Crafting the perfect playlist for any occasion is no easy task, but it’s even harder to choose the right tracks to motivate you while working out. It’s not enough to just put on your favorite songs and hope for the best. Frank Ocean is great and all, but his soulful odes to love and heartbreak don’t exactly get the blood pumping while you’re pounding the treadmill or lifting weights.
Scientists have actually been studying the links between music and exercise since 1911, when US researcher Leonard Ayres discovered that cyclists pedaled faster with a band playing. And in the time since that discovery, this field of research has grown significantly.
What has been discovered is that the body naturally tends to synchronize its movements with music and its rhythms, so the right kind of playlist will help maintain your stamina for longer periods and cause you to speed up and slow down in accordance with the songs you’re listening to. Music can also support physical exercise in an asynchronous way, too, motivating us more generally by elevating our mood.
Much of this research has been summarized and improved upon by Brunel University London's Dr. Costas Karageorghis, a leader in sports psychology who found across 60 studies that music can help maintain stamina and positivity while also lowering levels of fatigue.
With the right bangers in your ear, you can enter a “flow state” while working out, wherein music helps induce the same kind of alpha wave brain activity we usually experience in our resting state. Basically, the best workout music should help immerse you completely in the routine and give you the feeling of working on autopilot rather than overexerting yourself.
But what songs specifically drive you to finally achieve that personal best? World record-holding marathon runner Paula Radcliffe loves listening to “Stronger” by Kanye West, but if you’re not a fan of Kanye and his “dragon energy” these days, there are plenty of other options out there.
According to Scientific American, the key to crafting the ultimate workout playlist is a phenomenon scientists call rhythm response, in which your body tries to align its respiration rate and heartbeat with the music you're listening to.
Karageorghis and his team of psychologists conducted an analysis of 6.7 million Spotify playlists with the word "workout" in the title and compared the beats per minute (bpm) of each song. They discovered that certain music genres are more effective than others, and to complicate things further, the type of music you should listen to also depends on where you’re up to in your workout.
Of course, results also vary depending on the person and their tastes, but it seems that pop music contains the best bpm to kick things off in the warm-up and again while cooling down at the end. Whether running on a treadmill or out in the open, hip-hop provides the best beats, while dance music is more effective if you’re focused on high-intensity workouts such as strength training.
There's bad news for rock enthusiasts, though. Frequent changes in tempo can disrupt your rhythm, so it’s probably best to avoid the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack come gym day.
This isn’t an exact science, but if you’re not into switching genres mid-workout, it seems like hip-hop is the way forward. Most hip-hop songs have a bpm of between 65 and 75, which is what many scientists consider to be the optimum range. If you really want to optimize your playlist, you can check out the site Song BPM, which tells you a track's bpm, and curate your playlist accordingly.
But before you grab your protein shake and head out on your merry way, there are a few other factors to consider. Although music with a regular beat can reduce energy inefficiency, there’s a ceiling that takes hold around the 145bpm mark. According to research, songs faster than that won't make you work out any harder, so don’t bother with Minor Threat, NOFX, or Slayer if you think that's likely to push you past the pain threshold.
People are more likely to maintain their exercise regime with songs they’ve picked themselves, and it’s also vital to keep mixing things up to stave off boredom over the long term. But with so many options out there, we recommend you first draw some initial inspiration from our own workout choices.
Once you’ve played around with our picks and decided which songs are worthy of inclusion in your own playlist, we have one last piece of advice: keep things exclusive. Karageorghis suggests that workout playlists should only be listened to during the workout itself, or you run the risk of becoming desensitized to the music’s positive effects.
Oh, and make sure your phone’s fully charged, or you’ll be forced to endure whatever godawful music is playing in your local gym by default. Exercise is hard enough as it is — don’t put yourself through that, too.