How to use music to increase your athletic performance

exercise and music

Whether you’re a casual gym-goer or a diehard fitness buff, there’s plenty you can do to optimize your workout performance. You can eat right; you can make sure you get sufficient rest and recovery; you can mix up your routine to stay active. But there’s a hidden weapon to help you get more out of your workout: Music. Several studies have found that if you’ve got the right music playing while you exercise, you’ll actually work harder. Not only will music stimulation banish boredom and distract you from fatigue, it’ll help you put more energy into your lifts, squats, and runs.

But before you start creating your own personal gym soundtrack, there are a few things you ought to know in order to get the most out of both your workout and your playlist. We’ll take a look at the science behind this phenomenon as well as offer some suggestions for top music choices to maximize your sweat session.

How it works

Although it initially sounds like something that could all be in your head, there’s been serious research made into how music helps athletic performance. In 2008, The Sport Journal published a dissertation titled Music in Sport and Exercise: An Update on Research and Application that examined how music can have an effect on how hard athletes work. Right off the bat, the article categorizes the researchers’ findings: “Scientific inquiry has revealed five key ways in which music can influence preparation and competitive performances: dissociation, arousal regulation, synchronization, acquisition of motor skills, and attainment of flow.” Let’s go through the report’s points one by one and explain what they mean:

  • Dissociation can be beneficial because the music takes your mind off of the rigors of your workout; also, you tend to forget about how tired you might be once a favorite song comes on. Who hasn’t automatically found their legs pumping harder when their jam starts to play?
  • Arousal regulation may sound a bit naughty, but it refers to using music to psych yourself up or cool yourself down before or after a workout. Have you ever blasted a blood-pumping track right before you hoist a barbell, or put on something more soothing as you ease the lactic acid out of your leg muscles during a spin class? That’s arousal regulation.
  • Synchronization refers to how you may subconsciously start syncing up your workout movements to the music that’s playing as you exercise – which means you’ll want something with a steady beat for repetitive movements, like rowing or jogging. “The implication is that music provides temporal cues that have the potential to make athletes’ energy use more efficient,” states the report from The Sport Journal.
  • Acquisition of motor skills is a point that is not 100% proven, yet the authors make the compelling argument that exercising while music plays can help develop certain cues for motion. The lyrics for many upbeat songs contain verbal instructions (“get up,” “get down,” etc.) which can be mentally used to power one’s movement. Just think about doing the Hokey-Pokey.
  • Attainment of flow doesn’t just refer to yoga – The Health Science Academy describes flow as such: “Some coaches and athletes refer to this as being “in the zone”. It sometimes has been referred to as a spellbinding state and can actually feel trance-like.” Also, when you’re in the zone like this, listening to music while exercising can help your movements become intrinsic. When correct athletic motions become second nature, you may find yourself suffering fewer injuries from improper form and movement.

As you can see, it’s not magic or self-contained phenomenon: Turning on the music when you’re working out really can provide a boost to your performance.

Choose your tunes

Now that you’re hopefully convinced of the power of combining music and exercise, it’s time to put together the best tracks for your chosen workout – and this goes beyond choosing songs recommended by a clinical study. Personal taste is always a factor. Considering that it can sometimes be a struggle to hop off the couch and get moving, you’re going to want to pick some music you like.

The Health Science Academy’s article about music enhancing athletic performance explains it like this: “Music can boost internal motivation by triggering good emotions, helping you experience much greater pleasure from the activity. This is magnified when a piece of music reminds you of an aspect of your life that is emotionally significant. Why does it matter? Researchers believe that these factors have the power to increase your adherence to an exercise program in the long run.” In other words, working out to music you enjoy can help motivate you to stay with your exercise routine. Sometimes, any little bit of encouragement to get to the gym helps – so why not use a great workout playlist as something to look forward to?
Another thing to keep in mind is motivational messages in music. If you connect with a certain singer or band and their songs mean a lot to you, then maybe it’ll be these tracks that power you through your workouts. If there are specific tunes that remind you of good times in your life, then use those songs to foster positive associations with your workout routine. If there are lyrics that speak to you and talk about fighting, not giving up, and working hard, then let yourself be inspired to work up to that level. As Scientific American puts it, “Listening to music is often an incredibly pleasurable experience and certain songs open the mental floodgates with which people control their emotions in everyday situations. If one strongly identifies with the singer’s emotions or perspective, the song becomes all the more motivational.”

With the above criteria in place, it shouldn’t be a problem for you to identify which of your favorite songs are motivational for you, not to mention songs that pack a punch for your energy drives. But if you’re having trouble coming up with a fitness soundtrack of your own, it’s the Internet to the rescue – several fitness sites and online magazines have premade track listings and custom playlists that you can choose from. Check out the Best Workout Playlists compendium from Fitness Magazine (featuring top tracks for everything from spinning to running to yoga), the Top 25 Workout Songs from Muscle & Fitness Magazine (the playlist opens with “Eye of the Tiger,” which is always a good sign), or Shape Magazine’s Fitness Playlist section (ideal songs to crush it at CrossFit, anyone?).


If you prefer the sound of silence while you’re lifting weights or running the track, hey – we understand that everyone’s got their methods. But if you’re looking to add an unexpected, subconscious boost to your workout routine, try popping in your earbuds or turning on the stereo. You may just learn music is one of the best exercise buddies you could find.