How To Use Music To Make Workouts Seem Easier

Photo: Courtesy of Strong by Zumba.
Working out to music can be somewhat of a gamble: Sometimes you hit the jackpot and all the songs are bops, and other times you have to keep skipping tracks until you land on one that makes you want to move. But music isn't just a good distraction — it can actually have a big impact on your workout. And there are a few ways you can use music to help make your workouts easier.
The first step would obviously be to have a motivating workout playlist. You usually can't go wrong if you only choose songs that you like, but it can help if the songs match the intensity of your workout.
If you're doing a vigorous workout, like high-intensity interval training (HIIT), for example, listening to music can make it feel less difficult. In a 2017 study, participants tried interval training for the first time on a stationary bike, first without music, and then to a playlist of their choice. At the end of the workout without music, they reported liking the routine overall. And when they listened to music, they reported significantly more positive feelings about interval training, and said they were likely to try the workout again.
Fortunately, there are lots of workout studios and trainers who are using learnings like these to craft workouts. For example, in a SoulCycle class, riders move their feet to the beat of the song, and at Rumble Boxing, the boxing combinations are set in-time with the music. And Megan Roup, a former dancer and trainer at PROJECT by Equinox, incorporates music and dance in her hour-long class. There's also a new Zumba workout called Strong by Zumba that follows the philosophy that music should match your workout. Unlike a typical Zumba class, there's no salsa dancing in Strong by Zumba, since it's a HIIT workout that involves tempo-based plyometric and strength moves (like burpees, pushups, and planks).
"Strong by Zumba is reverse-engineered; we do a routine and give it to producers to make music to it, so everything has a beat," says Ai Lee Syarief, a lead instructor for Strong by Zumba. Even though it's a HIIT workout, you don't have to count reps or use a timer, which can be a huge relief for some people who are intimidated by these types of workouts, Syarief says. "They don't know how many reps are coming; they're just motivated to move to the music."
In fact, our bodies have a natural tendency to move with the rhythm or beat of a song, Carl Foster, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, Exercise and Health Program told the American Council on Exercise. It's a phenomenon called entrainment or synchronization, and "it’s just something about the way our brains work," Dr. Foster said. "You want to step at the rate the music is playing or you want to pedal a cycle at the rate of the dominant beat of the music." And according to ACE, synchronous music can drive exercise intensity so that the faster the beat is, the higher the intensity of the workout.
Syarief has a theory that timing exercises to music makes HIIT seem less intimidating. "People [said] they could push through because they're not counting, and it's not a competition with other people," she says. "They just move to the beat, and it pushes them past their perceived limits." After a few classes, Syarief says beginners are willing to try more advanced moves, because they're motivated by the music. As for the music she personally prefers for workouts? Syarief says her favorite is EDM. "I also like some rap beats, things that have a good bass and beat — but mostly it's EDM kind of beats," she says.
Interestingly, songs with a strong bass don't just feel good to listen to; they can also boost your workout in specific ways. A 2014 study found that when people exercise to music with a strong bass, it increases their sense of "power." Another 2012 study found that music with a strong beat helped people's movements stay consistent throughout an exercise. And a 2010 study investigated how tempo can improve biking performance, and found that when the tempo was increased by just 10%, people enjoyed the music more and biked harder and faster.
If all this talk about beats and rhythm makes you balk because you are a really bad dancer, that doesn't mean you can't leverage the motivating aspects of music in your workouts. Whether you can time the music to your movement or just rely on your faithful workout playlist, music can potentially take your workouts to the next level — no dancing necessary. "Music makes people do things they wouldn't do, or wouldn't think [they can do]," Syarief says. Or, take it from Missy Elliot: "Music make you lose control."

More from Fitness

R29 Original Series