Use Science to Build a Better Workout Playlist

Why you shouldn't save your 'power song' for the last minute and other useful factoids.

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Feb 10 2017, 6:06pm

Image: HEX/Stocksy

There's no such thing as the perfect workout playlist. For every gym rat adding plates to a barbell while blasting Slipknot, there's someone else on a treadmill counting on Lady Gaga to help kick up their pace. What most of us can agree on, however, is that it's way less grueling to work up a sweat when we've got a solid beat on our side—and, because scientists are cool, they've been proving it for more than half a century. 

Studies have found that listening to music can increase the number of reps you can bench press. It can help martial artists perform better. Music can make you feel like you're working less hard when you exercise, increase power while you're doing explosive exercises like squat jumps, and even feel better while you're recovering. 

Most of these studies use what's called "self-selected music"—the participants picked music they liked, regardless of pace, message, or style, and got these benefits. But certain music paces and styles have been shown to improve performance even more depending on the type of exercise being performed. 

Take your drive—or walk—to the gym, for instance: Multiple studies have shown that pumping yourself up with music before a workout or competition really works. In a "self-selected music" scenario, swimmers reduced their 200-meter freestyle time by 1.44 percent after listening to 5 minutes of their favorite warm-up music. In a study of volleyball players, meawhile, a specific pace was recommended: 140 beats per minute. This pace, around the speed of Michael Jackson's "Beat It," helped increase the athletes' peak anaerobic power, a measure of their ability to exert themselves in short bursts of all-out exercise after the warm-up.

In another study, people who listened to up-tempo music while cycling pedaled at the same rate as study participants who listened to a comedy recording or music described as "soothing"—but the comedy/soothing group felt like they were working harder, meaning the upbeat group got the same exercise benefit while feeling like they'd had an easier workout. How fast is "upbeat?" In an analysis of the study, the American Council on Exercise recommended a pace of 135 beats per minute, a pace that matches Rihanna's "SOS."

When people doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) listened to music at 125-135 beats per minute during their rest periods, they also had more positive "feeling scores" than those who listened to slower music or no music at all during the exercise breaks. (If you're looking for a particular range of beats per minute, try using a site like jog.fm, which has a bpm calculator.)

As any spin instructor knows, exercisers unconsciously change the pace of their workout to match the rhythm and pace of the music they're listening to. In one cycling study, for instance, participants who were told to "just do a normal cycling workout" changed their pace and power output—going slower or faster—to match changing music speeds. This "match the pace" phenomenon holds even if you don't like the music that's playing. Researchers have also found that cyclists tend to match their pace to background music even if it's in a style they didn't normally listen to—like polka. 

Upbeat music can also increase your strength: One study found that 50 people scored higher on a grip strength test when they listened to "stimulative music" of 130 bpm compared to a "sedative" selection at 90 bpm. But maybe you're training for a longer race, like a marathon or century ride, and need to do a longer run. Or maybe you're just doing low-intensity, steady-state cardio like walking to burn fat. In that case, you'll probably bring the tempo down: Try a playlist of songs in the 100-120 bpm range with a strong beat, like "Eye of the Tiger," and see if you don't have more will to survive your long training runs.

Whatever you do, don't save your "power song" for when you need a burst of motivation during a higher-intensity workout—go ahead and play it right away. In a 2012 study, runners who listened to music in the first 1.5 km of a 5k race started faster than those who didn't, while listening in the last 1.5 km had no effect on finishing times.