How music can boost your workout – and the best songs to try

Music and exercise
Listening to music with positive harmonies can distract you from the pain of your workout - Getty

My workout playlists are the product of so many pet theories and half-forgotten experiments they sometimes catch me unawares. Earlier this year, I found myself performing callisthenics in the scorching heat of Vietnam to Noёl Coward’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen. I smiled during a set of pull-ups, which is rare.

The search for the perfect music to enhance exercise has been an obsession for around 30 years. In the 1990s, I remember trying to run with a ‘jog-proof’ portable compact disc player the size of a small dinner plate.

Research tells us music can enhance motivation, dial down discomfort and improve performance. I have tried metal, techno, punk, ambient, classical, familiar, fresh and random. And occasionally, Noёl Coward.

It turns out I was running a parallel exploration to that of Professor Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University. Prof Karageorghis has been investigating the ways in which exercise and music interact for decades. My amateur intuition met his academic rigour in one of the most fascinating interviews I’ve ever conducted. He applied his scientific process to a conundrum millions of us wrestle with every day. Finally, I understand how to assemble the perfect workout playlist.

Coming off the sofa

My workout begins at the moment I need to launch myself out of whatever sofa or office chair has me in its seductive grip and switch from sedentary and passive to someone with goals and gumption. I’m looking here for a track that will remind me of the qualities I will need to run, lift, punch or kick.  Prof Karageorghis says what is required is something slow and heroic that evokes the right mood.

“I might use a track like Chariots of Fire by Vangelis. It’s slow, inspiring and it conjures imagery of Olympians of old striding across the sands of St Andrews in their long white shorts.” He explains that there are a number of factors in the way music can influence our workout and one of the most powerful is emotional connection. Someone of a different age, someone unfamiliar with the film, would respond quite differently to Vangelis’ slice of electronica. Playing with your own past and scanning your memories is a great way to create a mood. For me Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, which I associate with that infamous helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now, plays a similar role.

The warm-up

Here we begin to use the beat of the music to create energy, but this should be slow enough to allow scope for a build as the workout hots up. His latest research suggests that familiar music with lyrics we know is an important factor in relation to beats per minute (bpm). Without familiarity, the beats per minute have no discernible relationship to our preferences during a workout. Following his advice, I use a very gentle techno track, Daft Punk’s Da Funk (110bpm) that will energise me but keep me sufficiently relaxed to warm and stretch without overdoing it. This track is one I know well but doesn’t have any lyrics so I can also keep the power of the words for later.

Steady aerobic work

Here, Prof Karageorghis suggests the beats per minute build as you work harder but there is not a strict relationship with musical tempo and heart rate.

“In a resting state, we prefer music that is a little above our heart rate, that preference continues through to low intensity and moderate intensity but if we reach Zone 5 and our heart rate is around 150-160bpm, there is not a corresponding increase in tempo. The increase in tempo plateaus and even dips slightly at around 150bpm.”

My ideal Zone 2 (fairly gentle) heart rate is around 125bpm (yours may be quite different, of course). For this, I pick a track like Love Shack by the B-52s (130bpm). I was 25 when this song was released in 1989 and some part of me becomes 25 again when I hear it.  Also, the attitude of the band and the lyrics are all carefree adventure – by the end of the first verse, I’m a flat sharing, clubber with his life ahead of him. “People find workouts inherently unpleasant. Using positive harmonies, major harmonies and melodies might distract your attention. Pleasantness in the music is quite important” explains Prof Karageorghis.

Resistance training

This is a challenging part of the workout to programme musically. There are short bursts of effort followed by brief rest periods between sets of lifting. Prof Karageorghis has been working on this area recently and has some early findings. “Slower and beat-heavy music with pronounced basslines seems to work well. Not as energising as one might use for an aerobic workout but in the range of 118-120bpm.”

His research suggests that the mindset and atmosphere of the music is fairly consistent for this type of exercise. “Weight trainers tend to break down into two categories. They either like quite heavy hip hop or they like heavy metal. The commonality is the aggression they hold.”

This mirrors my experience entirely. For the lifting section of my workout, I turn to Walk by Pantera or It’s Like That, Run-DMC and Jason Nevins. As I’m lifting, I’m tapping into the aggressive energy of the tracks which often embodies a worldview I don’t endorse in reality, like an actor immersing in a character.

High-intensity aerobics

This is the part of a workout that takes your heart rate up to the maximum. There is a role here before you even start for a pre-burst, performance-enhancing inspiration track. When you approach the hill for your lung-exploding sprint you want your mind to be in exactly the right place. There are important lessons here from professional competitors.

“If you’re an athlete you need a pre-competition mindset. One that cannot be broken by others even if they’re trying to psych you out. The hopes and dreams of a nation might be resting on your shoulders,” says Prof Karageorghis. He cites the example of the swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time. “He had a track by gangster rapper Lil Wayne, I’m me, a very aggressive rap track with lyrics like, ‘Yes, I am the best and no, I ain’t positive, I’m definite, I know the game like I’m reffin’ it.’”

Prof Karageorghis worked directly with Team GB hurdler Dai Greene to create a bespoke track with his favourite producer Redlight. Greene went onto a personal best with the aid of this piece of music. Taking this on board, I use the mid-paced Homicide by 999 (133bpm). Released in 1978, this late punk classic hit teenage me like a religious conversion and this very formative time remains a cultural reference point I find uniquely pungent.

Once you’re moving, the beats per minute should not be tracking your heart rate and the impact of the music is reduced. It’s still significant but far less of an influence than at less full-on moments. Prof Karageorghis explains that at high intensity our capacity to process anything external is reduced. “At low to moderate levels of exercise music is really effective at blocking interoceptive cues (internal messages). That’s why there’s a reduction in perceived exertion – about 10 per cent.” The cut-off is 75 per cent of aerobic capacity, he says, beyond that music is far less effective because what’s happening in our own body is taking up all the bandwidth. There is some benefit, but tracks need to be very simple and somewhat slower than our heart rate. High intensity is not a time for the poetry and musical verve of Joni Mitchell.

Warm down and stretching

“The energy within the music should mirror the peaks and troughs of the workout” says Prof Karageorghis. For this final section, he recommends “gradually descending tempo and energy levels as we lead towards revitalisation and state of homeostasis”. He often ends a workout with tracks by Enya or Enigma to take him back to a relaxed and calm state ready for the rest of his day. I tend to use ambient or contemporary classical pieces, my favourite being John Cage’s In a Landscape. This piece is over nine minutes long and along with its elegance, its duration keeps me on the mat despite the boredom (I hate stretching). Probably not what he had in mind when composed the piece in 1948.