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Pretty much everyone who works out regularly has that song—a tune that instills you with superhuman strength and endurance throughout its duration. And for Costas Karageorghis, it just happens to be a Queen song—though not the one you’d most likely suspect.
Karageorghis is one of the world’s foremost experts on the benefits of exercising to music, but decades ago, when he competed in track and field, Queen’s 1986 hit “A Kind of Magic” was the tune that made his pulse race and motivated him to new levels of performance. It isn’t as well-known or as obvious a workout choice as the group’s stadium anthem “We Will Rock You” (or even, say, “Bohemian Rhapsody”), but it’s the one that connects him to a specific moment in his past.
And, Karageorghis says, his connection to “A Kind of Magic” exemplifies how powerful an exercise stimulant music can be. “Everybody will have pieces of music that can link them directly to important times in their life or times when maybe they were younger and fitter or times when they were competing at their best,” says Karageorghis, a member of the sports psychology department at Brunei University in London and the author of the book Applying Music in Exercise and Sport. “The key here is that music can function as a superhighway to our long-term memory.”
It’s not exactly a secret that music and exercise have a symbiotic relationship: For many of us, it would be a letdown to work out without some kind of rhythmic accompaniment. But as researchers like Karageorghis begin to delve deeper, they’ve often found that this symbiosis is even stronger—and more impactful—than they imagined. There is much still to be learned about how exactly music works on the mind and body, but here is what we know: Music activates multiple areas of the brain at once, from the frontal lobe (which controls emotion) to the temporal lobe (which regulates control and structure) to the occipital lobe (which is in charge of vision and coordination) and the parietal lobe (which handles motor function).
Music enhances nearly every type of workout that’s been studied so far, from hardcore interval training to light jogging, and it can do so in several ways. It lifts your mood, making you feel more vigorous and excited; it suppresses negative feelings, reducing anger and tension; and, perhaps most exciting of all, it reduces perceived exertion, which means it makes your workout feel easier, even if it isn’t.
In certain cases, even imagining music might be enough: Karageorghis has used a technique called “auditory imagery” with elite athletes that allows them to recall a song during competitions in which music is banned, helping them tune out the pain and fatigue.
What’s more, many of these benefits are dependent upon your ability to form your own personal playlists. In other words, if a song feels as if it pumps you up, even if it doesn’t do the same for anyone else—even if it’s an Ed Sheeran tune—you’re probably right.
In his studies on the science of music, Matthew Stork, a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia, has allowed his subjects to choose their own playlists, in large part because he wants them to tap into their own motivations, which is how a number of prominent trainers do it as well.
“Getting your workout in can be a challenge some days, and this is where music can make all the difference,” says Ron Mathews, owner of the Reebok CrossFit LAB and trainer for a number of celebrities. “I know what music each of my clients likes and always have it on for their session. The hardest thing for me to coach is intensity, and intensity is the primary factor to making measurable gains in the gym. If I can tap into what motivates a client and get them to increase their intensity, I can guarantee we’ll hit our goals.”
While there are certain songs that Karageorghis says “tick all the boxes in terms of musical components that go into the best exercise tracks”—who among us doesn’t get fired up for that last half-mile on the treadmill upon hearing the opening guitar riff to “Eye of the Tiger”?—much of it is dependent upon individual preferences, as well as the memories you might have of a specific song. For Mathews, it’s the Beastie Boys; for client Hugh Jackman, it was “songs with a melody” that he could hum or sing along to; and for a client like Jennifer Garner, it was “pop songs with a beat”.
But often it comes back to that personal connection like the one Karageorghis has to “A Kind of Magic,” the connection we almost all have to at least one song. Stork, the Ph.D. researcher, mentions “List of Demands” by Saul Williams, a fast-paced electronic track that was used in a 2008 Nike commercial featuring a number of prominent athletes like Steve Nash and Kevin Durant working out in extreme ways. Because Stork now associates that song with that Nike-commercial imagery, it always manages to get him pumped.
“It’s as if you have a certain scent you associate with a person, say a strong perfume or cologne,” Stork says. “It’s almost like a classical conditioning.”
“I use my life’s journey and find songs with lyrics I relate to,” says trainer Aaron Williamson, who has worked with Dwayne Johnson, J.K. Simmons, and Zac Efron, among others. “That allows me to remind myself what I’ve been through and how far I’ve come. There’s something powerful about tuning out the world and tapping into your own well of tragedies and triumphs that can help someone take a normal workout and turn it into something epic.”
For trainer and fitness coach Michael Blevins, it’s the track “Idealistic” by the band Digitalism. He first heard it while taking a series of torturous bike rides through rural Bulgaria with his mentor, Mark Twight.
“The song became a tempo and a beat for dealing with the obscurity of the Eastern European backdrop,” Blevins says. “The strangeness of the landscape for some reason fit the song. I used to just put that song on repeat and crank it up the steep climbs of Vitosha or the endless cobbled roads that were so rough the vibration made your hands bleed. We would get chased by feral dogs and were sketched out by the locals, who seemed to be behind the times by about a hundred years. Meanwhile, we had these epic battles uphill with each other. Whenever I hear it, I almost start to froth at the mouth.”
So go ahead and crank up that song, whatever it might be, though don’t do it for too long: Karageorghis also warns that listening to any music so loud that you can’t maintain a conversation—as is often the case in the gym, or on your headphones—might eventually damage the ears.
“I do think that looking forward,” Karageorghis says, “music will have a profound role to play in the health of the nation.”