You’re probably already listening. You probably have your AirPods in or your headphones on, and you’re listening but not listening to Drake or Metallica or [fill in the blank] _________ as you pump out squats or shoulder presses. Maybe you even have a particular song or sequence of songs for your heaviest sets—the beat, the riffs, the lyrics that have been your own personal soundtrack for PR after PR. You probably weren’t going to stop, even if this article told you aggressive tunes hindered workout strength. Keep reading. The latest research suggests the right music can boost strength for reps and reduce perceived fatigue. But what exactly is the right music?
In a 2015 study, 31 resistance-trained males were tested on the Smith Machine Bench Press for one-rep max and for reps (60% of one-rep max to failure). They benched in silence. Two weeks later they were tested again, but randomly divided into two groups. One group again benched in silence. The other group listened to self-selected “motivational music” (mostly fast-paced rock or EDM songs) throughout the session, including the warm-up. No significant improvement was seen in the silent group. In contrast, the music group improved their reps-to-failure sets by 5.8%. It’s also notable that no difference was seen in one-rep-max strength. The researchers stated that this is likely because exercising with music can reduce the rate of perceived exertion at light and moderate workloads, but this effect is less significant at maximum or near-max loads. They also theorized that music may not boost one-rep max due to the non-rhythmic nature of 1RM lifting. Rhythm seems to be an important mechanism underlying the effect of music on repetitive activities.
A 2018 study virtually replicated these results, finding a 3.9% increase in the bench press for reps when listening to self-selected “motivational music” but no increase in the single rep bench press.
A recent study further explored music tempo and its effect on strength for reps. Ten college-aged men were tested in knee extension strength on two occasions, separated by a week. They either listened to instrumental, fast-tempo music (137-160 beats per minute) or exercised in silence. Listening to music increased maximal power output by 12.5% over no music and the electromyographic fatigue threshold (the intensity one can maintain before reaching failure) by a whopping 26%. There were no significant differences in the heart rates or post-exercise ratings of perceived exertion between the music and no-music groups.
A couple of caveats about the previous study: 10 is a small sample size, and listening to fast tempo music wasn’t compared to the effects of listening to slower or even faster music. Therefore, it’s difficult to conclude 137-160 bpm is the sweet spot. We look forward to further research.
Keep listening to music. Keep listening to your own personal “motivational music,” whether that’s hip-hop, metal, classical, country, or whatever best helps you grind out those toughest reps. But also consider music tempo. We’re not asking you to change your musical taste. It’s important that you listen to the songs that inspire you.
However, even with our caveats, take note of the recent study with the 137-160 bpm music. That’s fast. People have a preferred tempo of 120-130 (see chart above), which aligns with walking and applause. But you may want to crank up the rhythm for your hardest, higher rep sets, activities like sled-pushing, or the high-intensity segments of HIIT cardio. A lot of modern hip-hop (60-100 bpm, on average) is more conducive to chilling out than amping up. Rock and roll and metal, especially, can be at any pace, but thrash metal comes in at 150+ beats per minute. Techno and trance average 120-140 bpm, but regularly go much faster, and speedcore is as fast as its name suggests (300-1000+ bpm). Again, it’s a matter of personal taste, and a fast song you hate will likely only be a distraction and less effective than a slower song you love. But keep an open mind. Try adding more beats per minute to see if it helps you eke out more reps per set.
Opening image: Staff Sgt. Jennifer Thacker / U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Delano Scott