout ahead.
As you structure the rest of your playlist, keep in mind that a song with faster beats per minute should accompany a higher-intensity portion of your workout. Your tempo range for the main portion of your workout will vary based on the exercise you're performing.
For the main part of the workout, runners can use BPM strategically to pace their mile time. By matching steps to each beat in the song, runners can choose specific a tempo based on their goal mile time. So, if the goal is a 10-minute mile, choose a song of about 175 BPM (this is based on a three-foot stride).
You can easily calculate this yourself to find your optimal music tempo. First divide 5,280 feet (number of feet in a mile) by your stride length in feet. Take that result and divide it by your minute-per-mile goal time and you should get an approximate BPM.
You can use the same logic to match your weightlifting repetition tempo to the beat of the music. Match the song pace with the rep tempo at which you plan to perform exercises. The music tempo used for weightlifting will be much slower than running. That's why many gym-goers gravitate towards hip hop music, as the tempo commonly sits at 80 to 115 BPM.
Much like your warm-up routine, your cooldown should be a lower tempo range, focused on bringing down your heart rate and resting your body. Your brain processes sound in the brainstem, which also controls your heart beat and breathing (the mind-body connection is real!), according to Harvard Health Publishing. Select relaxing music to lower your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure.
How to Keep Your Workout Playlist Fresh
Keeping your music fresh can be a never-ending struggle. Aside from simply spending time researching new artists, choosing music that resonates with you from genres you enjoy will make a huge difference in your performance, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Not to mention, it'll keep you interested in the tracks.
Opt for remixed versions of songs you enjoy to add some variety, says Meg Takacs, certified personal trainer and creator of the #RunWithMeg app. "For a solid workout playlist, I like to use EDM/pop remixes that are under four minutes," she says. "Longer songs tend to draw out and kill the vibe when you are working out."
While runners can use BPM strategically in their curation, you can also use lyrics to create an amazing running playlist. For outdoor runs, Takacs focuses more on the lyrics than tempo. "When it comes to outdoor running, I like for my playlists and the songs in them to tell a story," Takacs says. "There is a ton of mental toughness associated with outdoor running, so I love when the music is empowering, deep and tells a story."
You can also keep your playlists interesting by matching your music to the mood you want to exude. When curating music for his classes, boxing instructor Miles Hill selects songs to match the energy he demands from the class. "Music tempo affects the energy of the class, but also affects the energy of the instructor," Hill says.
At the end of the day, it's about finding and curating songs that motivate you. And while that can be subjective, who knows? Your friends or fellow gym-goers may soon be coming to you for workout playlist recommendations.
- American Music Therapy Association: "What is Music Therapy?"
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: "DOES MUSIC IMPACT EXERCISE CAPACITY DURING CARDIAC STRESS TEST? A SINGLE BLINDED PILOT RANDOMIZED CONTROLLED STUDY"
- The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness: "Effect of music-movement synchrony on exercise oxygen consumption"
- ACE: "September 2010 ACE-sponsored Research: Exploring the Effects of Music on Exercise Intensity"
- Psychology of Sport and Exercise: "On the stability and relevance of the exercise heart rate–music-tempo preference relationship."
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Music and heart health"
- Brunel University London: "Dr Karageorghis reveals science behind Spotify Ultimate Workout Playlist"
- American Council on Exercise: "Music and Exercise: How Music Affects Exercise Motivation"
- Psychology of Sport and Exercise: "Let’s Go: Psychological, psychophysical, and physiological effects of music during sprint interval exercise"