Music to Enhance Your Workout: Tips for the Perfect Playlist

Tamara Grand by Tamara Grand | January 14th, 2013 | 5 Comments
topic: Fitness

Regular exercisers know that music can make or break a workout. Listening to the right playlist during exercise can motivate you to work longer and at a higher intensity. It can make the workout seem easier and leave you feeling great afterwards. It can reduce perceptions of fatigue and improve performance. Choose the wrong playlist or forget to charge your MP3 player? You might as well go home now!

What to consider when choosing music that enhances an exercise experience?

While we all recognize the ‘right’ music when we hear it, choosing an hour’s worth of workout-friendly selections isn’t as easy as it sounds. Is fast better than slow? Strong rhythms preferential to weak? Are lyrics important? What about musical genre? And how about bass?

Scientists recognize two primary types of effects that can occur as a response to listening to music while exercising: motivational effects and ergogenic, or work-enhancing, effects. Motivational effects consist of both psychological and psychophysical responses.

Effects music has on a workout

Listening to asynchronous music (i.e., background music to which movements are not consciously synchronized) in the gym or during low-to-moderate intensity exercise:

  • distracts the exerciser from the task at hand
  • elicits positive feelings about the exercise experience
  • promotes increased neuromuscular efficiency and coordination in repetitive activities of longer duration (e.g., long-distance cycling and running)

Exercising to synchronous music (i.e, music to which movement is synchronized, as in a step aerobics or indoor cycling class)

  • reduces perceptions of effort and fatigue
  • increases rhythmicity of movement
  • can even induce a ‘flow’ or meditative state

In either case, choosing music with motivational or uplifting lyrics can further enhance the positive feelings associated with exercise, elevating your mood not just during the workout, but before you start and well after you leave the gym.

Motivational responses to music (both synchronous and asynchronous) can, in turn, promote ergogenic, or work-enhancing, effects. For example,

  • distraction and reduced perception of effort translate directly into improved endurance and longer workout times
  • the increased efficiency associated with rhythmic movement results into lower oxygen uptake and better stamina and strength
  • pleasurable feelings associated with movement to music may increase long term adherence to exercise programs

Harness the benefits of music for a great workout

Use these tips to create your personal power playlist. An inexpensive, enjoyable and completely legal way to enhance your athletic performance!

  1. Match your music to your motor pattern. Engaging in low, medium or high intensity repetitive activity? Select music whose rhythm matches the pattern of movement. For example, step aerobics are usually performed between 128 and 136 beats per minute (bpm), while cardio kick-box requires music played at 140-150 bpm. Indeed, most exercisers show a distinct preference for music in the 120-140 bpm range.
  2. Choose music with strong rhythmic qualities, in addition to pleasant sounding melodies. When rhythms are weak or hard to find, their ability to enhance repetitive movement decreases and may, in fact, create the perception that the exercise is more difficult than it actually is.
  3. Select songs with a positive motivational message (e.g., “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) or an affirmation of movement (e.g., “run to the beat”). The specific motivational message may vary from person to person.
  4. Consider your gender and personality type. Males typically show more positive responses to bass tracks than do females. Women tend to be more positively affected by motivational messages than men. Extroverts of both sexes respond better to lively music than introverts.

Don’t feel like creating your own playlist right away? Borrow one from one of our fitness experts!

Sculpting playlist from The FIRM Master Instructor Nancy Butts

Fitness instructor Teri Ann Krefting’s favorite cardio playlist

Yoga blogger Dionne Elizabeths’s heart-opening Spotify playlist


  1. Such a great post!! I kinda am a oldies & rock person being 55 BUT I like other stuff too. Sometimes though I am so focused that I never hear the music! :) Others though, it really gets me moving!

    Jody - Fit at 55 | January 14th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  2. Is it weird that I do not and cannot work out to music?? LOL! I cannot have the TV on and I really hate when there are other people in the gym when I am there. Wow, I sound like a TOTAL DIVA when it comes to working out, LOL!!!

    GiGI Eats Celebrities | January 15th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  3. Much as I love to workout to music, sometimes I like to leave it at home lest it become too much of a crutch. Triathlons, trail races and even some road races all won’t allow earphones, so being able to race/run without them is worth getting used to.

    Also, sometimes listening to the great outdoors is better. Birds chirping, the wind through the trees and so on.

    apkussma | January 15th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  4. Ohhh I’m all about the music. I have a different playlist depending on my mood, the type of exercise I’m doing, whether I be driving, walking, running, whatever! I have a mix of everything :)

    Kierston | January 15th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  5. Music is the ONLY thing that gets me through a workout somedays!

    Sherry Tejada

    Sherry Tejada | January 29th, 2013 | Comment Permalink

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