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Tall and rail-thin as a kid, I couldn’t possibly intimidate anyone with my physique, nor was I interested in doing so. Yet the first time I watched Sylvester Stallone slam his fists into hanging cattle carcasses, grunt through a bunch of one-armed pushups, and barrel up the stairs of a certain Philadelphia museum to the tune of a very motivating song – yea, you know the one – I was instantly inspired. I wanted to get big, strong, and more important, get even with all those who ever tried to stuff me into a locker. I took to the weights with unbridled enthusiasm, determined to transform my puny arms into massive guns capable of delivering some serious damage.
For me, it was Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” that fueled my training fire. For others it’s everything from Metallica’s “One” to Beethoven’s 5th. According to scientists, professors, and anyone who’s ever stepped foot in a gym, listening to music during exercise can offer a variety of benefits—not just on treadmills and in aerobics classes, but in the weight room as well.
Walk into any gym today and you’ll find most people plugged into their iPods, iPhones, or MP3 players, or at the mercy of the piped-in satellite station. No matter what the source, one thing is clear: Music has the amazing ability to boost your overall mental and physical performance. Few things work better to get your motor revved while training.
Numerous studies and experiments have found that music not only increases a person’s motivation during a workout, but also helps to enhance his strength, endurance, and motor coordination. On days where you’re just not feeling it, the right tunes can help carry you to the finish line with their ability to distract you from fatigue while simultaneously charging your heart and other muscles.
The interactions between body, mind, and music are complex. It’s not the music alone that invigorates you during exercise, but the way your body responds to the beat. Before your mind even gets in on the action, your breathing and heart rate increase to move more oxygen to working muscles. These biochemical reactions then merge with the music to inspire you to pick up the pace. While there is still much to understand about the brain mechanics involved when listening to music, most experts in the field are convinced of music’s ability to make exercise easier and more enjoyable.
When your workouts start to dull, listening to music can help break the monotony by keeping your mind active. With each new song, your brain sorts through tones, rhythms, and the sequence of pitches and sounds in an effort to appreciate the music. When you tune into your favorite songs while training, you’re giving your brain something to do. And when you give your brain something to do, you’re less likely to get bored and more likely to train longer.
An Ohio State University study found that those who listened to music while walking did four more miles on average than subjects going tune-free. The distraction music provides allows people to focus on things other than the arduous physical task they’re performing. In London, an annual half-marathon called “Race to the Beat” takes this message to heart by playing invigorating music throughout the route to motivate runners to go the distance.
Along with helping to prolong workouts, stimulative songs have also been shown to increase muscle endurance and strength. In one study that examined the effects of music during a muscular stamina test, findings revealed that those holding a dumbbell in front of their body to the point of exhaustion while exposed to certain songs produced significantly longer endurance times than those subjected only to white noise. Another experiment examined the effects of music on grip strength. Again, participants listening to a selection of upbeat songs achieved greater results by demonstrating significantly higher strength scores.
It’s undeniable that the benefits of music are powerful, but are some types of songs more advantageous than others when it comes to working out? Movie star Hugh Jackman thinks so, and he credits the music of Metallica and Godsmack for helping him to pack on muscle for his Wolverine character in X-Men. On contactmusic.com, Jackman admits he cranks up his favorite heavy metal tunes to give him that extra adrenaline rush for a “bitch of a workout.”
“Everyone has their own unique playlist for getting amped during exercise, but certain types of music definitely produce better results when it comes to strength training,” says Aaron Bradley, television music composer and founder of Music for Muscles. Recognizing that not all tunes are created equal in the weight room, Bradley composed a variety of motivational soundtracks for the sole purpose of maximizing his lifting efforts. Along with adding the popular rap and rock genres, he upped the testosterone levels by mixing in some epic battle-themed scores to give the listener a “warrior-like” mentality for the drive to keep pushing forward through all challenges.
Of course, not everyone needs to feel like they’re going into battle to get jacked in the gym. What works to motivate some may be of no value to others. One thing that seems to work for everyone, however, is synchronizing the music with the movement. This is where the beat comes in.
Imagine a high-intensity kickboxing class cranking B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” The uninspiring title is bad enough, but the slow tempo of the song would have a counterproductive effect. Aside from making you want to slit your wrists, blues music isn’t a go-to genre during cardio routines because the beats per minute (bpm) in most blues songs don’t come close to matching the rhythm of the fast movements required for an aerobic workout.
To determine the best songs to maximize your athletic performance, the tempo of the tunes on your playlist should fit with your preferred exercise pace. In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks, M.D., professor of neurology at Columbia University Medical Center, stresses the importance of rhythm in physical training. Sacks asserts, “Since the integration of sound and movement can play a great role in coordinating and invigorating basic movement, musical rhythm can be valuable to athletes.”
Malonne Kinneson, a physician and competitive triathlete agrees. In Musicophilia Kinneson is quoted as saying, “I often listen to music while I’m training and noticed fairly early that some pieces of music were particularly uplifting and inspired a high level of effort.” She goes on to discuss how listening to certain types of music during a timed trial event helped to set her cadence at the right tempo and synchronized her physical efforts with her breathing, which dramatically improved her performance time.
So what tempo works best for those working out? It all depends on the type of exercise you’re doing. According to Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., an associate professor of sport psychology at Brunel University in England and expert on the effects of music on physical performance, a song’s pace is paramount when rating its motivational abilities for various physical activities. His findings revealed that songs with a tempo somewhere between 120 and 140 bpm is best for aerobic exercise because it most closely matches the average person’s heart rate. That’s great when you’re burning it up on the treadmill, but when it’s time to heave some serious iron it’s time to change the beat.
Since the goal is to match the rhythm of the music to the rhythm of your body, slower-paced music in the 95 to 125 bpm range is generally more effective for strength training. A clear beat and heavy bass are ideal, since it’s easy to hear the downbeat as you lift. Songs like “Hit ’Em Up” by 2Pac, “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, “Back In Black” by AC /DC, and of course “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor are all worthy of appearing on a training playlist and have an optimal lifting bpm. If none of these songs get you pumped, you’re either in a coma or have a very unique taste in tuneage. Fortunately, with so many different musical styles and genres to choose from, you’re sure to find something that sends a surge through your veins and inspires you to persevere through your workout—no matter how much of a bitch it is.