Have you ever been in the middle of a heavy bench press, headphones in, when your Eminem track fades out only to be replaced by some lovey ballad? If so, then you know that music can, on some level, affect your performance in the gym. That heavy lift that you started with gusto can become a life-and-death struggle without the right tunes.

But what are the right tunes for lifting, exactly? We all have our favorites and different people find their motivation in different genres like rock, pop, hip-hop, or metal. But science may have something to say about it.

“Researchers at Brunel University (London, England) found that faster tempo tunes and a higher intensity of music before performance affects certain brain structures that may enhance the athlete’s visual perception, attention, and motor control during reactive performance,” says Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP, a sport psychology consultant with Telos Sport Psychology Coaching (www.telos-spc.com). “In other words, short periods of high-tempo, high-intensity music may facilitate quicker reaction times.”

Quicker reaction times are associated with higher central nervous system excitement and motor unit recruitment—both of which can pay big dividends when moving big weight.

Chertok points out that a second finding, perhaps more important, published in The Sport Psychologist recently, shows that tennis players recorded faster reaction times on the court when they listened to songs with an emotionally charged message as compared with music with a fast tempo but not much in terms of lyrical motivation. 

“So, songs with strong lyrical affirmations—themes like staying strong, never giving up, etc.—can give an athlete a significant physical and mental boost when the going gets tough. This is completely transferable to an exercise setting as well, even though the publication targeted tennis players.”

So pick your poison. Faster, more intense music—think Busta Rhymes and System of a Down—may help you recruit more muscle, which means more pounds lifted per workout. More motivational music—think “Eye of the Tiger”—could have a similar effect.