The Science Behind a Good Workout Playlist: How and why music influences your fitness performance

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The Science Behind a Good Workout Playlist: How and why music influences your fitness performance
The Science Behind a Good Workout Playlist: How and why music influences your fitness performance

Research shows that curating your playlist really can boost your exercise performance.

Group fitness classes have one thing in common, whether it’s SoulCycle, Orangetheory, CrossFit or Zumba: They all bump intense music through loudspeakers. Even as you battle muscle burn, the beats keep you motivated and help you have a good time.

As it turns out, we listen to music while exercising for good reason — and it’s about more than just getting pumped up for a good sweat sesh. Research proves that music, especially high-tempo, high-intensity music, can boost workout performance and even motivate you to exercise for longer.

If you’re wondering how you can optimize the benefits of music for exercise, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, learn how and why music influences your fitness performance, how to create the perfect playlist for making gains and where to snag a done-for-you workout playlist. 

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Why does music improve workout performance? 

There’s no shortage of research on the psychological effects of music. A good tune can help boost your mood and help you focus, but it can also motivate you or give you a competitive edge, which is where it applies to exercise. 

Music affects your workout performance in a number of ways, including:

  • It can reduce your perception of fatigue
  • It can influence your heart rate to be faster or slower
  • It can distract you from the strain of exercise
  • It can make you enjoy exercise more
  • It can make you sprint faster
  • It can improve your mood during a workout
  • It can make exercise seem easier

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule: Music might not help you when you’re struggling with DOMS or an injury, but most of the time, you can expect the above benefits.

person running on path outside
Studies show the running to upbeat music can actually help you run faster, and the same is true for cycling.Stage 7 Photography/Unsplash

How do you make a good workout playlist? Consider each song’s BPM

When it comes to improving workout performance, picking a playlist is all about tempo. Matching the music tempo with your intended heart rate will keep you pumped up for the duration of your workout, while mismatching can do just the opposite. 

Think about what happens when a fluke song comes on in the middle of your workout — say, you’re jamming to upbeat trap music or hard rock and all of a sudden an ’80s love ballad comes on. You stop, dig your phone out of your pocket and skip it. Or maybe you power through, but all you can think about is how you can’t wait for it to be over, thus interrupting your focus on the workout. 

Creating the perfect workout playlist is actually really simple. Just focus on two things: tempo and type of workout. The more intense you want the workout to be, the more upbeat the tempo should be. 

Finding a song tempo in beats per minute is just like finding your heart rate. People who are musically inclined may have an easier time counting the BPM in a song — if you have trouble with that, this handy song BPM tool can help. Just plug in a song name and get the BPM. 

These general tempo guidelines should help you get started with your workout playlist: 

  • Yoga, pilates and other low-intensity activities: 60 to 90 BPM
  • Power yoga: 100 to 140 BPM
  • CrossFit, indoor cycling, or other forms of HIIT: 140 to 180-plus BPM
  • Zumba and dance: 130 to 170 BPM
  • Steady-state cardio, such as jogging: 120 to 140 BPM
  • Weightlifting and powerlifting: 130 to 150 BPM
  • Warming up for exercise: 100 to 140 BPM
  • Cooling down after exercise: 60 to 90 BPM

If you want to get even more scientific about it, engineer the tempo of your playlist to support interval work. For example, if you plan to go for an interval run where you’ll run fast for 3 minutes, slow for 2 minutes for 30 minutes total, you can create a playlist that supports that goal. In this case, you’d enlist a fast-moderate-fast structure. Just make sure the lengths of the songs are close to the interval timeframes

Other factors such as bass, volume and lyrics may also influence your performance, but focusing on tempo helps to keep playlist-picking simple