How the Right Playlist Can Turn Up the Volume On Your Workouts

Does that beat drop really make you run a little faster or push through that last rep? Here’s what science says about the power music can have on your workouts.

Music Motivation
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Imagine this: You’re in a fitness class, and suddenly, the perfect song comes on. Maybe it’s a slow ballad that moves you to tears as you’re climbing up a mountain in cycling class. Maybe it’s a bubblegum pop anthem that inspires you to pick up the pace during the last half-mile of your run. Whatever the scenario, there’s no question that music can move you deeply — whether you’re dripping sweat in a HIIT class or breathing through a yoga savasana.

Research on the relationship between music and exercise isn’t very extensive but factors such as the type of music, the workout you’re doing along with it, and even your attitude about the tracks playing can affect performance in the gym, according to Saara Haapanen, a P.h.D. candidate in sports and exercise psychology at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.

Of course, expertly creating a motivating exercise playlist isn’t really applying scientific studies to your Spotify — it's about creating an emotional journey that will keep you moving throughout the highs and lows of any workout. No one knows this better than Steve Aoki, DJ, music producer, and chief music officer at Orangetheory. Creating a playlist is all about tapping into your emotional landscape, he says. “I always look at music as a tool to get to the psychology of who you are,” he says. “To get to your heart. Certain songs, certain tracks, can really have a significant impact on your mental health, your attitude, and your behavior.”

Below, Haapanen breaks down what science says about pairing music with your workouts — along with the biggest tip to curate playlists that level up your training routine. Then Aoki shares how to tap into your emotions to have truly moving experiences while you’re moving your body..

The Science of Music for Workout Motivation 

First, know this: Yes, motivation is the driving force to do something, but motivation is also fleeting, says Haapanen. In fact, consistency and discipline (that is, setting yourself up for success) are usually more impactful than motivation on its own. 

In other words: You don’t want to rely on music for all your motivation. Instead, research and experts suggest utilizing music as a way to better engage with your fitness routine and enjoy the act of movement itself. Here’s how music has been shown to impact your workout, beat by beat.

Beats per minute can influence your pace and energy. 

Ever catch yourself strutting down the street in time to the song playing in your ear buds? That’s not just you feeling yourself on a hot girl walk. In fact, the beats per minute (BPM) of the music you listen to can influence the cadence (aka turnover speed) of your walk, run, or bike ride. Work out to a faster beat, and you’ll find yourself naturally speeding up your run. On the other hand, a song with a slow tempo might lead to a leisurely, unhurried pace. That’s because beats light up the motor areas of your brain, which are responsible for the planning, control, and execution of voluntary movements (thinking: hitting a set of squat jumps or jumping rope for five minutes). When those brain areas are activated, they nudge your body to move to the beat of the music, according to a study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. In that sense, your workout jams act as a metronome, influencing you to move to the beat of the music. 

In addition, fast-paced tunes can be more psychologically motivating than moody ballads, as a study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found. Participants completed a 10 km cycling time trial while listening to either fast-paced music with 142 BPM or no music at all. The results: Fast-paced music resulted in a 2 percent improvement in speed, and participants also rated the tempo and the rhythm of the music as more motivating than the harmony and melody. So TL;DR: If you’re trying to hit a certain tempo during your run or want to nail the suggested cadence in a cycling class, choose music in your target tempo. 

Music can help you enjoy HIIT workouts more.

Want to find the fun in a really challenging workout? Music might help add that joyful element. A small 2016 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences challenged 20 people to try HIIT-style sprinting. Researchers found that when sprinters listened to music during the workout, they had a better overall outlook on HIIT once the workout was complete than when they were not listening to music. While none of the participants had negative views of HIIT at the end of the experiment, researchers did find that when the sprinters listened to music, they had a better overall outlook on high-intensity training once the workout was complete. 

This suggests that listening to music can better your relationship with the fitness-related obstacle in front of you. It’s even possible that these feel-good effects could apply to tasks outside of fitness (such as completing a chore or running a much-dreaded errand) — although there’s not yet any specific research on the topic, as study author Matthew Stork, Ph.D.,  notes. So if you’re trying a new form of fitness that you feel kind of “meh” about or intimidated by, curating a playlist you enjoy grooving to may make it feel more fun — and in the process, creates more motivation. 

