If you want to cause an uproar in the gym or Crossfit box, turn off the music in the middle of a workout and watch how quickly you become disliked. Guaranteed you will at least get some dirty looks and probably an earful to go with it.
But why? What is our obsession with working out and music? Is it simply a tool to distract us from our discomfort or is it something more? Does music really improve our performance?
Most people getting ready to go on a run will put in a set of headphones before they start and then find ourselves mouthing the words and running in sync with the rhythm of the music. Military formations will sing cadence when going on a battalion or unit run. We get ready for the “3, 2, 1, Go” of a Crossfit WOD by turning up the volume and blasting some music through the speakers. In preparation of banging out some heavy lifts, we might find some loud aggressive music with the intent of getting pumped up for our lift. Regardless of our activity, music tends to find its way in to our preparation or our workout. What, if anything, does it do for us?
We can start with our runners, Music does not increase the volume of air in our lungs, or allow our heart to pump more blood. If you select the right music however, it just might help our endurance though. Distance running is all about cardio-respiratory function and movement efficiency. So how can music help? The answer is cadence and pacing. It is much easier to maintain a consistent and regular pace when listening to music. Much the same that a music student uses a metronome to learn timing and rhythm. This is where our better performance comes from. Consistent and regular pacing. Music creates this added benefit in repetitive and very automatic movements, such as running, rowing, cycling, and more. You have an avenue to mentally separate yourself from your efforts temporarily, as well as the discomfort.
The concerns with music and pacing comes down to the music selection. Your music should be picked to coincide with your running pace, not running to the pace of the music. We have a tendency when we listen to music to start to adapt our strides in order to have our feet in time with the beat. A few minutes later that song is over and the next one begins and then we start to adopt that new pace.
Experienced runners will tell you that if your foot cadence is too slow, then you are probably over-striding and spending too much time with you feet on the ground. Over-striding can increase the impact felt on our ankles, knees and body in general. This is commonly the case with those who are “heel-strikers”, or those whose strides have their heel striking the ground first on each step. If we select too high of a tempo then you may be shorting your strides too much, leading to the potential issue of shin splints. In most cases, the tempo that we are looking to adopt is about 180 – 190 strides per minute. This is a general guide as everyone is built a little different, but equates to having our left foot strike the ground about 95 times minute. So when you pick your running music you can find tunes with a tempo of 180 beats per minute. Your pace will also vary according to activity. This same tempo will not apply to rowers and cyclist equally. In each sport, however, there is an ideal tempo for efficiency and you should pick your playlist to match the tempo you need. We want to create good habits and improve efficiency by being able to maintain the best tempos.
Crossfitting and weightlifting are a different story. There is not a rhythm or tempo that is inherent to the movements. Other than doing “Bring Sally Up” or a Tabata Songs workout, there isn’t a whole lot of weightlifting that goes to a song rhythm. There is other value to music other an just the rhythm. In most cases, it comes down to how the music makes us feel. For everyone, the music that gets up “pumped up” is different. Maybe it is metal, country, Hip-hop, Punk, Rap, or even classical, but we all have something that we like to workout to. Music that gets us excited. That excitement is what is the key.
There have been any number of experiments to test whether or not music inspires us to lift and perform better, but the question at this point is really about how?
Two of the best examples that I have include athletes performing series of exercises, specifically, the Wingate Threshold Test, 3 Max Rep Bench Press Attempts and Jump Squats. Athletes were given the opportunity to perform a series of reps with No Music, then the following week after sufficient recovery they were then given the same tests and were allowed to select the music of their choice.
There were a few things that were interesting about these tests. They measured Heart Rate, Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), Rate of Force Production, in addition to the obvious measures of the workout rep counts. Rate of Perceived Exertion is a measure of how hard you feel like you are working, regardless of the amount of actual work being done. RPE is based solely on the individuals self assessment of their effort. Rate of Force Production is the measure of not how much force you applied but how quickly you applied it. In a sense, slower rep vs. faster rep.
All of the abstracts and details can be here:
The biggest take away is this. Having music did not increase the amount of weight that one was able to lift, it didn’t increase the number of reps that they performed. It really didn’t change the over all performance measures that we are used to seeing. What it did change was RPE and RFP. The addition of music increased the Rate of Perceived Exertion. One way to look at it is that the athletes felt like they did more when they were listening to music. This equates to feeling better about our ability to perform when listening to music. The end result may not change but we feel better about our performance.
The other thing that changed was a Rate of Force Production. This means that when the athletes were listening to music they were able to create and apply force quicker. The total volume of reps did not change but the individual reps were quicker. The athletes had more explosive reps with music. In a case of sports performance this means a quicker jump, faster take-off. Even though the final jump height or final speed may not change, the athlete was quicker to perform.
There are several theories about why this is. One of the most prevalent is that the excitement that derive from music is the result of an adrenaline response. Adrenaline has very little effect on our overall endurance but does lend itself to effect the excitation threshold of our muscle fibers. Adrenaline lowers the excitation threshold of our muscle fibers, making it easier to recruit more muscle fibers when we need them. Instead of recruiting just enough muscle fibers to over come the resistance, the body automatically fires what we need and more, allowing us to move and apply force faster.
Do we need music to get “pumped up”? Not really. It can help. You can still dive into your “Fight or Flight” reflex and get an adrenaline boost through your own ability to focus. Do I need music to run better? Not Really. Similarly we can develop the ability to keep a good pace and cadence. Does music make our workouts more enjoyable? I would have to say so, but we all know that once we get the “Go” in a workout the music only fades into background noise. Music will not make or break our workout. We get used to listening to music so its hard for us to not have it. It becomes part of our habit. But try it from time to time. Enjoy a WOD without the distraction of background music. Focus without any distractions. Go for a run, enjoy the sound of the wind and world around you. Take out the headphone and turn down the music from time to time. And if you are one of the few that like to work out in silence, maybe put on some Black Sabbath or Van Halen and crank it all the way up to 11 from time to time.