The Right Motivational Playlist Could Have a Powerful Effect on High-Intensity Workouts

The results are as much physical as they are psychological.


The sound of a beating heart or labored breathing may make even basic exercise feel harder, but there may be something to cloaking that sound with a carefully constructed playlist.

According to a paper published this month in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, the benefits of working out to a soundtrack may be as much physical as they are psychological.

The results of a 24-person experiment conducted at Brunel University London suggest that music can significantly alter the experience of a high-intensity cycling workout.

Participants who worked out to motivational music tended to have higher peak power output and higher heart rates during the exercise. But they seemed to enjoy the experience more once it was over, says study author Matthew Stork, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia.

“The application of motivational music during interval exercise may be a practical strategy to help individuals who are less active to get more out of their workout physically and enjoy it more,” he tells Inverse.


In this experiment, Stork worked alongside Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a sport and exercise psychologist at Brunel University London who has written extensively about music as a tool for motivation since the 1990s. This study builds upon that earlier work in two major ways, explains Stork.

First, they focused specifically on untrained individuals who performed a shortened version of traditional high-intensity intervals: three 20-second sprints separated by two minutes of rest. Then they compared the effects of music to podcasts, which, he adds, were included “in order to tease out the effects of music above and beyond an auditory stimulus alone.”

Over the course of the experiment, they found that music still uniquely affected how participants enjoyed their workouts, even when the music condition consisted of seven minutes of either Calvin Harris’ “Let’s Go,” Mackelmore’s “Can’t Hold Us” or Linkin Park’s “Bleed it Out.”

When people completed workouts set to those motivational songs, they had significantly higher post-workout enjoyment scores than when they listened to podcasts or worked out in silence.

But, as the authors note, working out to music was accompanied by some physiological effects, too. There was an increase in peak power, suggesting that participants were able to hit slightly higher maximum power values. However, average power didn’t change significantly across the three conditions, suggesting that performance wasn’t too dramatically altered by music.

But Stork notes that, in particular, heart rates were slightly higher during the music-based workouts than during the podcast or silent conditions, even though they were doing the same exact thing each time. Interestingly, Stork proposes this could be illustrative of a concept called entrainment, which, as they put it, “refers to the innate tendency for humans to alter the frequency of their biological rhythms, such as heart rate, toward that of musical rhythms.”

A potential explanation behind their results regarding heart rate is that their participants’ bodies responded to both the exercise and to the pulsing beats, which caused corresponding heart rate increases. In that sense, it may be that participants were able to push their cardiovascular systems a little harder with Calvin Harris blaring in the background.

Designing a Workout Playlist

Overall, Stork’s results speak to the powerful role that music can have during exercise, from how hard the heart is working to how much they enjoy the experience. The key, however, is to pick the right song — and just because Mackelmore seemed to motivate the people in this experiment, he adds that it may not be the case for everyone.

When participants exercised to music, they tended to enjoy their workouts more than when they listened to podcasts or didn't listen to anything. 

Unsplash/ Juan Pablo 

“It is important to consider the individual meaning someone may place on a particular song — it may be very different for one individual versus another. In other words, the self-selection of music is also extremely important to consider when trying to maximize the motivational and emotional response that music can elicit,” he says.

Still, there are some basic rules that may prove useful. For example, in 2011, Karageorghis published a study on 28 active college undergrads, suggesting that as exercise intensity increases, the preference for fast tempo music (around 135-140 BPM) increases in tandem.

Stork says that focusing on upbeat music is a good place to start:

“Certain musical characteristics (e.g., fast tempo) can be very useful in narrowing down your music selections for high-intensity forms of exercise, as opposed to selecting slow tempo music.”

Scrolling through Spotify to strike the right motivational balance between emotional connection and tempo may take a few extra minutes. But if this work is any indication, it could pay off during, and even after, the workout is done.

Background: While sprint interval training (SIT) is time-efficient and can elicit meaningful health benefits among adults who are insufficiently active, one major drawback is that people can find it to be unpleasant. Consequently, researchers have begun to investigate the use of music to enhance people’s pleasure during SIT. Presently, little is known about the application of music to SIT protocols designed for insufficiently active individuals.
Purpose: To investigate the psychological (affective valence, arousal, enjoyment), psychophysical (perceived exertion), and physiological (heart rate [HR], power output) effects of researcher-selected motivational music during a low-volume SIT protocol performed by insufficiently active adults.
Methods: Using a randomized, fully-counterbalanced design, 24 insufficiently active adults (12 women, 12 men; 24.08 ± 4.61 years) inexperienced with SIT completed three SIT trials (3 × 20-s “all-out” sprints with 2-min recovery periods) under different conditions: motivational music, podcast control, no-audio control.
Results: Post-exercise enjoyment was greater in the music condition (M = 89.58 ± 17.33) compared to podcast (M = 83.92 ± 19.49; p = .04, ηp2 = 0.18) and no-audio (M = 85.28 ± 17.92; p = .04, ηp 2 = 0.17) controls.Over the course of the SIT trial, HR responses were elevated in the music condition in comparison to the podcast (p = .02, ηp 2 = 0.23) and no-audio (p = .03, ηp 2 = 0.21) controls, and peak power output was higher in the music condition when compared to the podcast (p = .02, ηp 2 = 0.23) and no-audio (p = .01, ηp 2 = 0.25) controls. Affective responses over the course of the SIT trial were more positive in the music condition when compared to the no-audio control (p = .03, ηp 2 = 0.18), and tended to be more positive in the music condition when compared to the podcast control (p = .11, ηp 2 = 0.11). Moreover, a rebound toward more positive affect was observed post-exercise in all conditions.
Conclusions: The application of music during SIT has the potential to enhance feelings of pleasure, improve enjoyment, and elevate performance of SIT for adults who are insufficiently active, which may ultimately lead to better adherence to this type of exercise.
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