Lungs burn. Legs feel like you’re running through shin-high wet cement. Every muscle cries out for you to stop. Just then your perfectly tuned playlist kicks out The Stones’ “Start Me Up.” Your lungs and legs respond and kick back in—in time with the music. You feel good. Somehow the pain fades away. You find the extra juice to keep going and finish your run strong.
You benefited from your body’s physiological response to the solid beat of music you like. It’s called entrainment—the synchronization of an organism to an external rhythm. Extensive research sponsored by ACE Fitness through the University of Wisconsin and Brunel University’s School of Sport and Education in London shows that music—in particular music with a strong rhythm—can improve human exercise performance. Think: marching bands, working on a chain gang, rowing to the beat of the drum in a Roman warship. Even shaking your booty on the wedding dancefloor long after you’re whupped.
Research reveals that when we exercise to music with a strong beat we will, in fact, work longer and harder, putting temporary discomfort on the back burner while getting jazzed by the musical energy. Without music you might find yourself too tired to take another step; with the right music you may just reach a personal best.
The Beat Goes On
How can you take advantage of this to improve your performance and have more exercise fun? First, find the right music for you. Keeping in mind that there is no accounting for taste, researchers have identified a range of beats per minute (bpm) that are optimal for enhancing your performance with specific modes of exercise. Research has attempted to pin the numbers to elevated heart rate, though the jury is still out on this. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind as you create your ultimate playlist:
- Power walking: approx. 130-140 bpm
- Cardio in the gym: 130-140 bpm
- Running: approx. 147-169 bpm
- Weight lifting: approx. 130-140 bpm
- Cycling: approx. 135-170 bpm
- Circuit training: approx. 124-136 bpm
Regardless of the style or genre of music, it appears that the strength of the beat is the most important determinant of how the music impacts your workout. Bamboo flutes and waves? Probably not. AC/DC or Shakira? More likely. Though from there, it’s all about personal preference. What gets your groove on?
Entrain yourself: How to find songs with the right BPM
Your perfect exercise playlist is just a few clicks away with the help from these sites. If you have a song you particularly like but want to confirm its bpm for exercising, check out:
Song BPM: To learn what the bpm is of any song in the database: Type in artist and title and you’re good to go.
Tempo Tap: Simpler than finding the artist or title. Just tap and go.
Calculate BPM: A hands-on approach using a watch, counting and some simple math.
If you are looking for songs to create your ideal playlist based on bpm, here are some excellent resources:
This music database is a labor of love by Dave Tompkins at University of British Columbia.
BPM Database is another one that has thousands of tunes.
JogTunes: Not only does this site list the bpm, it provides links to purchase the tunes directly.
Don’t want to think about it?
Services like Pandora, Spotify, iTunes and YouTube offer pre-selected training playlists like House Workout, Latin Workout, Alternative Endurance Workout, and Classic Rock Workout. Downside? You may not like all the tunes and don’t have a whole lot of control over what gets played when. Upside? Click and go.
Most importantly, choose songs that resonate with your magnificent body, that juice you lyrically, musically and energetically, and ones that will keep you going. While the beat is important, so is the feel. If you like it and it allows you to forget momentarily about your current level of exhaustion and squeeze just that much more out of your workout, go for it.
What’s on your perfect playlist? Send us your list: We’d love to post what music keeps you going.