It’s a sweaty, explosive music gym. You are desperately trying to move to the rhythm while peddling like crazy. But you find it increasingly impossible to sync with the music and eventually fall behind or stop altogether. While you can blame your coordination, it could really be a musical problem.
Most of us assume that turning on music at a fast beat per minute (bpm) will be empowering. The internet list of the best workout songs is filled with very high tempo hits. We are encouraged to listen to 180 bpm for CrossFit and 170 bpm for Zumba — but this is not based on scientific evidence.
Instead, sports psychology tells us that listening to music more slowly is actually the most effective.
The power of music
Hundreds of studies have demonstrated the beneficial power of listening to music while exercising. The study was published in the journal Sports and exercise psychology found that music increased enjoyment by 28% while another review found this to be an effective strategy for managing pain and fatigue.
There are two ways to listen to music while exercising. Asynchronous application is when you put it in the background but don’t consciously match your movements to the beat. This can act as a distraction and during an easy and moderately intense workout, it can help you exercise longer before feeling fatigued.
Synchronization application is when we use music as a beat or a metronome. Studies have shown that setting your workouts to a cadence can make exercise more effective and even reduce oxygen intake by up to seven percent.
Limit of synced songs
But syncing properly is harder than you might think. During intense training, there is a tendency to use fast-paced music with a high tempo. The logic we tell ourselves is that if we can keep moving to the beat, our training will be better.
However, research tells us that the harder we work, the harder it is to process a complex piece of music, especially if it’s fast.
For example, many people try to hit 180 strides per minute in a brisk session because that’s thought to be the optimal cadence. This means listening to tunes with 180 bpm. “That’s not in most people’s listening repertoire. It’s too fast and for most people, 180 is pretty intense and it’s very difficult to stay in sync,” said the sports psychology professor. Costas Karageorghis, who has been studying the effects of music on exercise for more than two decades.
Instead, Karageorghis recommends running to half a beat. “Find a track that’s 90 beats per minute. That song will probably be on more people’s playlists because that’s the bpm of a lot of rap and urban music,” he said.
The trick is to use a slower beat to match every other movement. For example, while running, you can do one stride cycle — two steps — for each beat. The same method can be used for all kinds of synchronized activities like spinning, rowing, and even HIIT workouts.
But just keep in mind that when you’re working very hard, you may not hear anything at all. Exercise psychologist Dr Leighton Jones said: “Research shows that music has no effect at very, very high intensities. “You’re simply overworking and your body screams too loudly; it can only listen to that noise from your body.”
Asynchronous sweet spot
If you’re just looking for background inspiration, there’s really a limited effective range to tempo with asynchronous music. Regardless of exercise intensity, studies have shown that people can achieve their “state of flow” when listening to music between 120 and 140 bpm. But there are also positive psychological outcomes from music as slow as 100 bpm.
“What we suggest is to avoid anything below 100 bpm when you’re working really hard, and to avoid anything above 140 bpm when you’re feeling good,” says Dr Jones. Apps like Muze can be a handy way to create playlists at the exact speed you’re looking for.
For added fun, embrace the lyrics. Our advice? Try Lionel Richie’s Run the same night (120 bpm), Bryan Adams’ Run to your side (126 bpm) or by Lenny Kravitz Where are we running? (130 bpm).