And if you’re addicted to your favorite true crime podcast, know that it might not be the most motivational soundtrack for your interval workouts. A 2019 study in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise compared how much participants enjoyed sprint intervals and how well they performed at these intervals when they listened to motivational music (defined as upbeat, stimulating music with a tempo of more than 120 BPM), a podcast, or no audio whatsoever. The results: Listening to motivational music during their intervals enhanced feelings of pleasure, improved enjoyment, and elevated sprint performance, leading the researchers to theorize that motivational music might ultimately help people stick to a regular routine of sprint intervals. So save the podcast for a hot girl walk and turn up the volume on upbeat music when you’re tackling a tough HIIT workout. 

The power to choose your own music matters when picking workout tunes.

Have you ever queued up a generic Spotify or Apple Music playlist and found yourself skipping track after track? If so, you probably already know that tailored workout playlists — no matter how time-consuming they can be to curate— can make a huge difference in whether you actually enjoy your exercise routine.

As an example, a 2015 study of 31 men showed that those who self-selected their playlists experienced serious strength gains, explains Haapanen. In those who had the opportunity to listen to their playlist while working out (compared to the group who didn’t listen to any music), researchers observed a significant increase in how many reps of bench presses participants could complete.

“It seems that the most important thing is that the music [played during exercise] is of the person’s choosing,” says Haapanen. “It’s important that they like it. Random music doesn’t really help you out much” when it comes to fitness performance and enjoyment. 

Expecting to love your workout playlist may make you love it even more.

Let’s say that your favorite artist dropped a new album, and you’re planning to listen to it on an upcoming run. You would be hyped up for that workout, right? And that excitement  for the music will likely translate into more enjoyable miles. 

This phenomenon was looked into during a 2012 study of 69 students exercising at their university’s wellness center. While all students were allowed to create their own playlist, half of them didn’t know they would get to work out to it before building the playlist, while the other half was told that their choice of music was already known to improve exercise enjoyment before they began their workouts. This variable allowed researchers to study whether musical anticipation made them like their workouts more. 

The results showed a “significant” effect on reported exercise enjoyment in those who anticipated a great workout as a result of great music, suggesting the power of a little self-talk. “You can tell yourself the music will be more motivating, and [then] it will be for you,” says Haapanen. 

Music may curb workout fatigue or make you more capable of handling it.

No surprises here: Working out to music that genuinely amps you up is the way to go if you want an all-out, extra challenging exercise session. One older study published in 2010 gathered 26 participants and asked them to perform six circuit-type exercises to three different types of music: motivational music (consisting of pop songs with 120 BPM), neutral music (which was determined by participant rating the motivational qualities of tracks), and a metronome control (FYI, a metronome makes audible clicks that correspond to beats at a selected tempo). The study found that listening to motivational music was correlated with participants completing more reps — so if you have a tough AMRAP workout scheduled, a motivating playlist might help you push through more reps. 

How to Create the Best Workout Playlist 

Aoki, a musical genius and DJ behind remixed bops such as “Pursuit of Happiness” and original hits such as “Waste It On Me” with BTS, has been thinking a lot about the intersection of music and exercise as of late. His new “All Out With Aoki” workout series, a collaboration with Orangetheory, features playlists he carefully curated himself.

And when he’s DJing or crafting playlists, Aoki is constantly taking the emotional temperature of the crowd. “[For my Orangetheory classes], I’m always thinking: ‘How do I really take people on a journey?’” he explains. “Even at my shows, it's not like I'm putting [the crowd] in the red the entire show. I'm bringing them down, I'm wrapping them up, I'm building up to this tension. And then boom, explosion,” he says. 

You can try to create the same self-journey in your own fitness routine, he says. “There's definitely a synergy and a direct connection between the people who are partying at the festival, myself, and people that are pushing themselves beyond their limits in a workout,” says Aoki. “My goal at the end of the day as an artist is to make people feel so comfortable about themselves that they don't care what anyone else thinks. That they lose all feelings.” In a workout setting, that sensation may manifest as being ultra-present in your workouts and forgetting about what happened at the office that day, thanks to a strong mind-body connection. Or, you could find yourself zoned in on your movements without noticing whether you’re doing as many burpees as the person next to you. You might even feel completely at peace with your crotch sweat.

 Aoki’s latest album, “HiROQUEST: Genesis,” offers plenty of bops to power your next workouts— so if you’re looking for some fresh music to HIIT to, you’re in luck. Below, you’ll find a playlist inspired by the science of music motivation and Aoki. But remember: The real trick is making it your own. So take what you need, leave what you don’t, and let your emotions dictate what belongs in your ears during the next workout. 

*The playlist curation stems from Orangetheory’s partnership with DJ Steve Aoki. Use of the playlist is subject to Spotify’s terms and conditions.

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