Can listening to music really improve performance?
The exact mechanisms behind music and exercise performance aren’t well understood. However, it does seem the tempo of your music may affect your strength and endurance performance.
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By James de Lacey
10th June 2022 | 8 min read
Picture this: It’s your personal record set of squats. You approach the barbell, psyching yourself up as you visualise a successful lift. As you get under the bar, Katy Perry starts blasting through the gym speakers.
Complete mood killer (or enhancer, if you’re into it). So, you ask yourself, “why did I forget my headphones on my heavy squat day?” and secondly, “does listening to my favourite music even improve my exercise performance?”
While I can’t tell you why you forgot your headphones, I can certainly try to explain whether music helps or hinders performance.
You might be someone who likes to plan your tracklist based on where you are within your workout. Maybe you like a bit of Celine Dion while you warm up and then work your way into some Linkin Park or harder dance music as you approach your working sets. Or perhaps you just blast your favourite hardcore tunes as soon as you set foot in the gym.
Interestingly, it seems that the tempo of your music may affect your strength and endurance performance. For example, it has been found that listening to stimulative music can lead to greater strength as opposed to sedative music or white noise.
What is considered stimulative music, you ask? Anything approximately 134 beats per minute (BPM), which would be equivalent to a typical house music track. Sedative music, on the other hand, is approximately 90BPM, a similar tempo to your grandad’s favourite jazz jam.
Another reason to pump up the tunes like it’s a Saturday night out and not a lazy Sunday is that listening to sedative music has been shown to produce strength values even lower than white noise! So, it seems you’re better off listening to no music than slower, more relaxing tunes.
But what about music of even faster tempos? Will that enhance your exercise performance even further? Listening to music at tempos of 170-190BPM (drum and bass tempo and higher) not only makes exercise feel easier than when listening to slower music, but can also help increase one rep maxes!
While the tempo of music seems to influence exercise performance (at least within the general population), what if the music that psyches you up the most is actually low tempo?
Some of you just may not like fast tempo music and the thought of suffering through music that you hate, in the hope that it will make you stronger or go longer, is nauseating.
Luckily, it seems there is another factor at play. That is, choosing the music you like. Self-selecting your favourite music has been shown to increase jump squat take-off velocity, rate of force development, bench press performance, and feelings of vigour before exercise compared to listening to no music.
Music-associated gains aren’t just limited to the gym, though. On the bike, your preferred music may also help you cycle further at high intensities, and if you’re a rower, it could even help shave a few seconds off your time trials.
So why is it that music has a performance-enhancing benefit on exercise?
The exact mechanisms behind music and exercise performance aren’t well understood. However, some research suggests arousal and motivational factors are improved with music, and may play a part in the associated performance benefits.
Others have suggested it’s the rhythmic nature of music that plays an important role in cyclic endurance activities such as cycling, rowing, or maximum repetitions of the bench press. Further, this rhythmic pattern can help correct errors during movement and facilitate task execution by influencing coordination and emotional responses.
In fact, music can be such a powerful stimulant to the brain that it is more difficult to ignore it than it is to interact with it.
For example, during a three-year study, elite weightlifters listened to music during their training and 89% of them improved the quality of their training. Additionally, 97% and 98% of the lifters increased the number of sets and reps they performed and could lift more weight when training with music.
While self-selection and tempo of music seem to enhance exercise performance, it’s natural to question whether it’s simply the music itself leading to these positive effects, or whether it’s something more.
The act of self-selecting your music may in fact be a more potent performance enhancer than the type of music itself. The motivating effect of a specific song may be very influential in exercise performance because of the way it makes you feel. For me, deep rolling baselines get me through any heavy, gut wrenching set. The deeper and darker, the better. Overthinking – Kasra, Enei, & DRS is a great example.
This influential effect is not exclusive to music, though. It seems to carry over into other areas where self-selection can be used. For example, it’s been found that self selecting punch combinations can help increase how fast and hard world champion kickboxers can punch.
Choosing how much your loads are increased by (and decreased by if failing an attempt) during a 1RM squat test can lead to lifting more, and choosing which hand you start with during a grip-strength test can help you squeeze even harder.
But it doesn’t stop there! Professional basketball players have jumped higher and produced more force when jumping after self-selecting how many squat jumps they performed during testing.
The moral of the story here is that self-selection can be a powerful tool for improving all kinds of exercise performance, music selection included. So, when it comes to organising your playlist for a training session, pick the songs you love!
James was the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Romanian Rugby Union. He has previously worked in America’s professional rugby competition Major League Rugby with Austin Elite and the NZ Women’s National Rugby League Team. He is a published author and has completed a MSc in Sport & Exercise Science from AUT, Auckland, NZ.