Music

What Makes a Perfect Workout Song?

Find out how an Aaptiv trainer chooses the right songs for workouts.

In general, music is one of the most beloved artistic forms of expression. Humans have created and listened to beats, rhythm, and melody since the beginning of time. Whether gathering together for a celebration or creating a one of a kind playlist for an upcoming workout, there’s a perfect song for every occasion—including exercise. In fact, a study conducted at the University of New Mexico found that, when it came to aerobic workouts, 97 percent of participants felt that the inclusion of music into their routines, increased performance. Additionally, a workout playlist can increase and maintain tempo while engaging in physical activity.

According to Aaptiv Trainer Katie Horwitch, when it comes to picking the perfect set of songs for a workout, there are several logistics to consider like diversity in tempo, correlating beats per minute (BPM), and inspirational lyrics. Below, we break down five of the most important factors that go into a well thought out exercise tune.

1. Know Your BPM

Before jumping in and creating a music playlist, it’s important to understand the body’s own internal rhythm. Most indoor cardio machines display BPMs on the monitor. We can use BPMs as a gauge for effort and as a way to measure what fat or weight loss zones we’re working in.  To measure your own BPM, the American Heart Association says to “calculate the maximum heart rate zone by subtracting your age from the number 220. This number signifies the maximum BPM [that] your heart should complete (for no more than fifteen minutes) during an exercise routine.”

If your heart’s BPM seems irrelevant to your music selection, keep reading.

2. Incorporating BPM in Music

Did you know that just like the heart, the music we listen to is also measured by BPM? So, it makes sense that music can be used as a tool to help correlate and align the body’s very own heart rhythm to that of the song playing in the background. And our bodies instinctively seem to know this. “Who hasn’t been at a party, at a concert—heck, at the grocery store—and felt the joy of a great song starting to play? We can’t help but dance, or sing,” says Horwitch. This is our body’s subconscious way of responding to the external beats in our environment.

“The combination of tempo and tone (as it correlates to BPM) in music can bring out very specific actions, which make our bodies move in ways it might not move (or struggle to move) without” Horwitch explains. “When we hear an upbeat song, we want to chase that beat. When we hear a slower beat, we want to either relax or, in some instances, dig in (and concentrate) with our physical effort even harder (think of a slow, uphill climb in a spin class).”

3. Mixing Up the Pace

Horwitch says mixing up musical pace depends on the goal of your workout, but, she explains, that there are advantages to adding a variety of song choices and cadences in workouts. “For example, if I was programming one of my spin classes, I’d probably have a good mix of music to reflect the journey I want my class to go on,” she says. “It all depends on how your workout is structured. The most important thing is to pick music that matches the energy you’re after. If you want a slow reflective moment, hard rock probably isn’t the best choice. In contrast, if you’re sprinting, a love ballad most likely should be saved for your cooldown!”

On the other hand, if Horwitch was putting together a playlist for a tempo run (where the goal is to keep roughly the same pace), things would be different. Instead of variety, the music playlist would remain constant and steady. This is a good example of correlating musical BPM with your heart’s BPM. When you want to maintain a consistent pace, it’s helpful to work with a playlist of songs that have similar BPMs. The steady beat stream will encourage you to stay on pace.

4. Finding the Right Lyrics

People all over the world have been lead to do remarkable things by the power of words. In the same light, inspirational and motivational lyrics in music have the ability to fuel your workout. “Lyrics in music always add extra pizzazz to a workout, especially when you’re working through a feeling, whether physical or emotional,” says Horwitch. “When choosing music for your workout, it’s always helpful to throw at least a few ‘power songs’ into your playlist.” Horwitch explains that these are songs that talk about overcoming adversity, being strong, or about celebrating the moment.

When it comes to putting together a playlist, the timing of when a song pops up during the workout matters, too. According to Horwitch, placing more empowering songs in at the beginning of the workout can help pump up the memento and excite you for the workout to come. When it comes to working out and exercise, our minds can be both our greatest asset and our overwhelming weakness. Like any other powerful muscle, the brain needs to both be trained and conditioned. Strong, empowering lyrics can actually help your brain push forward through the duration of the workout.

5. Correlating Your Songs to Your Workout

Not every playlist works for every workout. Here are four common workout types and the ideal BPMs to correlate with each.

Warm-Up

Warming up the body is a necessary part of any workout. It’s crucial for preparing the muscles and getting your body warm and ready to work. The ideal warm-up playlist is a few minutes long (ideally 15) and stays in the 120 BPM range. This will help you get motivated to move but won’t spike your heart rate or make you too tired. Many R&B songs and slower pop jams fall in this area. Also, this is where those empowering lyrics come in. There’s nothing like strong, inspirational lyrics to get you pumped up mentally for your physical work.

Strength Training

When dealing with weights, you’re going to want to pick up the beat count a touch. Strength training music should range in the 140 BPM range and no faster. A faster BPM may encourage you to lift too quickly. Rushing and strength training, especially when it involves weights, don’t exactly go well together. You can compromise form and lead to potential injury. “I prefer listening to hip-hop and rap while lifting,” Horwitch says. “Those genres are usually very lyric-heavy, which encourages you to go at your own pace, which is important when lifting heavy.” In addition to rap and hip-hop, many rock songs can average around 140 BPM. So, there’s a wide variety of classic tunes to choose from.

Cardio

Cardiovascular exercise is likely when you’ll hit your maximum BPM so you’ll want music to match. On average, 160 BPMs is a good target to hit and stick with for workouts like running, cycling, and rowing. Electronic, dance, and pop music are perfect choices for most playlists. Sprinkle in some of those powerful lyrics and you’ll be cruising through your cardio. That 30 minutes will be over in no time.

Cool Down

You’ve warmed up, strengthened your muscles, and increased your heart rate. Now it’s time to slow down and bring your heart rate down. While stretching or meditating, you’ll want to listen to music in the 110 to 120 BPM range. Along with cooling down, this tempo is ideal for exercises like barre, yoga, and pilates. “Down-tempo songs like singer/songwriter ballads or indie pop (think Sylvan Esso or old-school Sia) can help you tune into your body, especially if you live a stressful life filled with distractions,” Horwitch says.

Music makes a workout, which is something we take seriously at Aaptiv. See (and hear!) what we’re talking about with the best workouts synced with the best playlists on the Aaptiv app.

Music

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